On heels of late-season 2010-11 run, Golden Eagles ready to soar higher
Tech returns four starters, nearly 90 percent of offensive production
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — For a four-week stretch late in the 2010-11 season, Steve Payne caught a glimpse of what his team could be capable of accomplishing.
Then an associate head coach under Mike Sutton, Payne, now the first-year head coach at Tennessee Tech, watched his squad become a more efficient offensive team and saw his star player developing directly under his eyes.
The result was a seven-game win streak that encompassed most of
the month of February and stretched into March as the Golden Eagles
became a surprise entry in the Ohio Valley Conference championship
game after upsetting the league's regular-season champion, Murray
State, in the tournament semifinals.
Tech couldn't get past eventual NCAA Tournament Cinderella Morehead State in the championship game, however, but went on to play in the postseason for the first time since 2002, bowing out in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
This season, the Golden Eagles hope to build on that success, setting their sights even higher — an OVC title and NCAA Tournament berth. Tech returns four starters and 87 percent of its scoring from the 2010-11 season, while also debuting a first-year head coach who paid his dues as a longtime assistant at Tech and who carries the respect of the Cookeville community.
"I certainly think the excitement level is pretty high," says Payne, a native of Russell Springs, Ky., who served on Sutton's staff for nine years. "We've got all these guys back and we did finish the year the way you're supposed to. Hopefully we can carry that over and the guys will remember all the hard work that went into building toward that seven-game win streak and that championship run. They have to be hungry, they have to be humble, and they have to be ready to start a new season and leave last year behind."
Tech opens its season Friday, Nov. 11 at Miami (Fla.) with a 6 p.m. CST tip-off. The Golden Eagles play their first home game Tuesday, Nov. 15 against Reinhardt College at 7 p.m.
Season tickets for the 2011-12 Golden Eagle home schedule are currently on sale at the Athletics Ticket Office in Eblen Center, or by calling (931) 372-3940.
The talent certainly seems to be on hand for the Golden Eagles
to make a run at their first OVC regular-season title since 2005.
The league crowned senior guard Kevin Murphy its
Preseason Player of the Year, and the Golden Eagles return point
guard and offensive engine Zac Swansey, who
ranked seventh in NCAA Division I in assists last season, averaging
6.4 per game. Seven-foot-one center Liam McMorrow
enters his second year at Tech and could be poised for a
The Golden Eagles have been tabbed as favorites to win the league by reputable national media outlets including the Sporting News and CBS Sports and were picked second in the OVC preseason poll of coaches and sports information directors.
Through all of the excitement and anticipation, however, Payne wants his squad to simply focus on the process.
"I think our goal every year is to win the OVC and play in the NCAA Tournament," he says. "Even more than that, we really try to concern ourselves with the process. I'm a firm believer that if the process is done the right way, the results will take care of themselves."
Though Payne's promotion to head coach has offered continuity to the program, the staff as a whole is relatively new to Tech. Russ Willemsen, who has worked alongside Payne at Tech for the past six seasons, is back for a seventh year and, along with Payne, is the only holdover from last season's staff.
Payne hired longtime friend Happy Osborne, a national-championship-winning head coach at NAIA Georgetown College, to be his associate head coach in August. Former Western Kentucky standout David Boyden also fills an assistant role and Charles Newton, a senior on last year's Tech team, returns to his alma mater as Director of Basketball Operations.
Areas of particular focus for the staff in the preseason have been developing a low-post scoring game, cutting down on turnovers, improving shot selection, and becoming a better rebounding team.
Everything the Golden Eagles do offensively begins with Zac Swansey. A pure pass-first point guard, Swansey, a Georgia transfer, played his first season at Tech last year after sitting out 2009-10.
The result was the OVC's most productive offense and near-record-breaking assist numbers for Swansey. He dished out double-figure assists in six games and already ranks 19th all-time on Tech's career assists list despite having played just one season.
In addition to his uncanny ability to distribute the ball, Swansey can also score. He averaged just shy of 10 points per game as a junior and became known around the league for his clutch-shooting — he hit five game-winning shots over the course of the season, including the three-pointer that secured victory in the OVC semifinals.
Swansey, a preseason All-OVC selection after being named to the conference's All-Newcomer team last season, has battled a knee injury since spring, but has been performing near 100 percent in practice this fall.
"It all starts with him," Payne said of his point guard. "He seems to make everything better. Everything calms down when he's on the floor. He doesn't have to shoot a lot to make an impact on the game. He's just a guy that gets the ball where it needs to go."
Another senior in the backcourt, Zach Bailey is a point guard on defense of sorts for the Golden Eagles. The best defender on the team, Bailey has quietly put together a solid career at Tech and will be looked to as one of the team's leaders this season.
In addition to the immeasurable value Bailey provides on the defensive side of the ball, he also averaged eight points per game and was the best free throw shooter on the team in 2010-11.
"He's one of our toughest guys," Payne says of Bailey. "He can play the one or the two, and he's a clutch guy. He'll make just enough shots to make you guard him, but when the game's on the line, he makes them all."
