By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team hits the road for the first time in Ohio Valley Conference play Thursday evening, traveling down I-40 to Nashville for a 7:00 p.m. CT tilt at in-state rival Belmont.
The Golden Eagles head back down I-40 for the second half of its Nashville road swing on Saturday, a 4:00 p.m. CT tilt at Tennessee State.
Both games can be followed on 106.1 The Eagle or on the OVC Digital Network.
Tennessee Tech (10-5, 2-0) at Belmont (10-5, 2-0)
Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018
7:00 p.m. CT
Curb Event Center (5,000) – Nashville, Tenn.
Belmont is in its 32nd season under the direction of head coach Rick Byrd. He ranks fifth among all active NCAA Division I head coaches in career wins (764).
Belmont is adjusting to life after Evan Bradds, as the ultra-efficient forward graduated in 2017. Bradds scored 1,921 career points, ranks fourth in NCAA history in field goal percentage (.667), and led Belmont to four consecutive OVC championships.
Belmont has led the nation in two-point field goal percentage four of the last five seasons.
The Bruins went 23-7 last season, winning the OVC, and return nine letterwinners, including senior point guard Austin Luke. The Rowlett, Texas native is the nation's leading returning assist man, averaging 7.1 assists per game last season. Luke, and forward Amanze Egekeze, were named Preseason All-OVC.
Belmont has won 20+ games and earned postseason play 11 of the last 12 years (including 2016-17). That includes NCAA Tournament appearances in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015.
Belmont has posted 237 conference wins since 2003 (includes tournament), second to Kansas.
The Bruins have won 16 conference championships (seven tournament, nine regular season) since 2006. Only Kansas and Gonzaga have won more conference championships over that span.
Belmont enters the 2017-18 season as one of only seven non-Power 5 programs to post a Top-100 RPI each of the last seven seasons.
Belmont has made the second-most three-point field goals in the nation since going from the NAIA to NCAA Division I in 1996-97 (Duke).
The Bruins are 96-7 (.932) at home in their last 103 games at the Curb Event Center, with only Kentucky and Kansas posting better home court winning percentages over that span. Belmont is 39-1 in OVC home games since joining the league in 2012-13.
This will mark the 22nd meeting between the two programs all-time, with Tech owning a 14-7 series lead.
The Golden Eagles will be looking for their first win over the Bruins in Nashville since 1964, a 67-59 victory back in Belmont's NAIA days.
Last season, Belmont defeated Tech in Nashville, 82-70 on Jan. 21.
Belmont scored just five bench points in the contest, receiving 23 from Evan Bradds and 20 from Taylor Barnette.
Tech got its revenge on Feb. 11, ending Belmont's bid for a perfect record in OVC play with an 83-70 victory in the Eblen Center.
Kajon Mack posted his first career double-double against the Bruins in Cookeville, posting 24 points and 12 rebounds, not to mention six assists. Curtis Phillips Jr. added 19 points and Ramsey and Jugovic each scored 10 as well.
Tennessee Tech (10-5, 2-0) at Tennessee State (5-8, 0-2)
Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018
4:00 p.m. CT
Gentry Center (9,100) – Nashville, Tenn.
ABOUT TENNESSEE STATE
Tennessee State is in its fourth season under the direction of head coach Dana Ford.
The Tigers will host Jacksonville State in their first home game since Dec. 2, a non-conference tilt against Lipscomb.
TSU was handed a 77-65 loss at Southeast Missouri on Dec. 31 despite 17 points from Delano Spencer. The Tigers were down by two at the half, but an 18-0 run by SEMO in the second half broke the game open.
Tennessee State is 26-16 at the Gentry Center under Dana Ford. So far this season, the Tigers are 3-2 at the Gentry Center.
Senior guard Delano Spencer has scored in double figures in 11 of TSU's 13 games this season. Of his double-digit scoring efforts, five were 15 or more points. Spencer has upped his average from 8.4 points per game in 2016-17 to 14.7 this season.
TSU currently has four players averaging 8.5 or more points per game (Spencer, McKnight, Mekowulu and Hamilton). The last time TSU finished a year with four double digit scorers was the 2012-13 season when current Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington led the Tigers with 17.0 points per game.
