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Previewing No. 13 UK Hoops Matchup Against Middle Tennessee

(Grace Bradley | UK Athletics)

(Grace Bradley | UK Athletics)

In the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats first road-test of the 2019-20 season, they head down south to Murfreesboro, TN to visit Middle Tennessee State as the two teams will battle for the 12th straight year.

Following a 67-44 victory in Memorial Coliseum against Mount St. Mary’s earlier in the week to kick off the season, the ‘Cats will look to fix some of the mistakes that plagued them in game one. MTSU is also coming off a season-opening win, taking down Eastern Carolina University in a 68-66 comeback win.

The Blue Raiders will be a much more difficult task for the Wildcats than Mount St. Mary’s and a trip down to Tennessee won’t make the matchup any easier. Kentucky is familiar with MTSU, boasting an 8-3 record over the previous 11 seasons, including two straight wins in Murfreesboro before dropping the most recent away game in 2017. The 2018 matchup in Lexington saw the Wildcats take a 72-55 win.

So who are the Middle Tennesse State Blue Raiders? Let’s take a quick look ahead of the 4 p.m. matchup.

MTSU enters the new season coming off a C-USA Championship game loss to Rice, 69-54. The Blue Raiders finished the year as the third-best team in the conference and held a 23-11 overall record that included a second-round visit to the WNIT. That team produced two players that would make the C-USA All-Conference team – A’Queen Hayes on the First Team and Alex Johnson on the Second Team – however, both have since graduated.

With two of the programs premier players gone, MTSU is loaded with fresh faces. They do return the reigning C-USA Freshman of the Year in Taylor Sutton, who averaged 10 points per game standing at 5-foot-4. Sutton shot over 38 percent from deep, as well, on five three-point attempts per game.

After sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, MTSU has added two former McDonald’s All-Americans to shore up the lost production from the seniors; Anastasia Hayes (redshirt sophomore who transferred from Tennessee) and Rellah Boothe (redshirt sophomore who transferred from Texas). Hayes, a 5-foot-7 guard and the former No. 7 overall recruit in 2017, posted 13 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists in the season-opening win. Boothe did not play, but the former No. 3 overall recruit in 2017 should be ready to go against the ‘Cats. At 6-foot-3, she will cause all sorts of problems in the paint for the undersized Kentucky squad.

In the Blue Raiders game against ECU, senior forward Charity Savage recorded a career-high of 16 points in addition to her 13 rebounds while freshman Courtney Whitson posted 15 points on 3-5 shooting from three in her college debut. MTSU pulled in 42 rebounds in that game and are filled out by five players that stand at least 6-foot or taller.

Against a Kentucky team not known for its high-level rebounding ability, it could be a battle on the glass all game long. The Wildcats will hope to counter that with an immediate full-court press and speed in transition. With the addition of Boothe in this game, the Blue Raiders only have seven true rotational players, which Kentucky can use to its advantage.

In the season-opener, head coach Matthew Mitchell gave eight girls 10-plus minutes and another 13 minutes spread between Nae Nae Cole and Ogechi Anyagaligbo. The ability to rotate in and out several backcourt players will be beneficial against a team that wants to chuck up a ton of threes. MTSU attempted 26 triples in its first game compared to 22 for the ‘Cats against Mount St. Mary’s. That extra energy off the bench for Kentucky will be necessary for closing out shooters and forcing them to work the ball around the perimeter or beat the ‘Cats in the paint.

Also, MTSU turned the ball over 27 times in the win over ECU, which was converted into 27 points. Kentucky forced Mount St. Mary’s into 28 turnovers which resulted in 29 points for the ‘Cats.

We can’t take too much out of the numbers from just one game, but it at least gives us a better idea of what type of style MSTU is going to play. They were the second-best defense in the C-USA last season and managed to hold ECU to just a 1-12 clip from three in the season-opener. They have plenty of big bodies that can control the boards but had five players record at least three turnovers against ECU. Sutton turned the ball over eight times on her own.

If Kentucky can stick to its game plan of applying constant pressure and spacing out for open threes, they can easily dictate the pace of this game and steal a road win; especially if Rhyne Howard can build off a poor shooting clip of 4-16 in the opener. I would also really like to see Blair Green take this shot at the end of a quarter with a similar result.

The game is set to tip-off at 4 p.m. EST and will be available for viewing on ESPN+.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Covering all things NBA and UK Hoops. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR