By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Fresh off a thrilling, two-point victory at Tennessee State to kick off the Ohio Valley Conference season, the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team will continue its road slate in Nashville Saturday evening, taking on in-state foe Belmont at 5:00 p.m. CT.
Tennessee Tech (5-9, 1-0) at Belmont (9-3, 0-1)
Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019
5:00 p.m. CT
Curb Event Center (5,000) – Nashville, Tenn.
This marks the 24th meeting all-time between the two programs, with Tech owning a 14-9 lead in the series.
The Golden Eagles will be looking for their first victory over the Bruins in the Curb Event Center since they joined the OVC for the 2012-13 season. Since joining the OVC, Belmont owns a 9-3 mark against Tech, including a 6-0 mark in Nashville.
Tech won the first 11 match-ups with the Bruins in the all-time series, which began during the 1956-57 campaign.
Belmont won both contests in last seasons' series, defeating Tech 80-67 in Nashville before traveling to Cookeville and edging the Golden Eagles 75-70 on their home court. It marked the first win by the Bruins in the Eblen Center in three years.
In its last tilt last season, Tech overcame a 14-point, second-half deficit to take a three-point lead with just over two minutes to play. Belmont took the lead back with 30 seconds to go, leading by three. Kajon Mack hit a layup with 19 seconds to play to pull Tech within a single point, but the Bruins hit their free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
Curtis Phillips Jr. led the Tech effort with 17 points and was one of four Golden Eagles with six rebounds. Kajon Mack added 14 points and six boards while Shaq Calhoun turned in 13 points and six rebounds. Joan Duran chipped in 11 points off the bench.
Amanze Egekeze led Belmont with a game-high 28 points and snagged 10 rebounds while going a perfect 13-for-13 at the charity stripe. Dylan Windler posted a double-double as well, with 14 points and 11 boards. Kevin McClain also finished in double figures with 15 points.
Freshman point guard Jr. Clay continued his hot stretch with one of his best games in the purple and gold to date. The Chattanooga native dropped a season-high 23 points to lead Tech to a 66-64 victory at TSU, finishing 9-of-13 from the field in a season-high 38 minutes.
Fellow rookie Jared Sherfield is currently averaging 1.7 steals per game, ranking eighth 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 with at least five attempts per game, hitting 67.3 percent of his shots from the floor. He also ranks in the top-10 nationally. His current mark would represent the highest in school history for a single season, just edging Greg Morgan's 67.1 percent clip from 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 12.6 points per game ranks as the fourth best in program history among freshmen.
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