By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – With the 2013-14 men's basketball season creeping closer and closer, it's time to take a look at what the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles have waiting in the wings for the upcoming year.
Highlighted by a trip to Southeastern Conference power Tennessee, the 2013-14 schedule has a lot of tests early and often for the Golden Eagles, and that's all before Ohio Valley Conference play begins.
"We've always played one of the more challenging schedules in our league," said head coach Steve Payne, "and that's the case again this year."
Kicking off the season is a Nov. 9 trip to Tampa Bay, Fla., to face South Florida, a member of the newly formed American Athletic Conference. Over the past eight years, the Bulls have toiled against some of the best competition in college basketball, consistently facing off against perennial national powers such as Syracuse, Georgetown, Connecticut, Marquette, and last year's national champion, Louisville.
"Opening up at South Florida will be a tough first test," explained Payne. "Coach Stan Heath, who used to be at Arkansas, has done a great job there and has a lot of talented players, NBA-caliber players. We're excited about that opening game and what it can do for us early in the year."
Tech returns on Tuesday, Nov. 12 for its home opener against Loyola Chicago. The Golden Eagles and Ramblers played a nailbiter in Chicago last season, as Lanerryl Johnson's desperation three-pointer at the buzzer banged off the rim and Loyola held on for a three-point victory.
Missing from last year's schedule was a noteworthy tournament, something all players and coaches enjoy participating in, as tourney play can help teams prepare for the conference tournament later in the year what with the short breaks and consistent competition. This season, the Golden Eagles will head west to participate in the Holiday Inn Islanders Classic, hosted by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
"We're really excited about our multi-team event at Corpus Christi early in the season," said Payne. "We're facing a really good field with three solid mid-major programs that are looking to have great years. I feel like that will give us a good feel for where we are in the early stages of the season."
Set to begin on Nov. 15, the four-game competition consists of three games at the tournament location as well as a home contest for the Golden Eagles. First on the list of opponents for Tech is Texas-Pan American, a team that brings in a new head coach in the form of former Alabama assistant Dan Hipsher.
Nov. 16 marks a match-up against host Texas A&M-Corpus Christi followed by a Nov. 17 contest against IPFW. While the game against IPFW will be first in program history, the Golden Eagles also haven't faced the two Texas-based programs since the 1972-73 season. The Golden Eagles return home for the final game of the Holiday Inn Islanders Classic, hosting Indiana-Kokomo on Thursday, Nov. 21.
The match-up against Kokomo marks the first of a four-game homestand for the Golden Eagles. Milwaukee returns last season's contest with a trip to the Eblen Center on Saturday, Nov. 23, followed by an in-state rivalry game against East Tennessee State on Nov. 26. Tech picked up wins against both the Panthers and Bucs last season, hitting the road for both contests relatively early in the year.
Closing out the homestand is the first-half of a home-and-home with the Utah Valley Wolverines, hailing from Orem, Utah. The Wolverines played against two of the same opponents as the Golden Eagles just a year ago, winning contests over both Austin Peay (84-77) and UMKC (78-66). Tech also defeated both teams last season, leading up to what is sure to be an evenly matched contest on Saturday, Nov. 30.
"We have started a series this year with Utah Valley, a home-and-home," said Payne. "Dick Hunsaker, who is a former assistant of Rick Majerus, has been there for awhile and has a good team. They've been to Tennessee several times and played many teams from the area."
On Dec. 5 Tech will begin a grueling road stretch, which includes six-of-seven games away from Cookeville, in Nashville with a rematch from last season's contest at Lipscomb. The Bisons pulled away late from the Golden Eagles last year, finishing with a 16-point win that was closer than the final score indicated.
