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Blue Raiders overwhelming favorite to win SBC East

Coaches almost unanimous in picking Middle Tennessee

October 13, 2008 · MT Athletic Communications
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Nearly every national basketball publication has pegged Middle Tennessee as its preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt in 2008-09.

Sun Belt Conference coaches also have jumped on the Blue Raider bandwagon and joined the likes of Athlon's, Lindy's, Blue Ribbon Magazine, and Rivals among those picking Middle Tennessee as the team to beat this season.

The league's head coaches were almost unanimous in selecting Middle Tennessee as the preseason favorite to win the East Division as the preseason poll was released today to tip off the Sun Belt Conference Media Days in Hot Springs, Ark., the neutral site of the 2009 SBC Men's and Women's Basketball Championships. It marks the first time the Blue Raiders have been the preseason pick since Middle Tennessee joined the SBC in 2000.

Middle Tennessee received 11 of the possible 13 first-place votes and tallied 76 total points to easily outdistance South Alabama in the balloting. The Jaguars picked up the remaining two first-place votes and totaled 60 points, followed by WKU (52), Florida Atlantic (38), FIU (33) and Troy (14).

"I sure hope (the Sun Belt coaches) are right," Davis said. "Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong. We all understand the work in front of us and the competitiveness of the league but you work to create expectations from player development, recruiting, coaching and if it's created then that's good for our program and for our fans. We will work hard to have the best team we can."

Middle Tennessee junior forward Desmond "Boogie" Yates became the first Blue Raider to ever be voted SBC Preseason Player of the Year, and senior guard Kevin Kanaskie was voted second-team All-SBC.

Coaches believe the West Division will be a competitive race with UALR, North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette waging a spirited chase for the crown. UALR and North Texas are tied for first in the preseason poll, followed by Louisiana-Lafayette. The three teams were separated by one point in the balloting. UALR received six first-place votes and 76 points and North Texas picked up four first-place votes and also had 76 points. The Ragin' Cajuns received three first-place votes and 75 total points. Arkansas State, under first-year coach John Brady, is picked fourth with 43 points, followed by ULM (39), Denver (35) and New Orleans (20).

"I think the races in both divisions are going to be competitive," said Davis, whose 51 regular-season Sun Belt wins are 11th on the all-time SBC wins list. "I think the league is the most balanced in my seven years, and I think you are going to see unbelievably competitive races in both divisions. FIU has two all-league players back, North Texas has two all-league players, and South Alabama has two all-league players. We understand where we are and how much work is ahead of us."

Middle Tennessee returns 91 percent of its scoring, 92 percent of its rebounding and 91 percent of the assists from 2007-08 when the squad won 10 of its final 14 and reached the SBC Championship game before falling to eventual champion and Sweet 16 participant WKU. The Blue Raiders return all five starters and their top eight players, including the return of guard Calvin O'Neil who suffered a season-ending injury in the 07-08 opener against San Jose State.

Experience is a huge factor as Middle Tennessee seeks its sixth winning season in seven years under Davis, who became the second-fastest coach in program history to reach 100 wins when the Blue Raiders ousted South Alabama in last season's SBC semifinals on its homecourt. Six players on the current roster are entering their fourth year in the program.

"There's not a lot of college teams that can say they have six guys who are starting their fourth year in the program," Davis said. "They are all guys who are on track to graduate and understand how to carry themselves as a successful student-athlete. We have eight guys who have been in the program three years or more, and their maturity has carried over to our new players. Our four new guys have a good deal of hard work in front of them, but they have been a very responsible and dependable group to date."

Leading the way for the Blue Raiders will be the senior quartet of Kanaskie, Nigel Johnson, Demetrius Green and Theryn Hudson. Behind them are juniors Yates, O'Neil, Darren Avery and Dino Hair.

Newcomers include Eric Allen, Montarrio Haddock, DeMario Williams and Josh Jones, and Antwaun Boyd makes his Blue Raider debut after taking a redshirt season in 2007-08.

SBC Preseason Coaches Poll
(First place votes in parenthesis)
East Division
1 Middle Tennessee (11) 76

2 South Alabama (2) 60
3 WKU 52
4 Florida Atlantic 38
5 FIU 33
6 Troy 14

West Division
T1 UALR (6) 76
T1 North Texas (4) 76
3 Louisiana-Lafayette (3) 75
4 Arkansas State 43
5 ULM 39
6 Denver 35
7 New Orleans 20

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