September 22, 2009

Golden Eagle schedule issues some big challenges to Mike Sutton’s squad

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Seven games against teams from the post-season, participation in the Hall of Fame Showcase, the always-tough 18-game Ohio Valley Conference lineup and 15 home games highlight the schedule awaiting the Tennessee Tech men’s basketball team and coach Mike Sutton in 2009-2010.

“We’ve always had a good schedule, but this could be the toughest of all,” Sutton said. “We have five very difficult games early in the schedule, including on the road at the No. 1 team in the country in Kansas and a couple of Top 10 or Top 20 teams in Memphis and Minnesota. Victories will be well-earned with this schedule as we could play really well and come up short against all of these teams, even at home.”

Besides those top-notch opponents, the Golden Eagles will host Ball State and Evansville in Eblen Center, and late in the year face a road game against what could be another outstanding opponent in a Bracket Buster contest. The past few years, Tech’s Bracket Buster foes have included Bradley, Northwestern State, East Tennessee, all NCAA Tourney teams, and Ball State last year when it was leading its conference.

As part of the Hall of Fame Showcase, Tech will play games at Memphis, Kansas and Central Arkansas, and hosts Oakland University. In addition to those tournament games, the Golden Eagles will also play contests at Minnesota and Southern Utah in the first month.

“Our first three Fridays of the season are games against teams that were in the NCAA tournament last year, Minnesota, Memphis and Kansas,” Sutton pointed out. Tech opens the regular season on Friday, Nov. 13, at Big Ten foe Minnesota, coached by Sutton’s friend and former mentor, Tubby Smith.

“It’s the season opener, and it will be difficult,” Sutton said. “Minnesota is extremely talented, they’re coming off an NCAA tournament bid, and they’re very excited about basketball up there. The game is already sold out, and they’re good."

“They have a lot of size and athleticism and experience, so that will be a big challenge,” Sutton said. “It’s a good game because it helps us financially as well.”

Staying on the road, Tech visits Central Arkansas on Nov. 16 and Memphis on Nov. 20, both part of the Hall of Fame Showcase.

Tech’s regular season home opener is Nov. 23 against Oakland in another Showcase game in Eblen Center.

The team visits Southern Utah on Nov. 25, then wraps up the Showcase at the University of Kansas on Nov. 27.

“We have a very tough early season schedule, which will be a challenge for us,” Sutton said. “We’ve been very fortunate here. We’ve played in some big-time arenas, and I’ve coached in nearly every arena in the country."

“Kansas is….,” Sutton began, reflecting on the tradition of the KU program. “Dr. Naismith was there, the court is named after him. It will be big there. That will be a difficult place to play. They don’t lose very often at home."

“Our players like the challenge, and I would think Kansas will be No. 1 in the country at the time we play there,” said Tech’s veteran coach.

“The Hall of Fame Showcase is a good thing because we get a home game out of the deal, but the problem is that home game is against an Oakland team which is really good,” Sutton said. “Oakland is a really good team with a lot of guys back, and they won 20-some games. That makes the schedule even more challenging.”

The Golden Eagles will be at home for four of its six games in December, hosting Evansville on Dec. 1 to open the month. Included in the home games will be visits from Bryan College on Dec. 10, Ball State on Dec. 12, and Union on Dec. 30.

“Evansville and Ball State are two non-conference teams from high conferences,” Sutton said. “It is by far the toughest schedule we’ve played here, and it’s a challenge, but we’re looking forward to the challenges."

Tech opens the OVC schedule with a road game at Jacksonville State on Dec. 5, the only league game for the Golden Eagles until January. After hosting Union on Dec. 30, Tech resumes league action with a road trip to Southeast Missouri and Eastern Illinois, Jan. 2-4.

Tech’s first OVC home game is Jan. 7 against Morehead State, who won the league tournament and represented the OVC in the NCAA Tournament. It opens a crucial stretch where Tech plays six of eight OVC games at home.

That homecourt edge will be as important as ever in the tough league race, according to Sutton.
“The league has continued to get stronger from top-to-bottom,” he said. “There are a lot of teams who return a lot of players and went deep into the conference tournament last year. Morehead State went on a four-game losing streak, then turned around and won the conference tournament. I think Murray State will probably be the preseason favorite again.”

The league slate includes two games with UT Martin, a team which reached the post-season with a visit to the NIT. The Skyhawks are led by one of three new coaches in the OVC.

“There are three new coaches in the league, and I think you’ll see some changes at those places,” Sutton said. “The strength of our league will increase because there are a lot of teams who have the to potential to finish in the top half of the league."

Tech is scheduled to participate once again in a Bracket Buster game on Feb. 20, but won’t know its opponent until close to the event. After that, the Golden Eagles host Jacksonville State on Feb. 27 to close out the regular season.

“Each year you want to try to do your absolute best to win the conference,” Sutton said. “For us, we’ve got some returning guys and we’ve got some new guys, so hopefully our experience will help us balance that."

“To get a home game in the first round of the OVC tournament you have to finish in the top four. That’s one of the things that you set your sites on. We want to be really tough at home, and try to steal some games on the road in a league that’s good,” he said.

The OVC Tournament is March 2-6, with the top eight teams playing in the first round and the four surviving squads advancing to the finals in Nashville.

Season tickets for Golden Eagle basketball are on sale at the Athletics Ticket Office in Eblen Center or online at TTUsports.com, or by calling (931) 372-3940.