By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Despite the calendar still reading July, there is plenty to be excited about surrounding the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team as the program begins its first season under the helm of head coach John Pelphrey.
That excitement begins in Cookeville, on the court of the Hooper Eblen Center with a group of 10 men, the returning members of the Golden Eagle squad. Purple and gold fans will see the base of last year's young squad return, a group that has Pelphrey energized for his first year as Tech head coach.
"I'm very excited about our returning players," Pelphrey said. "As a coaching staff, and specifically me, I have really enjoyed getting to know these guys. We have been working extremely hard to earn their trust and respect and are very appreciative of their willingness to establish a relationship with us. We're excited about their potential and the way they love and care about this University and community."
Named to the Ohio Valley Conference's All-Newcomer Team and All-OVC Second Team, sophomore Jr. Clay returns for the Golden Eagles after leading the team in scoring, assists, free throws and steals as a true freshman. Averaging 14.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.8 steals in 29 games, Clay hit his stride for Tech after earning the starting point guard gig nearly 10 games into the year.
Also back is sophomore Hunter Vick, who started all 31 games and led the team in minutes and 3-point field goal percentage despite sitting out the 2017-18 campaign as a redshirt due to injury. In his first season, Vick averaged 11.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in 33.0 minutes of action each contest.
The two became the first pair of Tech rookies to average double digits in scoring since 1978-79. Clay recorded 24 double-digit scoring efforts throughout the year, ranking second all-time in program history among freshmen to only Earl Wise, Tech's all-time leading scorer. Vick shattered the Golden Eagle freshman 3-point record on the year, sinking 54 shots from beyond the arc at a team-best 39.7 percent clip.
Fellow sophomore guard Jared Sherfield gave a glimpse into his increasing potential at the end of the 2018-19 campaign, averaging 14.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists over the team's final five games. He joined Clay and Vick as three of just 21 Golden Eagle freshmen to ever record at least 20 points in a game.
Another sophomore, forward Garrett Golday, gathered plenty of reps in the paint for Tech in his first season, playing in all 31 games while earning four starts. He averaged 4.2 points and 2.2 rebounds while showing off his trademark intensity and high motor whenever on the court.
Fan favorite and local Sparta native Cade Crosland is back as a valuable senior leader to a young Golden Eagle group. Despite tearing his ACL last summer, Crosland persevered to return for the season and played in 22 contests while providing a spark off the bench behind his work ethic and timely shooting.
Entering his second campaign with the purple and gold, senior Tyler Thompson returns as the team's academic leader after pacing the team in the classroom last season. Boasting one of the highest basketball IQs on the team as well, Thompson will serve as another key veteran for the Tech youngsters to rely on. Walk-on Maverick Smith returns for his third straight season after earning playing time in 11 contests as a sophomore.
A trio of redshirts completes the list of Tech's returners, starting with big man Reece Wilkinson. The post sat out this past season with a knee injury, but boasts an impressive game in the paint when healthy and is expected to see the court when fully healthy.
Also missing the 2018-19 season with a knee injury, local standout Caden Mills (hailing from Spencer) is expected to make his long-awaited debut with the Golden Eagles a year after averaging 29.0 points and seven rebounds per game on his way to earning 2018 TSSAA Class A Mr. Basketball honors. Walk-on guard Chase Ridenour rounds out the Tech redshirts, another TSSAA Mr. Basketball finalist.
Photo from Thomas Corhern