By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team stays in the comfort of the Eblen Center Saturday evening, hosting long time Ohio Valley Conference rival Murray State at 7:30 p.m. CT on Jan. 7.
Tennessee Tech (6-11, 2-0) vs. Murray State (8-8, 2-0)
Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017
7:30 p.m. CT
Eblen Center – Cookeville, Tenn.
ABOUT MURRAY STATE
Murray State is in its second season under the direction of head coach Matt McMahon.
The Racers return just four letterwinners from last year's squad, including three starters, which finished tied for first in the OVC West Division.
Murray State was picked to win the OVC West Division this season in both the league's preseason poll and the media poll.
The Racers own an 8-8 record in 2016-17, with victories at home over Illinois State, Alabama A&M, Detroit, Bethel, Brescia and Tennessee State, on the road against Jacksonville State, and at a neutral site against Green Bay.
Murray State's losses have come at home against Wright State, on the road at Middle Tennessee, Bowling Green, Southern Illinois, Evansville, Ole Miss and South Dakota State, and at a neutral site against UMKC.
The Racers boast the conference's leading scorer in junior transfer Jonathan Stark, who is averaging a team-high 21.1 points per game. He also leads the team with 5.4 assists per game, 1.6 steals per game, and a 44.3 percent shooting touch from beyond the arc.
The team's leading rebounder with 7.3 boards per game, Terrell Miller ranks second on the squad averaging 14.6 points per game.
Also posting double figures for the Murray State squad are Bryce Jones, averaging 12.8 points, and Damarcus Croaker, averaging 10.4 points per game. Jones represents the team's best free throw shooter, sinking 88.8 percent of his attempts this season.
The Racers own the second most potent scoring offense in the OVC, averaging 80.9 points per game. They lead the league in offensive rebounding as well.
This will mark the 180th meeting in the all-time series between Tech and Murray State, with the Racers owning a definite advantage of 130-49.
Last season, the Golden Eagles snapped a six-game losing streak to the Racers, picking up just their ninth victory in Murray in program history.
Tech snapped a 17-game conference win streak and 17-game home win streak in league play by the Racers with a 71-65 victory, the Golden Eagles' first at Murray since the 2004-05 campaign.
Torrance Rowe led the way offensively for Tech, scoring a game-high 25 points while setting a TTU program record by finishing 15-of-15 from the free throw line.
As a team, the Golden Eagles finished a staggering 34-for-39 from the charity stripe.
Despite last season's victory by Tech, Murray State has won 11 of the past 13 contests between the two OVC foes, including the last five in Cookeville.
GIVE ME SOME SUGAR
Junior guard Aleksa Jugovic returns from his award-winning and breakout sophomore campaign in which he jumped from averages of 5.8 points and 2.0 assists per game as a freshman to 12.1 points and 2.9 assists as a junior.
The slick shooter also knocked down 40 more treys while increasing his accuracy from deep by nearly eight percent.
Fans can follow Jugovic on Twitter under his handle/nickname @SerbianSugar. The moniker, originally developed by Director of Basketball Operations Gus Fraley, was created to help acclimate the Serbia native to the fans of Golden Eagle basketball.
Between his junior and senior years in high school, Jugovic starred for the Serbian U-18 national team, starting at point guard at the 2013 FIBA Europe U-18 Championships. He averaged a team-high 30.2 minutes while recording 8.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
Jugovic also earned a place on this year's Preseason All-OVC Team after ranking in the top-five in 3-point shooting last season. In league play, the junior was red hot, leading the OVC by hitting at a 50 percent clip.
Additionally, Jugovic ranked third in the OVC in free throw shooting in 2015-16, converting on 86.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe.
The junior had an up-and-down start to the 2016-17 season, but has seemed to find his stroke from beyond the arc again. He leads the team in scoring with 17.4 points per game and has dropped at least 20 points seven times, including his last time out against Lipscomb, in which he finished 6-for-11 from deep and totaled 24 points.
Jugovic finished 5-for-5 from the charity stripe against Furman, extending his streak to 22 consecutive made free throws on the year, just eight behind the program record.
For the third time in his career, Jugovic knocked down seven 3-pointers in a contest, sinking 7-of-11 attempts at Lipscomb on his way to tying his career-high with 30 points.
In the contest he broke the program record for consecutive 3-pointers, sinking all seven of his triples in-a-row.
Jugovic has knocked down at least one 3-pointer in 13 of his last 14 contests and in all but two of the team's 16 games this season.
