By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team will hit the dirt to kick start a three-game road swing, beginning with a trip to Ohio Valley Conference rival Jacksonville State. The two teams are slated to tip at 7:00 p.m. CT Saturday evening at Pete Mathews Coliseum.
Tennessee Tech (6-12, 2-3) at Jacksonville State (13-5, 5-0)
Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019
7:00 p.m. CT
Pete Mathews Coliseum (3,500) – Jacksonville, Ala.
Radio: 106.1 The Eagle (Roger Ealey)
This marks the 36th meeting all-time between the two programs, with Tech owning a 21-15 lead in the series. The Golden Eagles are 8-8 against the Gamecocks when playing in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville State swept the season series against Tech last year, winning three contests in Jacksonville, Cookeville and Evansville. TTU's last victory in the series came in an overtime thriller in 2016-17, a 79-78 decision in Jacksonville.
In last season's tilt in Jacksonville, the Gamecocks earned an 82-65 victory behind a defensive effort that held Tech to 35.5 percent shooting. TTU forward Curtis Phillips Jr. led all scorers with 28 points and Courtney Alexander II snagged a team-high 12 rebounds, but only six Golden Eagles would score in the contest.
In Cookeville, the Tech defense held JSU to just 38.3 percent shooting, but the Gamecocks held the Golden Eagles to just 31.1 percent from the field. Three Tech players ended in double figures, led by 16 points from Kajon Mack. Jacksonville State won the contest, 66-57.
The two rivals squared off one more time in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in Evansville on March 1, a contest won by the Gamecocks 73-70. Tech shot an improved 43.6 percent from the floor, but JSU got hot, hitting 55.6 percent of its attempts from the field. Once again, Kajon Mack led Tech with 16 points.
Junior Corey Tillery was the lead man for Tech in the rematch against TSU, scoring a game-high 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting. The sharpshooter sank 6-of-10 tries from beyond the arc.
Malik Martin and Johnnie Vassar each added double figures to the stat sheet. Martin finished with 12 points, five of which came at the charity stripe. Vassar notched 10 points off the bench in just 10 minutes of action.
After rejecting four shots against the Tigers, junior big man Micaiah Henry moved into sixth place on Tech's all-time career records list for blocks with 93. He needs just six to pass Bassey Inameti (2007-12) and move into fifth place. He requires seven to become just the fifth player in program history to block at least 100 shots in his career.
Henry leads the OVC in field goal percentage with at least five attempts per game, hitting 66.7 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.
With 11 points against SIUE, Jr. Clay has now recorded 12 double-digit scoring efforts this season. He is on pace to finish with 21 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).
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