By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team makes a brief stop at home Saturday evening – cutting into a stretch that features five-out-of-six games on the road – to host in-state rival Belmont in a 7:30 p.m. CT match-up.
Tennessee Tech (16-10, 8-5) vs. Belmont (19-7, 11-2)
Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018
7:30 p.m. CT
Eblen Center (7,500) – Cookeville, 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 (773).
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 245 conference wins since 2003 (includes tournament), two more than 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 most 3-point field goals in the nation since going from the NAIA to NCAA Division I in 1996-97 (Duke ranks second).
The Bruins are 101-8 (.927) at home in their last 109 games at the Curb Event Center. Belmont is 44-2 in OVC home games since joining the league in 2012-13.
This will mark the 23rd meeting between the two programs all-time, with Tech owning a 14-8 series lead.
The Golden Eagles will be looking for their third straight victory over the Bruins in the Eblen Center.
Since Belmont joined the Ohio Valley Conference in 2012-13, Tech is tied with Eastern Kentucky for the most regular season victories over the Bruins, each team boasting three.
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.
Earlier this season, Belmont defeated the Golden Eagles in Nashville, 80-67. Kajon Mack led Tech with 16 points while Shaq Calhoun tallied 14 points off the bench on 4-for-5 shooting from 3-point range.
In Saturday's contests, the Golden Eagle coaching staff will don Autism Speaks puzzle piece pins to help increase the awareness of autism and support the 1 in 68 children on the autsim spectrum. Autism Speaks Coaches Powering Forward was created in 2014 after NCAA coaches Pat Skerry and Tom Herrion embarked on a mission to raise awareness of autism.
Tech (16-10) 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 for 82.9 percent). Tech added 19 more assists on just 24 field goal attempts (79.2 percent) against Eastern Kentucky.
Despite its 79-71 loss at Eastern Illinois, Tech still sits an impressive 10-2 in games decided by single digits in 2017-18, proving the veteran presence of the Golden Eagle lineup is paying off.
After receiving 22 points of scoring from its bench against Southeast Missouri, the Golden Eagles are now 9-2 on the year when the bench scores at least 21 points. The two losses? A five-point defeat at a one-loss Central Michigan squad and the team's loss at Indiana.
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 23.8 free throw attempts at home in 11 games this season as opposed to just 18.5 attempts at the line in 13 contests on the road. In the team's two neutral site match-ups, Tech attempted 20.5 free throws per game.
With wins over Omaha and Maryland Eastern Shore to take the Emerald Coast Classic title, Tech won its first early season tournament since claiming 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 70.5 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 games, including 15 for the women and 14 for the men.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information