As the calendar flips to 2019, Middle Tennessee shifts its focus to Conference USA play.
The switch to league action starts Thursday night against FIU and should be an exciting sight for the Blue Raiders (3-10) and first-year head coach Nick McDevitt after a brutal nonconference schedule.
"Before we started the season, we broke the year down into three segments: nonconference play, conference play and postseason play," McDevitt said. "We look at it like we're now 0-0 as we head into Conference USA play, and we have two big home games this week."
There was little time for McDevitt and his staff to get acclimated to the Murphy Center hardwood before getting tossed to the wolves.
After back-to-back wins to start the season against Lees-McRae and Milligan, the Blue Raiders started a daunting stretch that included games against in-state foes Belmont, Lipscomb and Vanderbilt; Virginia, Butler and Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament; home against Murray State; road contests at Toledo and Rhode Island; and a neutral-site matchup with former head coach Kermit Davis and Ole Miss.
Following a 72-60 loss to Rhode Island on Dec. 30, Middle Tennessee's nonconference slate ended with a 3-10 record and nine losses in a row. The wins and losses might not look great, but it's not hard to see how the Blue Raiders got to where they are heading to C-USA play.
The blue and white had the second toughest nonconference strength of schedule in the country, according to NCAA rankings, with a total opponent record of 99-43. They also rank first in the nation in average opponent NET ranking (79), the NCAA's evaluation rankings that replaced RPI.
In comparison, Conference USA's average nonconference strength of schedule is 189, and the next closest C-USA team to MT is Charlotte, coming in 44th. The next C-USA team in average opponent NET is UTSA in 37th.
The Blue Raiders also played nine games against teams in NCAA's quadrants 1 and 2, the most in C-USA and two ahead the next-closest team (WKU).
"We obviously played one of the most difficult nonconference schedules in the country, and the hope is that it's prepared our guys for difficult league play," McDevitt said. "They've seen elite players, elite shooters, high-level athletes, great defensive and offensive teams, so when we play some of those teams in our league that have some of those attributes, it won't be the first time this season we've seen them.
Having Middle Tennessee's nonconference schedule would be challenging for just about any team in the country, even one loaded with experienced players.
The Blue Raiders don't have the luxury of having many old, grizzled veterans, adding another complication.
Entering the season, they ranked in the bottom 10 nationally in returning starts, minutes, points and career points. The active roster includes seven players who weren't at MT last year, four of them freshmen.
"There are some things that just take some time with a young team, but we are making improvements and taking strides, which is what we want," McDevitt said. "Our guys are getting a lot of minutes with each other, and that only helps."
While his team had some growing pains through the nonconference slate, McDevitt has liked the improvements he's seen and has high hopes for a good conference season.
The C-USA schedule starts with home match ups against FIU and Florida Atlantic on Jan. 3 and 5, respectively. They're two teams Middle Tennessee has historically had little issue with, owning a 30-8 mark all-time over FIU and 19-4 over Florida Atlantic.
It could be the perfect time to show how much the Blue Raiders' tough nonconference will pay off.
"Your conference games are the most important games on your schedule, so what you try to do with your nonconference scheduling is prepare your guys for league play," McDevitt said. "I think some of our younger players are starting to gain experience and be more comfortable on the floor.
"Our guys are excited ... and we're ready to get rolling. It should be a fun week."