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October 8, 2008Rewind time back to March - March 11th to be exact - and plant yourself at South Alabama's Mitchell Center where Middle Tennessee is facing Western Kentucky for the Sun Belt Conference basketball championship.
Middle Tennessee star forward Desmond Yates will meet you there.
He's lived there mentally ever since that day, fueling a fire that has been burning all offseason long.
"You don't understand, I think about that game almost every day," Yates said. "Every time I come out to practice, every time I come in the gym to shoot by myself, that game is running through my mind. I feel like (Western Kentucky forward Jeremy Evans) embarrassed me and my team because he beat us. He had 20 and 14 or something like that so he beat us by himself."
Yates' analysis is pretty well spot on. Evans helped the Hilltoppers control the offensive glass that night in Mobile, leading to a pivotal 10 point Western Kentucky advantage in second chance points in a game the Hilltoppers won 67-57.
The Blue Raider star has spent the entire offseason working with his teammates to write a different ending to the 2008-09 season, and the returning First Team All-Sun Belt performer enters this season with very high individual expectations.
Coming off a redshirt sophomore year where he averaged 16 points and 4.4 rebounds, the Somerville (Tenn.) native is not shying away from the responsibilities placed on his shoulders.
"I embrace the expectations," Yates said. "Coach has high expectations of me but I have more expectations of myself so I embrace everything. It doesn't change the way I prepare for games. I still work the same way I did last year, just a little harder ... I embrace all expectations for me and for this team so we're just going to work and try to get us a bunch of wins this year."
OVERTIME WITH DESMOND YATES
Q: How do you view your leadership role on this team?
A: That's me on a daily basis right now. Me, Nigel (Johnson), and Kevin (Kanaskie), that's what we do on a daily basis. We go through workouts and if we see the team going off course a little bit we will be the first ones to say something. We don't want coach to be the one to have to jump on people. We want to be the ones to take control of our team ... That's what we've been doing all summer and what we do on a daily basis, with classwork, on the court and off the court.
Q: Coach Davis stayed on you last year about rebounding. Is he still emphasizing that constantly?
A: Oh, he's always saying that. I don't mind, I know I've got to become a better rebounder. I increased it a little bit last year but I've got to be a lot more consistent with it ... I don't mind coach (getting onto me about it) because I know he only means the best when he does it.
Q: What other Sun Belt players are you most looking forward to facing?
A: I'm looking forward to facing (Jeremy) Evans of Western Kentucky this year because of the tournament game last year. I'm looking forward to facing Carlos Monroe who I think is one of the best big men in our league. The guys from South Alabama, (DeAndre) Coleman and the other guy, (Brandon) Davis. It's going to be exciting. There are a lot of guys I'm looking forward to playing this year.
Yates is one of the most difficult individual matchups in the Sun Belt. He shot better than 50 percent from three point range last year but also has a lethally efficient series of offensive moves in the lane and with his back to the basket.
There is still another level of play that Yates can reach though, and he's been working tirelessly to climb to a new peak.
"The biggest thing I am working on right now is my ball handling skills," he said. "I think if I can go off the dribble a little bit more it will increase my scoring average a lot. Scoring wise, ball handling will really help my game and being a better defensive player will help my game a lot more too. Also, becoming a better rebounder. That will get me another three to five points a game if I can be a better rebounder."
Yates managed three double-doubles a year ago but he'll need to increase that output this season, particularly in the ever important rebounding column.
With senior center Theryn Hudson recovering from a recent foot surgery, the Blue Raiders will likely not have the big man at full speed when the season gets underway, potentially increasing the rebounding load on Yates.
Yates entered Middle Tennessee alongside Hudson, in addition to Kevin Kanaskie, Calvin O'Neil, Darren Avery and Dino Hair, with current senior Nigel Johnson coming on board in the 2006 class.
Though Yates took a redshirt year as a freshman, he still sees himself very much a part of the class getting ready to play its last year with the Blue Raiders.
That is another factor motivating him to take both his game and the Middle Tennessee program to new heights.
"We've been together so long," Yates said of the senior class. "I want it so bad for them and I want it so bad for myself. This is their last chance to get it. All of us got here together. Darren, Calvin, Dino, Theryn, Kevin, all of us got here at the same time so we've got this bond together. I want it so bad for them to go out (with a championship). It's important to me and I know it's very important to them. Everybody comes in here with high spirits, willing to work. Nobody complains about coming into practice, so this is a special season for all of us because this is the last chance we will all get to play together."
It may be their last chance to play together, but over the next five months, they'll take the floor to play the games that they'll replay in their minds for years to come.
Just like Yates replays last year's title game. Which is why the Blue Raider star wants to make sure this year's memories are much sweeter.
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