By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Ohio Valley Conference play has arrived for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team, which will kick off its 2018-19 slate in the league with a Thursday night trek to Nashville for a 7:30 p.m. CT tilt with in-state rival Tennessee State.
Tennessee Tech (4-9) at Tennessee State (3-9)
Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019
7:30 p.m. CT
Gentry Center (9,100) – Nashville, Tenn.
This marks the 67th meeting all-time between the two programs, with Tech owning a slight, 34-32 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 16-17 all-time against the Tigers in Nashville, having won each of the past two contests in Gentry Center in overtime. Tech won 80-74 in an extra period in 2016-17 and then triumphed in extra time last season, 87-81.
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.
Freshman point guard Jr. Clay led the Tech effort at No. 3 Tennessee, scoring a team-high 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting while also leading the team with five assists and three steals.
Fellow rookie Jared Sherfield is currently averaging 1.8 steals per game, ranking seventh in the OVC with a mark that would finish as the highest-ever by a Tech freshman.
Junior big man Micaiah Henry leads the OVC in field goal percentage, hitting 66.7 percent of his shots from the floor. His current mark would tie for the second-highest in school history for a single season.
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