By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team will officially kick off the 2018-19 season Tuesday evening, making a trip west to take on in-state Memphis for the first time since 2009. Tip is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. CT and will feature a match-up between the eighth-year head man of the Golden Eagles, Steve Payne, and the first-time head coach of the Tigers, Penny Hardaway.
Tennessee Tech (0-0) at Memphis (0-0)
Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018
7:00 p.m. CT
FedExForum (18,400) – Memphis, Tenn.
This will mark the 50th meeting between the two programs all-time, with Memphis owning a 26-23 advantage.
The two teams haven't met since 2009 and just three of the 49 contests between the two Tennessee schools have come since 1961.
Memphis has won the previous five games in the series, dating back to the 1959-60 campaign. Tech's last win came on Feb. 2, 1960, a 69-67 win in Cookeville.
Each team has been relatively dominant at home in the series. Memphis leads 20-7 in Memphis while the Golden Eagles hold the 16-8 advantage in Cookeville. Tech also owns a 1-0 lead in neutral site match-ups.
The last contest between the two schools came back on Nov. 20, 2009 as part of the Hall of Fame Showcase. Memphis defeated Tech, 92-59.
Then sophomore Kevin Murphy led the Golden Eagle scoring effort, dropping 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Jud Dillard added in 12 points off the bench.
TECH VERSUS THE AAC
The Golden Eagles are 26-38 all-time against the current membership of the American Athletic Conference.
Following tonight's match-up, Tech will have taken on nine of the AAC's 12 teams. Only SMU, Tulsa and Wichita State would remain as first-time opponents.
Three of Tech's all-time AAC opponents have been nationally ranked in the AP poll, including the 1966-67 No. 6 Houston Cougars (Final Four participants), the 1993-94 No. 14 UConn Huskies and the 2002-03 No. 23 Cincinnati Bearcats.
Two people involved with tonight's match-up, neither of which will actually play, are part of a very exclusive and historic club. Memphis head coach Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and Tech freshman guard Caden Mills stand as two of just 22 total players in TSSAA history to score more than 3,000 points in their high school career.
Mills, who is currently rehabbing from an offseason knee injury, finished as Van Buren County High School's all-time leading scorer with 3,166 points.
Hardaway scored 3,039 points at Treadwell High School before embarking on incredible collegiate and NBA careers.
The 2018-19 schedule proves as one of the most daunting for the Golden Eagles in program history. Current preseason rankings would have it be the first season in team history where the Golden Eagles face three top-10 teams. (No. 6 Tennessee, No. 8 North Carolina and No. 10 Michigan State).
Tech has faced three different top-15 teams just once 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).
THE TRANSFER EFFECT
Four members of the 2018-19 roster are Division I transfers while a fourth is a Division II transfer. Graduate students Malik Martin (USC/USF) and Johnnie Vassar (Northwestern) are both eligible immediately. Senior Chris McNeal (New Mexico) will sit out the 2018-19 season as a redshirt due to NCAA transfer rules. Division II transfer Corey Tillery returns for his second season in the purple and gold.
The Golden Eagles also have two junior college transfers in the ranks this season. Junior Cade Crosland (Chattanooga State CC) returns for his second year at Tech, while junior Tyler Thompson (Roane State CC) will begin his first.
Courtney Alexander II has one of the best role models in which to model his game after that a collegiate player can have.
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.
Prior, he led the NCAA in scoring with 24.8 points per game as a senior at Fresno State.
Alexander 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 junior transitioned back to his left hand as a freshman at Tech.
A player that has struggled to connect at the free throw line (he owned a career free throw percentage of .345 heading into the 2017-18), Alexander started taking his attempts at the charity stripe underhanded à la Rick Barry last season.
The new approach has paid dividends. Trailing by three with just over 30 seconds to play against Omaha, Alexander sank two attempts to cut the lead to one. He then made a key steal in the press and dished the ball to Aleksa Jugovic under the basket for the game-winning bucket. He tallied 13 points and a career-high 15 rebounds in the game.
He improved his free throw accuracy to 51.6 percent, an improvement of over 17 percent in one year.
Alexander represents Tech's returning statistical leader in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, free throw percentage, minutes and starts.
The team's lone four-year senior, Alexander broke out on the glass last year, averaging 7.9 rebounds, more than double his output as a sophomore.
After spending the 2015-16 season building his strength and size and working on his low post moves as a redshirt, Micaiah Henry showed improvement down on the block for the Golden Eagles in 2017-18.
The youngster has shown improvement since his arrival on campus, possessing a knack for blocking shots. 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.
