|No. 24 Middle Tennessee wants to stay in Top 25, whip UAB|
Welcome to the Top 25, Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee, winner of nine straight games and 14 of its past 15, made its first-ever appearance in the Associated Press poll on Monday at No. 24.
"You feel so happy for your players with the hard work they've put in," coach Kermit Davis said. "You also feel great for your fan base and your MT brand, especially when you get ranked this late in the year based on the long haul and what we've done. It's just a realty good day for Middle Tennessee basketball."
Senior guard Giddy Potts, the Blue Raiders' best-known player the past few years, said, "When I saw it, I smiled. I was just like, 'Wow.' It's something I wanted to do when I got here, and we finally did it. It just made me happy to see my teammates happy and coach happy."
The Blue Raiders (22-5, 14-1 Conference USA), who host UAB on Saturday in Murfreesboro, Tenn., have played their way into being serious contenders for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they fail to win the C-USA automatic bid.
Transfer Nick King leads Middle Tennessee at 21.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
Davis recruited King, a four-star coming out of high school, but the 6-foot-7 forward fulfilled a childhood dream when he signed with hometown school Memphis.
"It's every Memphis kid's dream," King said, according to the website Mid-Major Madness. "I just committed on the spot."
The dream soured, however, as King averaged less than six points per game in his two years with the Tigers.
So he decided to transfer. Davis made another push for King.
"After Memphis, we tried," Davis said. "(But) I still think he had his eyes on Power Five."
King did, choosing Alabama instead.
But after a lung infection cost him the majority of his junior year, King sought another fresh start.
This time, Middle Tennessee was more appealing.
The Blue Raiders had established themselves as a top mid-major program and boasted NCAA Tournaments wins -- including over second-seeded Michigan State -- the previous two years.
"Coach Davis always had confidence in me and knew me for a long time," King said. "I knew he was going to let me come play my game and do everything I could to help my team."
Behind King, who's 22nd in the nation in scoring, and Potts, Middle Tennessee has a nation's-best 12 true road wins and have climbed to 22nd in the RPI.
Middle Tennessee will be without point guard Tyrik Dixon against UAB after the sophomore suffered a minor concussion last weekend in a win over Louisiana Tech.
"With these things, you just don't know," Davis said, according to the (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) Daily News Journal. "They're all different in their own way. Obviously, with anybody in that situation, we'll use extreme caution."
Freshman Donovan Sims, who started the second half against Louisiana Tech, and senior Ed Simpson, who started the season's first 16 games, are candidates to replace Dixon on Saturday.
The Blazers (17-11, 8-7)) were picked to finish second in C-USA but are in sixth after losing three of their past five games.
UAB and Middle Tennessee traded the lead 15 times in the Blue Raiders' 63-60 victory in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 30, and Davis is concerned about the Blazers' talent.
"They still have three players (who) started in that game they beat Iowa State in the (first round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament) with (Chris) Cokley, (William) Lee and (Nick) Norton," Davis said.
UAB faces an uphill struggle to earn a coveted first-round bye in the conference tournament. The Blazers, who trail fourth-place Marshall by two games, play three of the top four teams in their final four regular-season games.
But coach Robert Ehsan remains confident.
"I'll tell you what, I think our guys will have as much confidence as we've ever had going into Saturday's game at Murfreesboro," he told AL.com. "And, look, you play three of the four best teams to end your season. You want to make a run?
"You're going to get measured against these guys in the next two weeks, and then you'll hopefully play them again in Frisco (Texas, site of the conference tournament)."