By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The first of week of official practice is in the books for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball time, kicking the 2018-19 campaign off with a mass of new faces set to don the purple and gold and take to the court of the Eblen Center this season.
A seasoned veteran of the Golden Eagles, now entering his eighth season as the head man of the Tech squad, Steve Payne acknowledged that the excitement is as high as it ever has been.
"I don't care how many years you coach, that first practice, first week of practice really, is just like Christmas Day," Payne expressed. "You're just excited and looking forward to it. I know the guys always are and the coaches are. They put forth a good effort. With only three guys who actually played in a game for us back and healthy and practicing right now, we're having to teach everything."
Tech fans will have some learning to do when it comes to the 2018-19 edition of the Golden Eagles, a roster that features 11 newcomers and returns just one starter from a season ago.
"It is a very new group," Payne explained. "They are working really hard and there is talent there, no doubt about it. There are some really good pieces that will be in Tennessee Tech gear this year. It's just going to be a work-in-progress. It will be about how fast we learn our offense, how fast we can read the defense and how fast we can learn the fundamentals of our defensive system. That will determine how quick of a start we get out of the gate."
A quick start won't come without a healthy challenge. The Golden Eagles boast a tough non-conference slate, beginning with a Nov. 6 match-up at Memphis in the season-opener. It will end with the third of three contests against preseason top-10 competition, a Dec. 29 bout at Tennessee.
"We'll get there," Payne said. "They're good kids. They're smart kids. They're tough kids. Obviously, it's not like when you have five or six seniors. This is a class of seven freshman. Even our veterans are new. It's a little slower and there's a lot more teaching, but we're already balancing that with a very competitive spirit, physicality and playing really hard. That part has been new for everybody, because it's not often you have this many new guys. I kind of feel like I'm a junior college coach again with a whole new team. Those are things we are prepared for and we will just focus on getting a little better every day and building with constant improvement."
Leadership from the few veterans that will return from last seasons' squad will be a key factor in the team's early development.
"We expect Courtney Alexander II, Micaiah Henry, and Corey Tillery to be guys that lead the way with what we're doing, understanding communication and what we're about," Payne explained. "They've done a good job of that so far and everyone has already bought in to who we are. Guys like Chris McNeal and Malik Martin are very good players and have a responsibility to have a voice of 'this is who we are' and then back that up. They've done a good job of that too. It gets harder as you go. Johnnie Vassar is another one of those guys that is learning our system. He wasn't here the whole summer, so it's been new to him.
"Everyone has a done a good job, but the veteran guys, the older guys are the ones that have to say 'this is what you have to do.' Without that, any team is in trouble. I have been pleased with their mentality, their work ethic, sometimes not their understanding, but their willingness to learn has been great. Those are good signs for our team."
One player who can fit both categories of veteran and newcomer is redshirt freshman Hunter Vick. The Camden, Tenn. native missed the entire 2017-18 season due to injury, so just having the opportunity to be out on the court and healthy again has been a breath of fresh air for the guard.
"We started practice on Tuesday and so far I think we're looking good," Vick replied when asked about his thoughts on the first week of practice. "We don't have too many returners, but we have a few transfers that are going to help out. We have a lot of steps to build on, but our potential is high this year. I have very high hopes for this team."
Vick's time as redshirt was a humbling experience, but one he hopes to draw from moving forward.
"Being out as a redshirt is tough, but I think it will end up being the best thing that's happened to me," Vick explained. "Being able to come back with full health, playing good and feeling good, I'm just really excited about what I can do for the team this year.
"We want to come out here every day, give each other our best effort and just take it step-by-step. With this young team, we can't look too far. We just need to take it day-by-day."
Season tickets for Tennessee Tech basketball are on sale now. Call (931) 372-3940, visit the Hooper Eblen Center ticket office, or log on to TTUsports.com to order yours today.
Photo by Thomas Corhern