This season, TSU held Canisius to 17 points in the second half on Nov. 21 and Alabama State to 16 second-half points on Dec. 12. TSU has held an opponent to 20 or fewer points in a half 16 times in Head Coach Dana Ford's four seasons.
This will mark the 65th meeting between the two programs all-time, with the series dead-locked at 32 wins for each team.
The Golden Eagles will look for their second straight win over the Tigers in Nashville after claiming last year's contest in the Gentry Center, 80-74, in overtime on Jan. 19.
TSU answered with a 72-59 victory over the Golden Eagles in Cookeville on Feb. 9.
The two teams have split the annual season series each of the past four seasons, with the Tigers' 2-0 season sweep in 2012-13 the last to occur.
Last season, Aleksa Jugovic turned in one of the more remarkable performances in Tech history in leading Tech to its overtime win over the Tigers.
Jugovic tied a career-high with 30 points in 43 minutes of action, hitting all 11 of his free throw attempts.
He scored 17 of Tech's final 25 points over the final 10 minutes of play between the fourth quarter and overtime, including the team's first 11 points in the extra period.
In six career games against the Tigers, Jugovic is averaging 12.0 points, including 18.5 in last season's series.
Tech (10-5) is off to its best start since the 2015-16 season. The Golden Eagles finished 19-12 that season, including an 11-5 mark and second-place finish in the Ohio Valley Conference East Division. It also marked the program's most recent postseason berth, a bid into the Vegas16 Tournament.
The Golden Eagles showed off the kind of ball movement that ranked them first in the OVC against Morehead State. Tech's 24 assists on 28 field goals (85.7 percent) broke the school record for percentage of assists to field goals made in a single game set earlier this season against Boyce College (34-on-41 – 82.9 percent). Tech added 19 more assists on just 24 field goal attempts (79.2 percent) against Eastern Kentucky.
With 17.9 assists per game this season, Tech is on pace to post the third-highest apg mark in program history and best since averaging 19.0 assists in 1992-93. The 1989-90 Golden Eagle squad set the program record with 20.4 per game.
After receiving 23 points of scoring from its bench against the Eagles, the Golden Eagles are now a perfect 7-0 on the year when the bench scores at least 23 points.
With a 7-1 start to the season, the Golden Eagles completed their most successful month of November in program history. No Tech squad had won more than five games in November prior to this season.
The Golden Eagles are attempting 25.1 free throw attempts at home in seven games this season as opposed to just 17.8 attempts at the line in eight contests away from the Eblen Center.
With wins over Omaha and Maryland Eastern Shore to take the Emerald Coast Classic tilte, Tech won its first early season tournament since claiming the the Las Vegas Classic back during the 2005-06 season.
Tech was predicted to finish fifth overall in the 2018 OVC race in voting by the league's head coaches and SIDs.
DON'T SELL EXPERIENCE SHORT
Tech boasts arguably the most experienced team in the OVC entering the 2017-18 season, returning a whopping 77.3 percent of its minutes played from just a season ago. That mark ranks first in the league by over 10 percent (Eastern Kentucky returns 66.6 percent).
The Golden Eagles also return 71 percent of its scoring from the 2016-17 squad, ranking only behind the Colonels' 75.7 percent. Only Tech, Eastern Kentucky and Murray State return both of their respective top-two scorers, with TTU's Aleksa Jugovic and Kajon Mack combining for 27.0 ppg, EKU's Nick Mayo and Asante Gist totaling 34.4 ppg and MSU's Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller teaming up for 37.9 ppg.
Aside from the Golden Eagles, only Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky return at least four of their top-five scorers from last season. Tech will return six of its top-seven scorers from the 2016-17 campaign.
40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE HOOP
Originally opened back in 1977, the Hooper Eblen Center was named for former athlete, head coach and administrator Hooper Eblen, who served the university for 33 years and was instrumental in planning the football stadium and basketball arena. This season, "The Hoop" – or as it was once known, "The Temple of Doom" – will celebrate its 40th season since opening for the TTU Invitational Volleyball Tournament on Sept. 20, 1977.
