Watching the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders play for the first time last season, something caught my eye right away: who is this #12 that keeps soaring through the lane like one of the Monstars straight out of a scene from the movie Space Jam? I immediately had to google the Middle Tennessee roster and find out his name: Teafale Lenard Jr., a freshman at the time out of Snyder, Texas. Standing at 6’7” with an absolutely absurd vertical jumping ability, I swear just about every time he elevated for a putback dunk or to block a shot, his head would get close to or even with the rim. On some occasions it seemed he was so high in the air that he was levitating on the same level as that intimidating monstar from outer space that crinkled Michael Jordan up into a ball and windmilled him through the rim in the beginning of the Warner Bros. 1996 award-winning film.
Diving into Lenard Jr.’s background, he was the #111 ranked recruit in the entire country in 2021, and the second highest rated freshman from that class who committed to any of the 14 members of Conference USA. He chose Middle Tennessee over offers from AAC and Mountain West schools and according to Rivals.com, he even had interest from a few high majors such as St. John’s, Texas Tech, and Virginia Tech. Lenard Jr. went on to win the C-USA Freshman of the Week honors four different times last season, making it no surprise when he was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. In year one, he shot 56% from the field and averaged 1.5 BPG, both of which led the Blue Raiders. He also placed 3rd in the conference for block percentage and finished in the top ten for individual defensive rating according to sports reference.com.
Lenard Jr. shatters MTSU dunk record, appears on SportsCenter Top 10:
Lenard Jr. ‘s athleticism even caught the interest of ESPN, as his dunk against Marshall on February 24th was featured as a SportsCenter Top 10 play the following morning. In just 20.1 minutes per game last year he was able to break the Blue Raiders’ school record for dunks in a single season with 50. Even more impressive, he already placed his name in the top 10 shot blocking leaders for a career at Middle Tennessee in just year one. If he keeps up the same pace for four seasons, he will shatter the record set by Warren Kidd in the early 1990’s.
Lenard Jr. is just scratching the surface of the defender and overall player he can develop into during the next few seasons in Murfreesboro, TN. He didn’t become a starter until right before the postseason, cracking the lineup for the first time during the regular season finale and then starting all six postseason games between the C-USA Tournament and a run to the CBI Championship Game. In those 7 starts, Lenard Jr. had 4 blocks on three different occasions, recording 18 blocks total and adding in 8 steals during that span. If he can maintain the same defensive presence from that stretch (2.6 BPG and 1.1 SPG) for an entire season, and assuming the production could even increase as he’ll be a full time starter and receive more minutes in year two; Lenard Jr. might just be a shoe-in as the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2023.
Recap of last season and expectations for the Blue Raiders in 2022-23:
Heading into last season coming off a 5-18 campaign and containing a youthful roster filled with freshmen and sophomores, Middle Tennessee well surpassed expectations in the fourth season under the guidance of Head Coach Nick McDevitt. They went on to win 26 games and finished the season atop the C-USA East Division. They battled UAB, the eventual C-USA Champions, to a 3-OT game in the conference tournament semifinals before losing 102-98 in what might have been one of the best games of the season from any league. Lenard Jr. had 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 blocks in that game; and the Blue Raiders will now return 8 of the 9 players that contributed significant minutes in their postseason run. UAB, North Texas, and Western Kentucky will more than likely be voted the top three teams by the coaches and media in the preseason, but I wouldn’t sleep on the Blue Raiders becoming the dark horse of Conference USA, especially as February and March get rolling.
They lose their top 2 scorers (one of which was injured at the end of last year), but return plenty of firepower from the same squad that nearly knocked off the Blazers and could have been dancing in 2022 if not for that heart-breaking defeat. Along with Lenard Jr., other key returners include Eli Lawrence (10.8 PPG), DeAndre Dishman (9.8 PPG), and Camryn Weston (8.8 PPG). Lawrence was the 3rd leading scorer on the team and Dishman had 25 points and 9 rebounds in the above mentioned matchup with UAB. Weston, a play-making guard from the state of Georgia, became a walking triple-double threat toward the end of last season, and could have a breakout campaign himself in 2022-23.
The overall length, athleticism, and defensive ability this team will display next season will frustrate opponents. Besides Weston who is 6’3”, the other 8 players in the rotation will be between 6’5” and 6 ’10”, many of which have wingspans even longer than their height. Middle Tennessee was already a stellar defensive team in 2021-22, giving up the 2nd lowest PPG total and defensive FG% in C-USA, as well as finishing 3rd in both blocks and steals per game; but they should have the potential to become even more stingy on that end of the court in 2022-23.
The Blue Raiders went 13-5 in conference play last season, with 3 of the 5 losses coming by less than 5 points. They were 15-0 defending their home court and they’ll now get the top three teams in the Blazers, Mean Green, and Hilltoppers all in their home building next season. The Murphy Center will present an electric atmosphere night in and night out, and Middle Tennessee should once again be a major factor when the entire conference heads to the Ford Center at the Star in Frisco next March for the 2023 C-USA Tournament.