Panther Preview: FIU men’s basketball vs. Middle Tennessee

Junior guard Eli Lawrence (Left) for MTSU and freshman guard Arturo Dean (Right) for FIU. Photos courtesy of MTSU and FIU Athletics.

Brian Olmo | Sports Director

The FIU men’s basketball team hosts the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders on Saturday, Jan. 28 at Ocean Bank Convocation Center. The Panthers are riding high on a blowout victory over Western Kentucky while the Blue Raiders are reeling from their loss to FAU.

Historically, Middle Tennessee versus FIU has been a one-sided affair. The Panthers’ all-time record against the Blue Raiders is 11-33. The last time FIU beat Middle Tennessee was on Jan. 9, 2021.

The Blue Raiders sit fourth in the conference and it’s difficult to see why at first. The team is eighth in scoring overall, averaging 69.6 points per game. They’re two spots below FIU, which averages 72.0 PPG. MTSU isn’t great from deep. In fact, they’re one of the worst 3-point shooting teams when it comes to 3-point field goals made, coming in second to last.

All of this makes their current record hard to understand. How can a team that’s so mediocre on offense be so high up in the standings? That’s because basketball, like a coin, has two sides to it.

If the offense is the rusty, oxidized side of a penny for the Blue Raiders, then the defense is the shiny, reflective side that gives the coin its value. MTSU holds opponents to just 66.0 PPG, making them the fourth-best defense in the conference.

Sophomore guard Teafale Lenard Jr. is the team’s defensive anchor. At 6’7 with a long wingspan and freak athleticism for a guard, Lenard has all the physical tools to be an elite defender. He’s averaging two blocks per game and 1.7 steals per game, the second and ninth-highest figures in Conference USA.

Middle Tennessee doesn’t really have an ace up its sleeves. Instead, they have a well-rounded roster of guys who can take turns being the X factor. The team’s leading scorer, junior guard Eli Lawrence, is a crafty finisher around the rim and a respectable shooter from beyond the arc. Lawrence averages 12 PPG and 4.2 rebounds per game.

If there is one thing that is heavily in the Panthers’ favor, it’s their star player, sophomore guard Denver Jones. Jones has been an offensive supernova, as he continues to scorch opposing defenses, averaging 19.2 PPG. His proclivity for making tough shots, threes and free throws at a high volume has kept this team competitive even during its worst performances.

Freshman guards Arturo Dean and Dashon Gittens have been pleasant surprises for the Panthers this season, with both players earning Conference USA Freshman of the Week nods. Dean leads the league in steals and Gittens has been putting up solid scoring numbers on efficient shooting.

FIU is also playing at home, where they have a strong 9-4 record. Middle Tennessee is dreadful on the road, winning only three of their nine games away.

This game projects to be a perfect display of two teams who embody the parallel sides of basketball: offense and defense. Will FIU’s superior offense break through Middle Tennessee’s superior defense?

Well, FIU has faced off against four of the top five defenses (FAU, North Texas, UTEP, Charlotte) six times this season. Out of those six games, they’ve only won one, and that was their narrow 62-60 victory over Charlotte.

If this trend continues Saturday night, it could be hard to envision the Panthers taking this one and it might spell trouble for FIU.

Catch the game today at 7 PM on ESPN+.

FIU: 60
MTSU: 69

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