By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team will play host to Murray State in Ohio Valley Conference action Saturday evening, match-up with its long-time rival in a 7:30 p.m. CT tilt in the Hooper Eblen Center.
Tennessee Tech (7-15, 3-6) vs. Murray State (16-4, 7-2)
Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019
7:30 p.m. CT
Eblen Center (7,500) – Cookeville, Tenn.
Radio: 106.1 The Eagle (Roger Ealey)
This marks the 183rd meeting all-time between the two programs, with Murray State owning a 132-50 lead in the series. The Racers hold the edge between the two programs when playing Cookeville, a 47-38 advantage.
Tech has squared off against Murray State more than any other team in program history and the same holds true for the Racers. The two sides kicked off the rivalry during the 1929-30 season, meeting at least once in all but three seasons during that span.
The Racers have won each of the past three meetings between the two programs, including both of last seasons' match-ups. Tech won back-to-back contests during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 campaigns prior to Murray State's three-game streak.
Last season, Murray State defeated Tech in Cookeville 71-45. Senior guard Aleksa Jugovic injured his ankle early in the contest and the Golden Eagles struggled in the contest from beyond the arc (1-for-16) and at the charity stripe (2-for-11). Kajon Mack led TTU with 11 poitns in the game.
The Racers claimed victory in Murray later in the season, a 75-65 win over the Golden Eagles. Four Tech players finished in double figures, including Curtis Phillips Jr. (15), Mason Ramsey (14), Courtney Alexander II (14) and Kajon Mack (10).
For the third straight game, freshman Jr. Clay led the Golden Eagles in scoring against Austin Peay, tying with fellow rookie Hunter Vick for the team lead with 14 points. The point guard hit 7-of-8 free throws, dished out seven assists and hauled in four rebounds. Vick was effective on offense, scoring 14 points on 4-for-6 shooting. He made all four of his free throw attempts and finished 2-for-3 from beyond the arc.
Clay was named OVC Freshman of the Week after averaging 24.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game last week for the Golden Eagles. He had a career-high 26 points at Morehead State.
Junior big man Micaiah Henry leads the OVC in field goal percentage with at least five attempts per game, hitting 62.6 percent of his shots from the floor. His current mark would rank sixth in school history for a single season. Greg Morgan's 67.1 percent clip during the 2001-02 campaign and Alfred Jones' 66.7 percent showing in 2009-10 rank first and second, respectively.
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 13.5 points per game ranks as the second best in program history among freshmen.
With 14 points against Austin Peay, Clay has now recorded 15 double-digit scoring efforts this season. He is on pace to finish with 21 such games this year, a mark that would rank second all-time among Golden Eagle freshmen behind only Earl Wise's 25 in 1986-87. Only three Tech rookies have reached the 20 double-digit performance plateau; Wise with 25, Stephen Kite with 21 (1982-83) and Anthony Avery with 20 (1985-86). Rounding out the top-five is Pete Abuls with 19 (1978-79) and Marc Burnett with 17 (1977-78).
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