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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs. Middle Tennessee State

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Virginia faces MTSU in the first game of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

NCAA Basketball: Coppin State at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers, sitting at 3-0, have not yet had a real true test so far this season. The current KenPom rankings of the three opponents the Hoos beat are 293, 231, and 350, respectively. That’s unimpressive. Things will change this week as Virginia participates in the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.

The first matchup is against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. These teams have faced once before, in the second round of the 1989 NCAA Tournament. Virginia won that game 104-88. Figure on this year’s game being a much lower-scoring affair.

MTSU is 3-1 this year, but really only 1-1 as two of their games came against Division II opponents. They’ve beaten Charleston Southern (KenPom #232) and lost to Belmont (#95). The Blue Raiders were 25-7 last year, but head coach Kermit Davis left after the season for the job at Mississippi. To replace Davis, Middle Tennessee State went out and stole UNC-Asheville’s head coach Nicholas McDevitt.

It isn’t just a new coach though. For the fourth time in a row, Virginia faces a team undergoing a complete rebuild. The Blue Raiders return just 15% of last year’s minutes, 10% of the points, 16% of the rebounds, and 12% of the assists. That’s not a lot. The Blue Raiders have attempted to make up for those losses with a couple of transfers.

One transfer is Antonio Green from UT-Rio Grande Valley, who redshirted last season. The other is Reggie Scurry, a graduate transfer from Missouri St. Green is a high-usage player who is currently averaging 22 points per game. He had 19 in their loss to Belmont, but that came on 22 shots.

The two transfers and three returning players make up the bulk of the minutes. That quintet has played 65% of the team’s minutes. The rest of the minutes are going to a quartet of freshmen. The only one of those freshmen who’s really made an impact is PG Antonio Camp.

McDevitt seems to run a more fast-paced game than Davis did, although that may also be a product of the team he had at UNC-A. His teams ranked anywhere from 21st in the nation to 174th in tempo. His current team ranks 40th in the early going. Kermit Davis’ MTSU teams generally ranked near the bottom of the nation in tempo.

A lot of the increase in tempo is due to Green. He’s essentially a one-man fast break. It is, however, a poorly run one-man fast break. He is a below average offensive player, despite the 22 ppg average. In the DI games, he’s taken half his shots from downtown and made just 5/19. He was a career 37% three point shooter in two years at Rio Grande Valley, but was still a poor overall offensive player.

MTSU has two big men, Scurry and senior Karl Gamble. Both are pretty strong on the glass and have some offensive game as well. Scurry is also a strong weak-side shot blocker. Neither are great man defenders, which would matter more if Virginia had a reliable interior scoring threat.

The threat of that duo on the offensive glass is really the only issue in this game. Frankly, MTSU can’t shoot. So that means there’s going to be a lot of offensive rebounds, and since the Hoos haven’t been great on the defensive glass this year, that’s an opportunity for the Blue Raiders to get some easy points. The rest of their offense is basically just transition opportunities, which isn’t going to happen against Virginia.

Defensively, MTSU isn’t particularly good either. They have the two shot blockers inside, which could make it tough to get points in the lane. Then again, De’Andre Hunter is big enough and good enough to finish over and through those guys. Donovan Sims is a strong perimeter defender, but that’s about the extent of their man-to-man defense.

Expect Coach Bennett to continue using his smaller lineup with three guards alongside Hunter and Key. Hunter and Key are much quicker than the big men for the Blue Raiders. That could end up with the MTSU duo in foul trouble, which would make this game even easier. It could also mean that Virginia ends up with some offensive rebounding opportunities. MTSU is not a strong defensive rebounding team, especially if you can pull Gamble and Scurry out of the lane to guard on the perimeter.

Things will get tougher, as Thursday’s game will be against either Dayton (KenPom #103) or Butler (#31). Then Friday, the options are Florida (#28), Oklahoma (#43), Wisconsin (#15), or Stanford (#87). We’ll know a lot more about this team by Friday night.

Virginia tips off tonight at 9:30pm, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.