Following the trip to Nashville is a Dec. 7 trip to Knoxville as Tech plays its marquee match-up of the season against a Tennessee team already being predicted as a top 25 pick for the upcoming year. The contest against the Vols marks the first since 2006-07 and comes against a squad known for being tough, fast, and athletic. Tennessee fell just four times at home last season, boasting an impressive 13-4 mark at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"We're excited about our contest against Tennessee," explained Payne, "a game that we think will be a great opportunity for us to play against one of the best teams in the country and close to home where our fans can make it out and support the Golden Eagles.
"I think by the time finals rolls around, we'll have a good idea of what direction we are headed and what kind of team we're going to have," Payne added. "We'll continue to improve throughout the year. We have some new faces that are going to help, but I feel the schedule provides many early-season tests that will showcase our abilities."
Tech will get a week of rest before returning to the state of Texas for a road contest against Lamar on Dec. 15. The road contest marks the first of three games in six days for the Golden Eagles. Game No. 2 is a road contest against the Green Bay Phoenix in Wisconsin on Dec. 17. Tech won a thrilling contest over the Phoenix a year ago, holding projected first-round draft pick Alec Brown to just six points and four rebounds. The Golden Eagles will return home for the final contest of the tight grouping, hosting Hillsdale (Okla.) at the Eblen Center on Thursday, Dec. 19.
Closing out the 2013 year is the second-half of the home-and-home with Utah Valley as Tech will travel to the Beehive State on Dec. 28 for the first time since a trip to Brigham Young in 1991-92. The contest also marks the final non-conference opponent the Golden Eagles will face in the regular season.
As soon as 2014 hits, the Golden Eagles will also hit their OVC schedule running, facing off against in-state rival Tennessee State on Jan. 2 followed by a Jan. 4 trip to reigning OVC champion Belmont.
"The conference lost a good senior class," Payne said, "but just like when the OVC lost Kenneth Faried and Kevin Murphy, there's another group of seniors waiting in the weeds, ready to perform at an elite level and continue a strong tradition of NBA-caliber play.
"We've had such a good run of NBA caliber players in the OVC as of late," added Payne. "The conference has never been stronger in its history. With the number of games won in the NCAA tournament and number of players on NBA rosters over the last few years, there has been a steady incline in the caliber of this league."
Jan. 9 and 11 will see teams from the Land of Lincoln making a trip south to Cookeville as Eastern Illinois and SIUE will face Tech for the only time of the season. The Golden Eagles will play one more home contest, on Jan. 18 against Southeast Missouri, before hitting the road for a weekend schedule against perennial power Murray State (Jan. 23) and in-state foe Austin Peay (Jan. 25).
"Southeast Missouri is going to be one of more talented teams at the mid-major level with the transfers they picked up this summer," explained Payne. "You never look past the programs like Belmont and Murray State, who are able to reload every season and stay competitive year-in and year-out."
Both Tennessee State and Belmont will make their way to the Eblen Center for Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 match-ups, respectively. Feb. 8 marks a single-game weekend as Tech travels to Alabama to take on Jacksonville State. The Golden Eagles return home for back-to-back contests against Kentucky schools as Eastern Kentucky (Feb. 13) and Morehead State (Feb. 15) travel to Cookeville.
"Just in the east, Morehead State is going to be very talented," said Payne. "Obviously Eastern Kentucky is going to be one of the favorites with the number of guys they have back from a 26-win team. Jacksonville State has a couple of guys back and will be competitive as always. Tennessee State is kind of where we were last year. They have a couple of pieces back and some good players coming in."
Tech wraps up the 2013-14 regular season playing three of its final four games on the road, including a Feb. 20 trip to UT Martin. The Golden Eagles close out the home portion of the schedule on Feb. 22 against Jacksonville State before hitting the road north toward the Bluegrass State to take on Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State.
"It's just a good basketball league from top to bottom," said Payne. "There are no easy nights when you play in the OVC. And when you look around, it's not changing. It's not getting any easier. It's going to be a challenging schedule, but we feel we can be competitive in this conference. This is a man's league. If you can get into the NCAA tournament out of the OVC, you're going to be a tough match-up for whoever you end up playing."