I don't know about y'all, but this NCAA Tournament action is only wetting my whistle for more NIT basketball. Obviously, my previous statement was typed in jest, but I can honestly say I am eagerly anticipating watching ESPN this upcoming Monday (03/19) at 7 PM ET as the Vols host the MTSU Blue Raiders in second round action of the NIT.
All UT fans across the state and nation know that this Volunteer team has vastly improved throughout the course of the season. All areas of the team have gotten sharper, and this includes the guard play. That being said, it's no secret the backbone and strength of this Volunteer bunch is in the post. The Vols' best player this year has clearly been Junior Jeronne Maymon. Maymon leads the team in scoring (14.2), rebounding (7.9) and field goal percentage (.573). He scored at least 12 points in every SEC contest this season. The only question mark about Maymon right now is his health as he's listed day-to-day with a dinged knee. There is hope he will play Monday night, but nothing is guaranteed. In addition to the big Junior from the Badger State, the Vols trot out Freshman sensation Jarnell Stokes. Stokes may be young, but he's a man in the paint at 6'8" 250 lbs. The All-SEC Freshman performer averages 9.3 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per contest. Like all NCAA teams, the Vols probably shoot too many three pointers at times, but they do have the ability to send the pumpkin into the post for the "big nasties" to put it in the basket. Both Maymon and Stokes are a perfect fit for Coach Cuonzo Martin and his "bring your lunch pail" mentality.
For those not familiar with Coach Kermit Davis' Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider squad, let me fill you in. The Blue Raiders were regular season Sun Belt Conference Champions this season as they went 14-2 in league play. The Blue Raiders come into Monday's game with a 26-6 overall record. It's a shame they weren't able to compete in the NCAA Tournament because they lost to Arkansas State in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Tournament. I know the conference tournaments decide the automatic qualifier for all leagues (other than the Ivy I believe), but that really does devalue the regular season in my opinion. I imagine Coach Davis would agree with me on that one, but that's a different topic for a different blog post. MTSU has three players that average in double figures, and they have strong guard play. However, just like the Vols, the strength of their personnel is in the post. Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy is a dandy; the 6'9" 230 lb Senior leads the Blue Raiders in points per game (14.9) and rebounds per game (7.2). Dendy is the first Blue Raider in program history to win Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year as he took home the hardware due to his tremendous season.
The fact that both the Vols and Blue Raiders rely so heavily on their post players makes this a game I am really interested in. I love teams that run their offense through the post as there's just something about that style of play that appeals to me. In today's era of basketball, everyone wants to shoot three pointers (and way too many of them in my opinion). As I type this Duke just lost to Lehigh in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. This is one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Big Dance. What did CBS analyst (and former NY Knick) Greg Anthony say after the game? Duke should have gone to the post more, and they shot too many three pointers. Too often big men, the size of Dendy and bigger, want to flash their ball handling skills on the perimeter and launch outside shots. It's refreshing to see big guys like Maymon, Stokes and Dendy who actually like to bump and bang in the paint. The game at TBA Monday night features two teams that get it done down low. (That's not to say Dendy doesn't shoot the occasional three ball as he is 11-33 this year from deep).
Monday's game is truly a toss up in my eyes, especially if Maymon isn't able to go. If Jeronne is out, that would put pressure squarely on the shoulders of the man-child (Stokes) that should be at MTSU this week playing in the TSSAA State High School Basketball Tournament. Instead, he'll be swapping paint with Dendy in the post. I do believe the winning team Monday night will be the team that wins the war in the paint. Maymon/Stokes vs. Dendy..... In the words of Apollo Creed, "DING DING!". In the words of T.O., "Get your popcorn ready!" It's time to watch the big boys play in the paint not tip toe around the arc. I am 6'1" 190 lbs and not all that physically gifted. I can promise you this. If I were 6'8" 240 lbs, I would be down low in the paint not floating around trying to launch 18 footers. All post players should take a page from Maymon, Stokes and Dendy, "GET YOUR BIG FRAME UNDER THE RIM, AND PLAY LIKE A MAN!" These three do.