By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information Coordinator
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – With just two days remaining until the third edition of the head coach Steve Payne's Tennessee Tech basketball team kicks off the 2013-14 season, the Golden Eagles are eager to get out on the court and prove their doubters wrong.
Tech welcomes a plethora of new faces to the mix for the 2013-14 season, including seven newcomers and two redshirt players, to a veteran group of seven returnees. The Golden Eagles will look to take that mixture of players and get off to a hot start as the team travels south for an opening night contest at South Florida.
"They have a tremendous amount of size and athleticism across their front line," said Payne. "I totally expect them to come with pressure and trap and use their length, size, and athleticism to bother us from a defensive standpoint, and we'll have to withstand that to stand a chance. We gotta finish around the rim.
"It's exciting because it's our first game and it's exciting because it's against a high-major program," added Payne. "We've got some new pieces to our team and we're trying to blend them in. If we can get everybody healthy, I think we can have a fantastic year."
With a 6 p.m. CT game slated for Saturday, the Golden Eagles will face off against an American Athletic Conference member for the first time in the league's brief history.
Tennessee Tech (0-0) at South Florida (0-0)
Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013
6 p.m. CT
Sun Dome (10,000) - Tampa, Fla.
Radio: 106.1 The Eagle (Kevin Bostian)
Setting the Stage
Tech will hit the road for to begin the year, the first time the Golden Eagles have opened a season away from Cookeville since the 2011-12 campaign. The season opener that year was also in southern Florida as Tech took on Miami in a tight, 69-58 loss.
The trip to Tampa will mark the third contest against the Bulls in team history, and the first since 1975 (back when USF was known as the Golden Brahman). And if history has anything to say about Saturday's game, this one will be a nail-biter as the two contests between these teams have been decided by a total of seven points.
The Bulls are looking to bounce back after a down season in it's final year as a member of the Big East. USF finished the 2012-13 campaign 12-19 overall, with a tough 3-15 mark in league play. South Florida returns Victor Rudd Jr., the team's leading scorer from last season. The senior averaged 10.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
There are plenty of new faces expected to make their Golden Eagle debuts over the weekend. For starters, multiple guards will look to make an impact right off the bat. JUCO transfers Ty Allen, Kevin Eaglin, and Jordan Johnson all bring something different to the table. Allen was a 20-point scorer at Lamar State College-Port Arthur last season, ranking 12th in the nation with his ability to get to the basket and create shots.
Johnson led the NJCAA in 3-pointers made in 2012-13, dropping 122 for East Georgia State College on his way to averaging 19.2 points per contest. He ranked seventh in the nation in 3-point percentage, connecting on a staggering 48.2 percent of his attempts. Eaglin, who did not play basketball in 2012-13, last played for Anne Arundel C.C. in 2011-12. He was a NJCAA Division III All-American, averaging 20.2 points per game.
"We had to have to scoring," explained Payne. "We struggled to shoot the ball last year. We have two junior college guards in Ty Allen and Jordan Johnson. They're different, but they both have an ability to score the basketball. I don't know that either of them have quite gotten comfortable here yet, but it will come.
"Ty has certainly showed some flashes of putting up some numbers in our scrimmages," said Payne, "and Jordan, you have to make shoot it right now, but I think he has a chance to have some big games offensively. We need it from them. And they're both getting better defensively every day."
Also expected to impact the team with guard play are freshman Shirmane Thomas, redshirt freshman DeOndre Haynes, and redshirt sophomore Josiah Moore. Haynes, a top-150 recruit in 2012, returns to the Tech lineup after suffering a season-ending foot injury in his rookie season. The Calera, Ala. native played in two contests before finally being shutdown in December of last year due to the injury.
Moore sat out the 2012-13 season due to NCAA transfer rules after coming to Tech from the University of Nebraska. Thomas, a true freshman, is expected to play a role as a point guard after graduating from Prime Prep Academy.
"Shirmane Thomas is a high school kid we brought in who we thought could play a lot right away," said Payne. "He hasn't disappointed us. I think he's going to have a fantastic career here. He's a point guard for us. He's big, he's long and he competes hard. He makes freshman mistakes still and we have to live with those for now as he grows and gets better for conference play."
In the front court, the Golden Eagles have added some size with additions of JUCO transfers Ladon Carter and Dwan Caldwell, and freshman Mason Ramsey. Carter, a 6-6, 224-pound forward who displayed his unique athleticism at Tech's annual Purple Palooza in October, winning the dunk contest and lighting up the highlight reel with impressive dunks in the scrimmage.
"Inside we've added some size," Payne explained. "We had three returners we felt pretty good about, but we added Ladon Carter who is a great athlete. He's learning to play physical and hard every day and stretch his minutes of physical play. He's got a good basketball IQ. There are some things he doesn't do great, but when he's right and playing hard and getting on the glass and making steals and deflections, he makes a big impact on our game. We just have to stretch those moments with him and get him to be more consistent."
Caldwell will look to make an imediate impact in the frontcourt as the team's primary big man. Standing at 6-8, 245 pounds, the center brings great leadership to the table after transfering from Antelope Valley College.
"Dwan Caldwell has been injured for two weeks so I haven't seen much of him since our scrimmage at Little Rock," said Payne. "I think when healthy, he'll be a go-to guy in the post for us. I think he'll produce points for us around the basket with his body and size and hands. But we've got to get him healthy. He's a good leader and good worker and we're looking for him to make a big impact on our team."
Ramsey is a true freshman from Livingston Academy who can scrap in the post as well as jump outside and hit the 3-pointer. He earned Region 4-AA MVP all four years at LA while leading his team to three state tournament appearances.
Seven players from last season's squad return for another go at it, including starting point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas. An Ohio Valley Conference all-newcomer honoree in 2012-13, Samarrippas led the Golden Eagles in both assists and steals in his first season after transferring from SMU. The senior also ranked third on the team in scoring, averaging 9.5 points per game.
"Jeremiah being healthy is a key," explained Payne. "He's a different level guy when he's healthy. He played all last year with injuries and after the Christmas break, he never was healthy. As coaches we've got to do a better job of keeping him fresh and in a healthy state."
Just missing out on all-OVC honors, senior Dennis Ogbe returns to the Tech front court, poised to improve upon his already solid numbers from last season. A native of Munich, Germany, he averaged 10.8 points per game while grabbing 5.4 rebounds and blocking 1.0 shots per contest. A natural leader on the court, the forward has also excelled in the classroom, leading to his candidacy for the Senior Class Award and his earning the 2013 OVC Scholar-Athlete Award.
Also back in the post for the Golden Eagles is sophomore Anthony Morse, a 6-9 forward with a knack for blocking shots. Morse led the team and finished seventh in the OVC with 1.1 blocks per contest.
Junior Javon McKay will provide great defensive skills for the Golden Eagles in 2013-14 and will look to get back to his freshman season when he played a bigger role in the offense.
"Javon McKay had a tough sophomore year offensively," said Payne. "He did not play as well offensively as we though he would. I think he'll have a better junior year. As a freshman, he showed flashes on a good team and we think he'll get back to that. He's really been playing well."
Adding more depth will be senior forward Matt Marseille. The forward will look to provide sound rebounding skills and a solid in-and-out shooting game for the Golden Eagles, all while trying to stay on the floor while continuing to recover from knee injury.
"And the same goes for Matt Marseille," added Payne while talking about keeping players healthy. "On last year's team when Matt was healthy, we played well. When you look back, our best games were when Matt was healthy. He gave us another scorer and rebounder and toughness."