Outside of the Racers, this is the team I keep hearing buzz about this offseason. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to thinks this could be the team to beat next season. After a season filled with buzzer beaters and close wins, the Golden Eagles knocked off top seeded Murray State in the OVC tournament, before falling in the championship game to the other Eagles, from Morehead.
But I’m a little more skeptical of the Golden Eagles. TTU hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1967, the NIT since 2002, and last season played in the CIT, a tournament I keep forgetting exists.
History aside, TTU will start their first full season in 2011-12 under Steve Payne. Payne has filled in as coach many times over the past few years, including a long stint in 2006-07 with their former head coach Mike Sutton suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome. He knows the team, and the conference, so I wouldn’t expect much fall off this season from that standpoint.
The Golden Eagles will likely be led offensively again by rising junior Kevin Murphy, a 17 ppg forward on the best scoring team in the OVC. He does come with a downside though, turnovers. His assist-to-turnover ratio last season was an anemic .52.
Murphy was 2nd in turnovers though to guard Zac Swansey. The only difference is that while Swansey turned the ball over 116 times, he dished out a league leading 212 assists, 50 more than any other OVC player. He did this while scoring almost 10 point a game, and also leading the league in steals with 68, 14 more than any other OVC player. Expect to see Swansey’s name discussed for preseason player of the year.
Outside of the obvious top 2, a lot of strong role players are returning as well. Rising sophomore Jud Dillard will battle for a full time starting spot this year after averaging 11 a game last year and leading the team in rebounding, and 6’8″ forward Terrell Barnes will help fill in the frontcourt. Speaking of rebounding, no Tech played averaged more than 6 a game last season, with Dillard being the only Golden Eagle in the top 10 in the league.
In the back court, Zack Bailey will likely join Swansey. Bailey played significant minutes last season, but his inconsistent play at times made him an inconsistent starter throughout the season. Rising Freshman Chase Dunn should also see a significant boost in minutes off the bench.
The Eagles have picked up 2 so far this off season: Ryon Riggins, a 6’9 forward who averaged a double-double in his HS senior year; and Lanerryl Esters-Johnson, another Georgia high school player who averaged 24 points a game.
On the negative side, the Golden Eagles depth is of minor concern, as is their defense. But make no mistake, this is a top tier team in the OVC. TTU will likely see a bye come March, but the best in the OVC? Maybe. And if they’re going to make their first OVC tournament since the 1960’s, this is their best chance.