The Tech men's team hosted the first basketball game in the Eblen Center, earning a 72-71 victory over in-state foe Vanderbilt on Nov. 26, 1977.
The Tech men have enjoyed a home court advantage since the opening of The Hoop, boasting a win percentage of 70.1 in the Eblen Center. From Dec. 2, 2000 to Jan. 4, 2003, did not lose a game in the facility, amassing 33 straight victories for the longest home win streak in program history.
During its 40th anniversary, The Hoop will play host to 29 total basketball games, including 15 for the women and 14 for the men.
GIVE ME SOME SUGAR
After averaging 5.8 points as a freshman and 12.1 points as a sophomore, senior guard Aleksa Jugovic continued his upward trend by averaging a team-high 15.2 points per game last season. The slick shooting Serb became the 36th member of the Golden Eagles' 1,000-point club last year and currently ranks 19th on the all-time scoring list with 1,251 points.
Fans can follow Jugovic on Twitter under his handle/nickname @Serbian_Sugar. The moniker, originally developed by current assistant coach and previous director of basketball operations Gus Fraley, was created to help acclimate the Serbia native to the fans of Golden Eagle basketball.
A deadly 3-point sniper, Jugovic needs just 29 triples to break former Golden Eagle Frank Davis' all-time program record of 251 made 3-pointers. The senior knocked down 71 treys as a sophomore and 82 more as a junior. He currently has 39 on the year, on pace for 80 over the 31 scheduled games.
Jugovic went bananas in The Pit at New Mexico, finishing 11-for-12 from the field and a perfect, school-record setting 7-for-7 from downtown on his way to a career-high 31 points.
EARNING A SPOT
A walk-on to the Tech roster back during the 2013-14 season, Mason Ramsey has done plenty to earn the respect of his teammates and coaches in his four seasons in the purple and gold.
The local Livingston, Tenn. native was awarded a scholarship by Steve Payne following the 2014-15 season, Ramsey's first year of action on the court in Eblen Center.
After redshirting in 2013-14, Ramsey became the first Tech freshman since 1986-87 to open his career with a double-double, posting 14 points and 14 rebounds.
Ramsey saw an uptick in his performance during OVC play in 2016-17, averaging 10.9 points and 5.3 rebounds (or about 1.5 more points and nearly a full rebound more) during the league stretch. He notched a career-high in scoring twice during that span while dropping double-digit points in over half of the contests.
While technically still a senior in eligibility, Ramsey represents the third graduate student on the team in 2017-18. The veteran earned his bachelor's degree in finance in May and is currently working on his master's in business administration.
The forward has racked up 301 fouls in his career, currently the fifth-most in program history. He is currently on pace to tie the program record of 357 personal fouls set by Amadi McKenzie from 2004-08, averaging 3.5 fouls per game.
In two OVC games this season, Ramsey is averaging 16.0 points on 70.6 percent shooting.
Two Golden Eagle players can make the trip to Cookeville from their respective home towns in about 20 minutes, just outside of shouting distance.
Senior Mason Ramsey hails from nearby Livingston, Tenn., just 20 miles north of Cookeville.
Sophomore junior college transfer Cade Crosland calls Sparta, Tenn. home, a less-than 20-mile trip south of Cookeville.
JOINING THE RANKS
The Golden Eagles made three additions for the 2018-19 season during the early signing period, all from the state Tennessee.
Joining Tech from Van Buren County High School will be scoring guard Caden Mills.
Already a 2,000-point scorer, Milles averaged 26.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game as a junior.
Mills led VBCHS to a 28-5 record and third straight appearance to the TSSAA state tournament last season.
Joining Tech from Arlington High School will be forward Garrett Golday.
The 6-foot-7 signee averaged a double-double as a junior, with 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. He also added five blocks per game.
Golday led AHS to a District 14-AAA regular season title and earned All-Metro and All-Region honors.
Joining Tech from McCallie High School will be point guard Jr. Clay.
Boasting great speed, Clay averaged 13.8 points, 4.0 assists and 2.5 steals per game while leading MHS to an appearance in the state championship game.
Clay was named a finalist for the TSSAA Division II-AA Mr. Basketball Award and took home multiple postseason honors.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information