A local favorite from up the road in Livingston, Tenn., Chase Dunn had a terrific year as a redshirt freshman a season ago, scoring double-figures in six games and averaging just shy of seven points per game. A reliable three-point shooter, he will see time at both point guard and two-guard and figures to continue to produce for the Golden Eagles.
"Chase played on a 20-win team and had as good a freshman season as about any guy we've had here," Payne said. "If he continues to develop and improve, he's going to have a fantastic career for us."
At the two-guard, the Golden Eagles have arguably the best player in the OVC in preseason Player of the Year Kevin Murphy. A scoring machine throughout his career at Tech, Murphy led the team in scoring as a sophomore in 2009-10, averaging 15.3 points per game, and did it again last year, pouring in 17 points per contest to rank third in the OVC.
What Payne and the coaching staff saw from Murphy down the stretch last season, however, made them wonder just how good a player he could become.
"We became a better team late last year because Kevin became a more efficient player," Payne said. "He became a guy that got his points on 10 shots rather than 25 shots. He became a better rebounder and a better defender. He has the tools to make a run at Player of the Year in our conference and he has the tools to make a run as a professional basketball player. The step he needs to take is to really become a team-first, efficient player, and he started to take that step last season."
An All-OVC First-Team selection in 2010-11, Murphy was dynamite in the OVC Tournament, averaging 24.3 points over three games and being named to the All-Tournament team.
Another player who took his game to the next level last March was Jud Dillard, who averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds in the league tournament.
Dillard, a junior, will start on the wing for Tech and though he didn't receive the accolades of Murphy or Swansey, was one of the team's top producers a season ago. He notched six double-doubles in 2010-11 and was Tech's top rebounder.
"He's a guy we can really count on to rebound the basketball, defend, and be an aggressive, smart offensive player," Payne says. "He's had some big games for us in his career and has really worked hard improving this summer. I'm looking for Jud Dillard to have an incredible junior season."
While Swansey, Bailey, Dunn, Murphy and Dillard figure to be the chief rotation players in Tech's backcourt, the Golden Eagles also have plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Though only a true freshman, Lanerryl Johnson shows promise as the quickest player on Payne's roster and could be the team's point guard of the future. He's still learning the position, but coaches have been impressed with his ability to develop and grow in the role thus far.
John Sexton, a first-year player who played in 28 games as a freshman at William and Mary in 2007-08, will be a threat as a deadly three-point shooter coming off the bench, while another local product out of Cookeville, Mitchell Hill, figures to see time in the backcourt.
The player who has most impressed Payne and the staff this fall has been redshirt freshman Javon McKay. At 6-foot-5, McKay is capable of playing at either the three or four-spot, but will likely see most of his time at the four this season due to the Golden Eagles' crowded backcourt.
Undersized for a power forward, McKay can use his explosive athleticism and quickness to get past bigger defenders and can also rebound and run the floor well.
"He's probably our best athlete, our most explosive guy," Payne says of McKay. "He's a terrific offensive rebounder, good in transition, a good defender. He's tough to defend as a four because big guys have a hard time staying in front of him, he's so quick."
Dennis Ogbe showed flashes of a bright future in his freshman campaign a season ago. He started four games and scored double-figures in three, pouring in 18 points in a January game against Tennessee-Martin.
The native of Munich, Germany, should get plenty of opportunities in the post this season to become a more consistent player.
"He's got to take a step up from last year," Payne said. "He needs to improve his ballhandling, take care of the basketball and not turn it over. He's already a good rebounder, a good defender and a good low-post scorer. He can be a good player for us."
At 7-foot-1, Liam McMorrow can change any game with his size alone. McMorrow played his first season at Tech in 2010-11 after transferring from Marquette. Coming from a high school background as a hockey and lacrosse player, he is still learning the game and learning to harness the tremendous physical attributes he brings to the table.
Potentially the biggest X-factor on the Golden Eagle roster, McMorrow scored in double-figures twice in 2010-11 and also grabbed double-figure rebounds on two occasions.
"I've been really pleased with Liam," Payne said. "He's had a much better fall. He's really arrived with strong work ethic and he's improving his low-post scoring every day because we're making him catch the ball down there and make plays. He's really running the floor hard, and I couldn't ask any more of him. He could have a great year."
Terrell Barnes is the quickest post player on Tech's roster and will see time at both the four and the five. He averaged 4.1 points and 4.9 rebounds last season, pulling down double-figure rebounds on four occasions.
"We've got his weight off, and he's scoring a little better," Payne said. "He's always been a good rebounder, passer and defender, and he's finishing around the rim pretty good."
Bassey Inameti is another Golden Eagle who has shown the ability to play well in spurts and will see time in the post this season. The best shot-blocker on the team, Inameti needs to develop consistency in his senior season.
"Bassey has shown flashes throughout his career," Payne said. "We're trying to get Bassey to be a guy who consistently plays to his ability every day."
A true freshman, Ryon Riggins has impressed coaches this fall and could also provide minutes in the frontcourt, while senior Riley Hunley will come off the bench at small forward.
The Golden Eagles will be without the services of Matt Marseille, who tore his ACL in fall workouts and will miss the entirety of the season. Marseille started three games and averaged 3.4 points per contest in 2010-11, his first season at Tech after transferring from Centenary.