By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team will wrap up a three-game home stand in Ohio Valley Conference play with a nationally televised contest Thursday night, hosting in-state rival Tennessee State on ESPNU in a 6:00 p.m. CT tilt in the Eblen Center.
Tech edged the Tigers already once this season, holding on for a 66-64 victory in Nashville in the conference opener. Jr. Clay led Tech with a season-high 23 points in the game while Malik Martin and Corey Tillery each added 10 points.
Tennessee Tech (6-11, 2-2) vs. Tennessee State (4-12, 1-3)
Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019
6:00 p.m. CT
Eblen Center (7,500) – Cookeville, Tenn.
This marks the 68th meeting all-time between the two programs, with Tech owning a 35-32 lead in the series. Not the oldest rivalry, the two teams have made up for lost time with more than 65 match-ups since the first contest on Feb. 4, 1980.
The Golden Eagles are 18-14 all-time against the Tigers in the Eblen Center, having won two of the past three contests in Cookeville.
Last year, Tech swept the two-game season series for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign. After outlasting the Tigers in overtime, 87-81 in early January, the Golden Eagles returned to Cookeville to defeat TSU 69-64 in late February.
Curtis Phillips Jr. and Shaq Calhoun were the heroes for Tech in the overtime victory, scoring 28 and 23 points, respectively. Phillips Jr. played 43 total minutes while hitting 5-of-8 attempts from deep. Calhoun drained 6-of-12 tries from 3-point range, including the game-tying shot with 11 seconds left in regulation.
In the contest in Cookeville, it was Calhoun who once again caught fire from 3-point range, hitting 5-of-8 tries on his way to a game-high 21 points. Phillips posted a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, chipping in five assists and three steals. Mason Ramsey also tallied double figures with 11 points.
Redshirt freshman Hunter Vick turned in yet another, stellar showing in Tech's loss to Eastern Illinois, finishing with a game-high 20 points. It marked the rookie's fifth 20-point performance of the season, the second-most by a freshman in program history. Only Earl Wise accomplished the feat more, racking up an astonishing 12 such games in 1986-87.
Corey Tillery joined his teammate in double figures, sinking four triples and a free throw on his way to 13 points. Courtney Alexander filled up the stat sheet with five points and team-highs of nine rebounds, five assists, two blocks and three steals.
With 11 points against SIUE, Jr. Clay has now recorded 12 double-digit scoring efforts this season. He is on pace to finish with 22 such games this year, a mark that would rank second all-time among Golden Eagle freshmen behind only Earl Wise's 25 in 1986-87. Only three Tech rookies have reached the 20 double-digit performance plateau; Wise with 25, Stephen Kite with 21 (1982-83) and Anthony Avery with 20 (1985-86). Rounding out the top-five is Pete Abuls with 19 (1978-79) and Marc Burnett with 17 (1977-78).
Junior big man Micaiah Henry leads the OVC in field goal percentage with at least five attempts per game, hitting 67.0 percent of his shots from the floor. He also ranks in the top-15 nationally. His current mark is within spitting distance of the highest in school history for a single season, just trailing Greg Morgan's 67.1 percent clip during the 2001-02 campaign.
Freshmen Jr. Clay and Hunter Vick are both on pace to become the first Tech rookies to average double figures in scoring since Bruce Oglesby averaged 11.5 points per game in 1990-91. They would represent the first Golden Eagle teammates to average double figures as freshmen since Pete Abuls (13.3) and Paul Chadwell (11.6) during the 1978-79 campaign. Clay's current scoring average of 12.4 points per game ranks as the fourth best in program history among freshmen.
The 2018-19 schedule has proven one of the most daunting for the Golden Eagles in program history. Preseason rankings placed it as the first season in team history where the Golden Eagles faced three preseason top-10 teams. (No. 6 Tennessee, No. 8 North Carolina and No. 10 Michigan State).
Those teams were ranked as follows when Tech made its visit during the non-conference slate: No. 3 Tennessee, No. 7 North Carolina and No. 11 Michigan State.
Tech faced three different top-15 teams just one other time in school history, back in 1993-94. Then head coach Frank Harrell's squad took on No. 1 Kentucky, No. 12 Indiana and No. 14 UConn throughout the season.
Tech was predicted to finish fifth overall in the 2019 OVC race in voting by the league's head coaches and SIDs.
The 2018-19 Tech roster features 17 players (13 scholarship student-athletes) representing five states.
Ten Golden Eagle players hail from the state Tennessee, while Georgia boasts a total of three Tech players. Florida represents home to two Golden Eagles while both Alabama and Illinois are represented by one Tech player each.
Tech has two graduate students, two seniors, four juniors, one sophomore, one redshirt freshman and seven true freshmen.
Ten Golden Eagles stand 6-foot-5 or taller while the other seven measure in at 6-foot-4 or shorter.
A whopping 11 members are new to the Tech squad for 2018-19, including Spencer Chandler, Jr. Clay, Garrett Golday, Malik Martin, Chris McNeal, Caden Mills, Chase Ridenour, Jared Sherfield, Tyler Thompson, Johnnie Vassar and Reece Wilkinson.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Last year, the Golden Eagles returned 71.0 percent of their scoring. This season, things look a little different for the purple and gold. Just 19.4 percent of Tech's points will return in 2018-19.
In 2017-18, seven of TTU's top eight scorers returned to help lead the team to 19 wins. This season, the Golden Eagles have lost their top five scorers from last year, all of which averaged double figures.
Senior Courtney Alexander II represents the top returner at 6.8 points per game.
Tech represents the only OVC team in the league not returning at least one of its top five scorers from a season ago.
Alexander also marks the only returning starter from 2017-18, making 32 starts in 33 games. He led the team in both rebounds and blocks last season.
Tennessee State is the only other team in the OVC returning just one starter from last season. The team also hired a new head coach in the offseason.
Tech's five returning players who saw action in 2017-18 ranks the Golden Eagles as the second-lowest in the league behind Southeast Missouri's four. Belmont also returns just five players from last year.
Overall, the Golden Eagles return just 27.1 percent of their total minutes played from 2017-18, the 12th lowest percentage in the nation. Of Tech's opponents in 2018-19, only Chattanooga returns less (15.2 percent).
Photo by Tony Marable