Mack joins Tech with one year of eligibility remaining, but is likely to be granted a sixth year by the NCAA after missing two seasons due to injury while at Tulane.
The combo guard has displayed the kind of skill set that could make him a dominant player in OVC this season, throwing down thunderous dunks, making fantastic reads and passes and playing stout defense in Tech's scrimmages.
Phillips Jr. sat out the first semester of the season after transferring from Campbell last December. The junior also sat out and made his Golden Eagle debut at Michigan State on Dec. 10.
Phillips Jr. possesses a lot of potential as a wing, averaging over eight points and four rebounds per game while at Campbell.
After earning Big South All-Freshman Team honors in 2014-15, the forward made seven starts and played in eight contests for Campbell as a sophomore before mutually agreeing to part ways with the program.
THAT MACK ATTACK
Expected to fill a leadership role the instant of his arrival, Tulane transfer Kajon Mack has done just that and more.
Handling primary point guard duties (while shifting to a combo guard role depending on rotations) Mack has been a stat stuffer across the board.
The Los Angeles native has scored in double figures 11 times. He leads the team with 21 steals and is averaging 11.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Mack opened OVC play on a high note, dropping a career-high 22 points with a 4-for-6 showing from 3-point range and 6-for-6 performance at the charity stripe, along with a team-high seven rebounds.
He followed that up with a 16-point showing in victory over Austin Peay, sparking a 12-point Tech comeback with tenacious defense and a relentless attack at the rim.
EARNING A SPOT
A walk-on to the Tech roster back during the 2013-14 season, Mason Ramsey has done plenty to earn the respect of his teammates and coaches in his three seasons in the purple and gold.
The local Livingston, Tenn. native was awarded a scholarship by Steve Payne following the 2014-15 season, Ramsey's first year of action on the court in Eblen Center.
After redshirting in 2013-14, Ramsey became the first Tech freshman since 1986-87 to open his career with a double-double, posting 14 points and 14 rebounds.
Coach Payne had great things to say about Ramsey's leadership qualities over the summer:
"Mason is great at leading by example, communicating, helping others, and making others better. He is doing several of the things we need done, especially by an upper classman after losing three seniors."
After failing to score in the season opener at Georgia Tech, Ramsey has opened up offensively, ranking fourth on the team with 8.1 points per game and serving as the team's most consistent scoring threat in the paint.
In his first season of action, sophomore Savonte Frazier made the most of his opportunities, showing flashes of brilliance in limited action at the point guard position in 2015-16.
Now in his third season in Cookeville (he redshirted the 2014-15 season), Coach Payne expects Frazier to develop into one of Tech's floor generals and team leaders.
The point guard is arguably the most vocal player on the Golden Eagle roster and does a great job of inspiring teammates and helping correct problems in the moment.
Frazier has the ability to get into the paint and create shots not just for himself, but everyone around him. He is also a capable 3-point shooter and tenacious defender expected to make strides in 2016-17.
He led Tech with a career-high seven rebounds and six assists while also notching a personal-best 14 points in the team's victory over Alabama A&M.
The point guard has flirted with triple-double numbers two more times this season, posting six points, six boards and seven assists against Hiwassee College and seven points, six rebounds and a career-high nine dimes against Crowley's Ridge.
Frazier provided 20 huge minutes off the bench at Tennessee, helping Tech nearly erase a 22-point deficit by hitting 4-of-5 shots and 3-of-4 free throws for 11 points while dishing out six assists.
One of four JUCO transfers on the team, Hakeem Rogers became the first Tech player to hit four 3-pointers in his Golden Eagle debut in over 15 years, scoring 18 points in last season's victory over Piedmont College.
Rogers proved to be one of Tech's most valuable scoring options as a junior, coming off the bench to average 9.9 points and hit at 40.1 percent from 3-point range in just 18.3 minutes per game.
Rogers represents one of Tech's best offensive players in transition, possessing an ability to pull up from three, take it to the hole or distribute it to others, all while maintaining downhill speed.
After averaging just 3.5 points through the team's first six contests, including two scoreless performances, Rogers has finally found the same form that allowed him to be such a successful weapon off the bench a season ago.
He has scored at least nine points in nine of the past 10 contests.
Against Crowley's Ridge, he tied the school record for 3-pointers in a game, finishing 8-for-13 from downtown while tallying a career-high 28 points and four steals.
Courtney Alexander II has one of the best role models in which to model his game after that a freshman collegiate player can have. And he lives in the same house.
