If you ask the average Ohio Valley Conference basketball fan to name three players on this year’s Golden Eagles squad, I’d be willing to wager many would get stuck after one, and virtually all of them wouldn’t make it to three. And that understandable when you realize Tennessee Tech graduated six seniors last year, including Kevin Murphy, a second round NBA draft pick this summer.
So it’s no surprise that the Golden Eagles aren’t as dominant this year. In fact, they’re not really dominant at all. They’re .500 entering conference play, but all six wins were against teams outside the RPI top-250. Against teams in the top-250, they’re 0-5, with every loss being by double digits.
I can stress the youth, and will quite often actually, but unlike another rebuilding project in the OVC, there’s a feeling surrounding this team that they can win now. And that feeling comes primarily from the play of Jud Dillard. After Murphy’s 50-point game last year, many people seemed to forget about the junior Dillard, despite the fact he averaged 17 points and eight and a half rebounds a game for the Golden Eagles. This year Dillard continues to step up his play, but in TTU’s six wins, he’s had to be a one-man army. In fact, he’s scored at least 17 points in all six TTU wins, and lost all four times he was held under that total.
But even when the supporting cast needs some supporting themselves, Dillard is such a dynamic playmaker that you can’t count the Golden Eagles out. The question: can he carry Tennessee Tech into the OVC tournament?
How many wins does TTU get in OVC play?
- 7-9 (100%, 5 Votes)
- 0-3 (0%, 0 Votes)
- 4-6 (0%, 0 Votes)
- 10-12 (0%, 0 Votes)
- 13-16 (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 5
You wouldn’t be blamed for expecting that TTU’s offense has taken a major step back this year without Murphy, but that hasn’t actually been the case. The Golden Eagles shoot 45% from the floor, (46% last season) average 13.5 assists per game, (13.6 last year) and shoot 33% from 3-point range (35% last year). While the numbers are slightly lower across the board, it’s far from the huge fall many, myself included, expected when Tennessee Tech lost so many seniors.
Part of this is the improvement of Dillard, who has taken nearly as many three pointers in just 12 games this season as his entire career. Another is the addition of SMU transfer Jeremiah Samarrippas, a great replacement for graduating senior Zac Swansey. Samarrippas is averaging about 10 points and four assists a night and is a solid ball handler, although he doesn’t have the same zip on his pass we saw from Swansey last year.
The Golden Eagles are getting a great contribution from freshman guard Lanerryl Johnson as well. Johnson was a highly touted, 3-star recruit, and he’s been showing why early, averaging over nine points a game, and junior forward Dennis Ogbe is average over 8 a game. He had less than half that his past two seasons with Tennessee Tech
The problem is that neither of the two guards nor Ogbe are all that consistent. It makes some sense, as both are still learning the system, and both should continue to grow throughout the season. While that happens, the Golden Eagles need 20 or more a night from Dillard, who is more than capable.
This is where the Golden Eagles had some struggles last season, and this year is fairly similar. There’s not a lot of size, and even fewer experienced big men, and TTU has been somewhat soft in the middle as a result. What’s interesting is how well TTU has rebounded despite that previous sentence. Dillard is listed at 6’5″, but has a knack for playing more like he’s 6’9″ around the rim.
One area where Samarrippas falls a bit short of Swansey is in forcing turnovers. Samarrippas averages almost one steal fewer per game, and it’s one reason TTU doesn’t force as many turnovers as a year ago.
Foul problems have popped up on occasion, as Tennessee Tech has sent teams to the free throw line quite often, and they haven’t been in many games where they were close enough to warrant fouling down the stretch.
With so many young players, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this area needs some development. But head coach Steve Payne is giving his young players plenty of experience. Eleven guys are averaging 10 minutes a game or more, and he’s getting a fair amount of production out of bench, especially compared to many teams at the top of the conference.
Unless Tennessee Tech makes a run, there’s little chance that Dillard gets a lot of serious consideration for OVC player of the year, but he probably should. Dillard is second in the league in scoring, behind Isaiah Canaan, and fifth in the league in rebounding. He shoots nearly 50% from the floor, which is virtually unheard of for guards, and has already had a 34-point game this year. Dillard has the ability to impact a game as much, if not more than anyone in the league.
Tennessee Tech has only lost two straight heading to OVC play, and they were against power conference teams. But they were absolutely throttled by those teams, including a 19-point loss to Auburn, a team Murray State has beaten this year at a neutral site. After a 3-0 start, the Golden Eagles are just 3-6 since. Conference play begins against quite possibly the top three teams in the East Division.