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Troy takes on MTSU

The Troy Trojans will have a chance to get back into a tie for first place in the Sun Belt’s Eastern Division tonight when they take on Middle Tennessee.

Troy is currently 7-4 in Sun Belt play, while the Blue Raiders and Florida Atlantic are tied for first at 8-3.

“I think this is a great opportunity for us, what with them being in first place and us being just a game back,” said Troy head coach Don Maestri. “This is a great chance for us to put ourselves right back in the thick of things again.”

Troy has a game left against FAU on Feb. 20, but will have two shots against MTSU, with the first of those coming tonight in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

MTSU has surged to its 8-3 record thanks in large part to the play of senior forward Desmond Yates.

Yates has played in just 16 of the Blue Raiders’ 23 games this season, but has averaged 14.8 points per game in those 16 contests.

Yates has also been extremely efficient from the field, shooting 45.3 percent, including 42.9 percent from 3-point range.

“Hopefully, our zone will be able to surround him and cause him some problems,” Maestri said. “We want to make him take tough shots, and maybe even cut down on his attempts some. Every coach I’ve talked to has said that he is probably the player of the year in the conference so far. He’s just on a different level right now.”

While many forwards have a reputation for being inconsistent from the free throw line, Yates has been extremely accurate, hitting 86.8 of his free throw attempts.

MTSU comes in having won its last five games, including two wins over Western Kentucky.

“We’re going to have to play very good basketball,” Maestri said. They’re the hottest team in the league right now. They have really put it all together here lately in the last two weeks. Us, on the other hand, we haven’t played but maybe one conference game where we played real well.”

Part of MTSU’s recent success has been due to their sharp shooting. The Blue Raiders have shot 45 percent or better in each of their last three games.

“When they have the ball on offense, we’re really going to have to have our zone almost to perfection,” Maestri said. “We really can’t give them wide open shots. They’ve done such a good job of shooting the ball lately that we cannot afford to do that.”

The Blue Raiders are likely to concentrate their defensive efforts on shutting down Troy senior guard Brandon Hazzard, who is second in the Sun Belt in scoring at 16.8 points per game.

Louisiana-Lafayette and ULM previously used that strategy against Hazzard, holding him to a combine five points on 2-13 shooting from the field. The Ragin’ Cajuns defeated Troy in Lafayette, while ULM fell to Troy at Trojan Arena.

“Defensively, I’m pretty sure they’re going to do what Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette did and just focus on stopping Brandon,” Maestri said. “But, I think Brandon and the other guys are all getting more comfortable with teams doing that.”

Middle Tennessee and Troy tip off tonight at 7 p.m.