His father, Courtney Alexander Sr., was the 13th overall selection by the Orlando Magic in the 2000 NBA Draft.
Courtney Sr. went on to play three seasons in the Association, including stints with Dallas, Washington and New Orleans.
He led the NCAA in scoring, averaging 24.8 points as a senior at Fresno State.
Alexander II changed the hand he shoots with for the second time in his young career. As a prep player, the forward shot primarily with his left hand, making the switch to his right during his senior season. The rookie began the transition back to his left hand last October.
The forward hauled in a season-high 10 rebounds at Michigan State, despite being limited to 22 minutes due to foul trouble.
THE WAIT IS OVER
After sitting out the past two semesters due to NCAA rules after transferring from Campbell, Curtis Phillips Jr. made his Golden Eagle debut at Michigan State.
The junior came off the bench for 26 big minutes and scoring nine points on 4-for-6 shooting. He also grabbed three rebounds, dished out an assist and posted one steal.
In his home debut, Phillips Jr. enjoyed a strong showing from the field, finishing 5-for-6 while scoring a season-high 13 points. He also tallied three steals. He tied that mark with 13 more points against Furman.
He ranks fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 7.1 points per game while shooting 45 percent from the field. The wing is also averaging 3.1 rebounds.
After spending the 2015-16 season building his strength and size and working on his low post moves as a redshirt, Micaiah Henry looks poised to move into a starting role right away for the Golden Eagles.
He also comes from some familiar territory to the Golden Eagle program, hailing from Columbia High School (Ga.).
TTU legend Lorenzo Coleman, Tech's all-time leader in blocked shots also attended Columbia High School. The post also posted the most double-doubles in program history with 40 in four years.
In the season opener at Georgia Tech, Henry scored a team-high 15 points, the most by a Tech freshman since Anthony Fisher score 15 at Ole Miss on Nov. 19, 2004.
Henry's 15-point debut featured a 7-for-10 showing from the field, representing the most field goals made by a Golden Eagle freshman in their debut since Jason Harrell went 7-for-16 at South Carolina on Nov. 17, 2000 and the most without a 3-pointer since Carlos Carter finished 8-for-11 against Clinch Valley College on Dec. 1, 1992.
PUTTING IN THE WORK
Junior Markell Henderson didn't see large chunks of minutes in his first season in the purple and gold last year, but that is sure to change in 2016-17.
Over the summer, Henderson worked hard on improving his 3-point shooting touch and the hard work seems to have paid off. The junior guard is expected to provide another lethal option from beyond the arc for the Golden Eagles this season.
His rebounding abilities will be a huge asset for a team returning less than 40 percent of its rebounding from last season.
Henderson dropped a career-high 30 points on 11-for-15 shooting against Alabama A&M, including a 5-for-8 showing from the 3-point arc.
Four Golden Eagle players can all make the trip to Cookeville from their respective hometowns in under two hours.
Junior Mason Ramsey represents the closest to home, just a 20-minute ride from nearby Livingston, Tenn.
A walk-on freshman last season, sophomore Conner Hall lives just down the road, calling Gainesboro home.
New to the crew, freshman Miles Thomas played his high school ball at South Doyle High School in Chattanooga, Tenn., a two-hour trip from the Eblen Center.
The rookie will sit out the 2016-17 season as a redshirt after coming down with mono just before the start of the year.
Colton Blevins is another freshman from the area, hailing from Jamestown, Tenn. Blevins is a hard-nosed, physical presence in the paint. He posted the team's first double-double of the season against Crowley's Ridge with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
IT STARTS WITH A PHILOSOPHY
The Golden Eagle basketball team owns a philosophy that does not change from year-to-year.
Share the ball and play hard.
Be great defensively.
Know how we win. We win with great defense and an inside-out offense.
We win with high basketball IQ and low turnover totals.
This year's class also brings a special kind of chemistry and different energy level than previous teams.
The players approach everything with a willingness to learn and eagerness to get started and better every day.
JOINING THE RANKS
The Golden Eagles made just one addition for the 2017-18 season during the early signing period, but the coaching staff couldn't be more thrilled with the signee.
Joining Tech from Camden Central High School will be combo guard Hunter Vick.
In his three-year career at Camden, the guard has already scored 1,764 points in just 81 games, averaging 21.7 per game. He has also hauled in 430 rebounds, dished out 283 assists and racked up 202 steals.
His junior season totals proved staggering, as he averaged 26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.0 steals.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information