Middle Tennessee (18-4) at FIU (11-9)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Thursday, January 31, 7:30 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: U.S. Century Bank Arena (5,000) -- Miami, Florida. Television: None. Home Record: MT 12-0, FIU 6-2. Away Record: MT 6-3, FIU 5-7. Neutral Record: MT 0-1, FIU 0-0. Conference Record: MT 10-1, FIU 6-5. Series Record: Middle Tennessee leads 22-6.
GAME NOTES: The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders hope to continue their reign atop the Sun Belt Conference standings, as they have made the trip to Miami for a bout with the FIU Panthers.
Middle Tennessee has clearly separated itself as the Sun Belt's elite team this season, boasting an 18-4 overall record and a near-perfect 10-1 mark in league play. The Blue Raiders are in the midst of a season-long, seven-game win streak, with their most recent triumph coming in a 72-53 decision at home over Western Kentucky last Saturday.
FIU had been one of the conference's hottest teams, winning seven of eight games to start the new year, but that streak came to an end last Saturday with a heartbreaking 60-58 loss at South Alabama. Despite the setback, the Panthers' season has had more ups than down as they currently sit at 11-9 overall and 6-5 in conference.
Middle Tennessee has beaten FIU seven straight times, including a 69-52 verdict in Murfreesboro on Dec. 29, 2012 in the first meeting this season.
Aided by a 14-0 second-half run, Middle Tennessee was able to make easy work of WKU on its home floor the last time out. It was another great all-around performance for the Blue Raiders, who shot 48.1 percent from the floor while winning both the rebounding (33-27) and turnover (18-13) battles. Marcos Knight shot an efficient 6-of-9 from the floor for a game-high 15 points, while adding five assists, and Neiko Hunter (13 points) and Bruce Massey (10 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals) also had solid outings. Middle Tennessee has gotten used to those types of performances, as it averages 69.7 ppg while allowing a league-low 58.4 ppg for a +11.4 scoring margin, which is nearly double the differential of the second-place team. The team also ranks first in rebounding margin (+5.8) and second in turnover margin (+2.6). It's a true team effort on a game-by-game basis for the Blue Raiders, as 10 players net at least 3.8 ppg, and 11 have seen time in a starting lineup that changes nearly every time out. Knight is the only player to average in double figures with 12.7 ppg, adding 5.4 rpg, 2.5 apg and 1.5 spg for good measure.
FIU was down 10 in its latest matchup with South Alabama, but took a five- point lead midway through the second half thanks to an 18-3 run. Unfortunately, the team lost control late and dropped a tough two-point decision to the Jaguars. Despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field, the Panthers still had five players tally at least nine points on the afternoon, led by a dozen each from Jerome Frink and Malik Smith. Frink also logged seven rebounds and a pair of blocks. It was a rare close loss for FIU this season, as eight of its wins have come by margins of six points or less, which proves why it has a minus-1.4 scoring margin despite having a winning record. The Panthers' biggest strength comes in the frontcourt with Tymell Murphy (15.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Frink (10.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg). Murphy is also a great asset at the defensive end with his 1.5 spg and 1.2 bpg, and nobody in the Sun Belt tops his .597 field goal percentage. Smith is the top performer out on the perimeter with 14.5 ppg, and he is tied atop the league lead for 3- pointers made with 60.
FIU is far from a pushover, especially on its home floor, but Middle Tennessee has been clicking on all cylinders no matter where it plays this season. The Blue Raiders will put together another fantastic effort in knocking off the Panthers.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Middle Tennessee 68, FIU 62
01/31 10:34:51 ET