Last season, Henry rejected the second-most shots by a freshman in school history, sending back 39 attempts. That number ranked only behind Coleman's 85 blocks in 1993-94. The four-year man finished with 439 career rejections, ranking third in NCAA history at the end of his career.
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.
Henry hauled in a career-high eight rebounds in the season-finale, a three-point loss to Jacksonville State in the second round of the OVC Tournament.
Sophomore guard Corey Tillery joined the Golden Eagles from the Division II ranks after Armstrong State shut down its athletic program while preparing to dissolve into Georgia Southern University.
The sharpshooter left ASU the program's leading scorer last season, averaging 18.4 points per game on his way to Peach Belt Conference Freshman of the Year honors. He hit an impressive 42.7 percent of his 227 attempts from beyond the arc last season while also firing at an 86.0 percent clip from the charity stripe.
After missing 15 straight games following the season-opener, Tillery returned to the lineup at Tennessee State.
At EKU, the guard posted season-high marks of 10 points and five rebounds.
He is expected to make a much larger impact in 2018-19, due in large part to a fully healthy campaign.
A FRESH START
Incoming forward Malik Martin made Tech his third program during his collegiate career, looking to build off his first full season of action in essentially three seasons.
Martin joins Tech after playing in all 32 games for USF last season. The forward sat out the 2016-17 campaign at USF due to NCAA transfer rules.
The Miami, Fla. native originally attended USC, appearing in 29 of the Trojans' 32 games as a rookie. He went from 17.9 minutes per game as a freshman to just 6.6 as a sophomore, prompting the transfer back to his home state.
A hot commodity out of high school, Martin was rated the 2014 No. 4-ranked player in Florida by 247Sports, the No. 33 power forward nationally by Scout.com and the No. 109 overall prospect by Rivals.com.
Martin adds a stretch-four option to the paint for Tech, providing a 6-foot-11 frame with the ability to step outside and knock down the 3-pointer.
He showed flashes of strong play with the Bulls last season, blocking 30 shots in 32 games and hauling in 4.7 rebounds with 6.4 points per game.
Martin will miss the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign after undergoing hand surgery prior to the start of the season.
BACK ON THE COURT
Graduate transfer Johnnie Vassar will make his long-awaited return to the hardwood, suiting up in the purple and gold after sitting out the previous three season while finishing his undergraduate degree at Northwestern.
Rated as a three-start recruit by Rivals, Scout.com and ESPN.com, Vassar played in 18 games as a true freshman for Northwestern in the 2014-15 season.
Vassar brings along an extreme leaping ability and uncanny athleticism around the rim.
Listed at just 6-foot-1, Vassar won the dunk contest at the team's annual Purple Palooza kick-off event in October.
Redshirt freshman Hunter Vick will finally get his chance to lace up his shoes and take the court in his first collegiate game after sitting out the 2017-18 season due to injury.
An extremely athletic guard from Camden, Tenn., Vick spent the offseason improving his 3-point stroke and is expected to provide significant scoring depth in his rookie campaign.
Vick flashed his newest skill set by winning the 3-point contest at the team's annual Purple Palooza kick-off event in October.
Head coach Steve Payne heads into the 2018-19 campaign with an interesting connection to two of his student-athletes.
While serving as an assistant at Union University from 1991-94, Payne coached the fathers of two current Golden Eagles.
MILESTONES IN SIGHT
Heading into the 2018-19 campaign (his eighth at Tech), head coach Steve Payne owns 110 wins in charge of the Tech basketball team, the fifth-most in program history.
Payne needs just nine victories to pass the legendary John Oldham (nine seasons) for fourth on the list.
If Payne puts together his second consecutive 19-win campaign, he will also pass former head man, and current associate athletic director Frank Harrell (128 in 9+ seasons) this season, ranking him third all-time.
Hall of Famer Putty Overall ranks first with 164 wins over 22 seasons. The man that Payne served as an associate head coach for nine seasons, Mike Sutton, ranks second in Tech history with 149 victories in nine years.
TOPS IN THE VOLUNTEER STATE
Four of Tech's 11 newcomers for the 2018-19 season boast a particularly impressive feat as part of their respective resumes, all finishing as finalists for the TSSAA Mr. Basketball Award at some point in their high school career.
Senior transfer Chris McNeal was a finalist at the Class AA level in 2015 while attending South Side High School.
Freshman, walk-on guard Chase Ridenour was a Division II Class A finalist in 2017 for the Webb School of Knoxville.
Freshman guard Jr. Clay was a two-time finalist at the Division II Class AA level while at The McCallie School, earning the honor in 2017 and again in 2018.
Freshman guard Caden Mills was named the Class A winner of the TSSAA Mr. Basketball Award in 2018 while at Van Buren County High School.
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.
Photo by Tony Marable