Game Notes (PDF)
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. - The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team has no easy task in front of it as it prepares the tip-off of the 2009-10 season. Tech will face off against No. 18 Minnesota on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m., the first of five games against 2009 NCAA tournament teams for the Golden Eagles. The game will be televised nationally on the Big Ten Network, and can be purchased online at BigTenNetwork.com for $2.99.
For Tennessee Tech head coach Mike Sutton, there will be a familiar face on the opposing bench. Sutton was an assistant for Golden Gopher head coach Tubby Smith from 1994-2002 at Tulane, Georgia and Kentucky.
"The opportunities I've had in this business, he is responsible for that," Sutton said. "I have learned a lot from him, and I continue to learn a lot from him."
In addition to facing Minnesota and Morehead State twice, Tech's opponents from last year's NCAA tournament include No. 1 Kansas (Nov. 27) and Memphis (Nov. 20).
"Our kids are excited about these opportunities," Sutton said. "It gives our guys the opportunity to play against high-level NBA draft prospects."
With eight letter-winners returning from a season ago, the Golden Eagles bring a host of experience and talent back to the court for the 2009-10 season, the eighth under Sutton. But Tech is still one of the youngest teams in the OVC with a bright future ahead.
Leading the way is a trio of seniors - Will Barnes, Frank Davis and Elijah Cunningham-Muhammad - who will anchor Tech's backcourt.
Barnes and Davis will each be playing their fourth year as a Golden Eagle, and have already left their mark on the program. Barnes has averaged 6.8 points-per-game throughout his career at Tech, including a career-high 9.8 ppg last season. He is 25th on Tech's all-time assists list with 163 helpers in his career, and is the Golden Eagles reigning offensive MVP. Davis is on pace to set Tech's career record in three-pointers made. With 163 entering the 2009-10 season he needs just 47 to tie the record of 210 held by Josh Heard. Davis made 76 three-pointers a season ago, and 67 as a sophomore in 2007-08.
Tech will also bring back junior Alfred Jones, and sophomores Kevin Murphy, Zach Bailey, Bassey Inameti and Riley Hunley. Murphy earned Ohio Valley Conference all-newcomer honors and Tech's Most Improved Player award last season, and is poised for an all-conference caliber season in 2009-10. Bailey was Tech's best defensive player as a freshman last season, and Inameti played in all 30 games, making seven starts in his freshman campaign.
The experienced upperclassmen will be joined by a talented group of newcomers. Tech's three incoming freshmen include Terrell Barnes and Jud Dillard, who were high school teammates at Riverdale High School in Riverdale, Ga. Nearby Livingston, Tenn., native Chase Dunn, an explosive scorer with all-around talent, and redshirt-freshman Charles Newton round out the freshman class.
Byron Pickens, a junior transfer from Mineral Area Community College in Missouri and junior Zac Swansey, a transfer from the University of Georgia are also new to the Golden Eagle squad. Swansey will sit out the 2009-10 season due to NCAA transfer rules before finishing his final two years of eligibility as a Golden Eagle.
"I like our kids, and I like our team," Tennessee Tech head coach Mike Sutton said. "We won't be as big, but I think we'll be a little more athletic, a little better handling the ball, and I think we'll be an exciting team to watch with the kind of young people that we have, so I'm really excited about this year's team."
The Golden Eagles were picked to finish seventh in the OVC by the league's head coaches and Sports Information Directors, but the team has higher expectations for itself.
"Each year you want to do your absolute best to win the conference," Sutton said. "To get a home game in the first round of the OVC tournament, which means you have to finish in the top four, that's one of the things that you set your sites on."
Tech's 18-game OVC schedule opens with a road game at Jacksonville State on Dec. 5, the only league game for the Golden Eagles until January. After hosting Bryan College on Dec. 20 and Union on Dec. 30, Tech resumes league action with a road trip to Southeast Missouri and Eastern Illinois, Jan. 2-4.
Tech's first OVC home game is Jan. 7 against Morehead State, who won the league tournament and represented the OVC in the NCAA Tournament. That game opens a crucial stretch where Tech plays six of eight OVC games at home. That homecourt edge will be as important as ever in the tough league race, according to Sutton.
"The league has continued to get stronger from top-to-bottom," Sutton said. "We want to be really tough at home, and try to steal some games on the road in a very competitive league. There are a lot of teams who return a lot of players and went deep into the conference tournament last year."
The league slate includes two games with UT Martin, a team which reached the post-season with a visit to the NIT. The Skyhawks are led by one of three new coaches in the OVC.
"There are three new coaches in the league, and I think you'll see some changes at those places," Sutton said. "The strength of our league will increase because there are a lot of teams who have the potential to finish in the top half of the league."
In addition to Tech's tough OVC schedule, the Golden Eagles will have maybe their most challenging non-conference schedule in two decades. Tech will begin the season with visits to Minnesota, Memphis and Kansas on the first three Friday's of the season.
"We've always had a good schedule, but this could be the toughest of all," Sutton said. "We have five very difficult games early in the schedule, including on the road at the No. 1 team in the country in Kansas and a couple of Top 10 or Top 20 teams in Memphis and Minnesota. Victories will be well-earned with this schedule as we could play really well and come up short against all of these teams, even at home."
Besides those top-notch opponents, the Golden Eagles will host Ball State and Evansville in Eblen Center, and late in the year face a road game against what could be another outstanding opponent in a Bracket Buster contest.
"Evansville and Ball State are two non-conference teams from high conferences," Sutton said. "It is by far the toughest schedule we've played here, and it's a challenge, but we're looking forward to the challenges."
As part of the Hall of Fame Showcase, Tech will play games at Memphis, Kansas and Central Arkansas, and host Oakland University.
"The Hall of Fame Showcase is a good thing because we get a home game out of the deal, but the problem is that home game is against an Oakland team which is really good," Sutton said. "They've got a lot of guys back, and they won 23 games last year. That makes the schedule even more challenging."
Tech opens the regular season on Friday, Nov. 13, at Big Ten foe Minnesota, coached by Sutton's friend and former mentor, Tubby Smith.
"It's the season opener, and it will be difficult," Sutton said. "Minnesota is extremely talented, they're coming off an NCAA tournament bid, and they're very excited about basketball up there. The game is already sold out, and they're good."
Tech is scheduled to participate once again in a Bracket Buster game on Feb. 20, but won't know its opponent until close to the event. After that, the Golden Eagles host Jacksonville State on Feb. 27 to close out the regular season.
The OVC Tournament is March 2-6, with the top eight teams playing in the first round and the four surviving squads advancing to the finals in Nashville.