Tennessee State joined the Ohio Valley Conference in the summer of 1986. Since then, the Tigers have had just six winning season on the court. The previous two years are the winningest such period for Tennessee State since making the jump.
But those years are truly history, already. The core of the team that led the Tigers to a 20-win season two years ago, and the first back-to-back winning seasons since 1995-96, is almost completely gone.
With three double-digit scorers graduating, and a more inexperienced group taking the reigns, head coach Travis Williams‘ second season at the help could prove much more challenging than the first.
But as we’ve mentioned in earlier previews, if you’re going to have a down year, or to use a term coaches loathe, a “rebuilding” season, this might be the year to do it. Much of the conference is forced to reload after last year’s senior class graduated.
The question is: do the Tigers have some hidden talent to continue their recent period of success?
You could make the argument last year was a slight disappointment, with special emphasis on slight. After making the OVC finals, and being one bucket away from the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers expected to win the OVC this season, but ran into the wall that was Belmont.
There is a clear leader for next season, which is a struggle for some OVC squads. Patrick Miller is the only double-digit scorer returning, and will need to put the team on his shoulders.
The problem really comes after Miller. The drop off in production after Miller is likely the largest of any team, when looking at last year’s numbers. M.J. Rhett has proved he can be a solid rebounder, but will be expected to play more minutes, and obviously has to increase his scoring output.
Amazingly, after Rhett, there’s another significant fallout. No other returning player averaged more than four points a game last year, or played more than 20 minutes a game. When you look at last year’s roster, that’s not surprising, but it’s somewhat worrisome when those are the guys you need to rely on for a 30-plus game season.
Miller’s numbers were strong last year. Can you actually expect more out of him?
Statistics wise, no. If he puts up similar numbers this year, he’ll likely be among the best in the conference. One thing the team does need out of him is for him to reduce his turnovers. Despite leading the conference in assists, Miller was 8th in assist-to-turnover ratio. He will handling the ball as much as ever, and has to make smart decisions for the team to succeed.
Does Rhett have a explosive junior season?
I think he does, although I expected more last season out of the sophomore. He did increase his rebounding and shooting despite his minutes still being rather limited by the talent ahead of him on the roster. That’s not wholly on his shoulders. The one thing is he’ll be more of a focus of opposing defenders this year. Still, I would be surprised if Rhett isn’t a breakout player in 2013-14.
Grade Travis Williams’ first year at the helm.
Solid B+. Sure, the team didn’t match the 20-win season from the year before, but the OVC was as a whole lot tougher as a whole than in John Cooper‘s final season at the helm. They struggled early, but made adjustments and were a very strong team at the end of the season. They just weren’t as strong as Belmont. No one was, in the end.
F Robert Covington (graduated)
G Jordan Cyphers (graduated)
G DaShawn Dockery (not listed on 2013-14 roster)
G Tashan Fredrick (graduated)
G Jordan Gaither
F Michael Green
G Jay Harris
G Devante McClung (not listed on 2013-14 roster)
G Patrick Miller
G Abraham Milsap
F M.J. Rhett
F Kellen Thorton (graduated)
F Chaed Wellian
F Alex Bates (eligible after transferring from Northwestern)
F Kennedy Eubanks (JUCO Transfer)
G Jamonte Graham
F Ugo Mmonu
G Jaleel Queary (JUCO Transfer)
G Jaylen Reid
G Rhyan Townes
As we’re getting later in the summer, schools are putting out their 2013-14 rosters, so this is all according to the school’s website. (In other words, it should be pretty accurate)
You’ve got a solid one-two in the backcourt, in Miller and Jay Harris, who started against Evansville in the CIT, among a handful of other games. Harris didn’t put up amazing numbers, but seems to be a solid young option at point. The problem, though, is that Harris is just 5’10”, and can’t play any other position. Miller is the better ballhandler, but would need to play the two-guard spot if Harris stats beside him.
As is going to be a theme, depth is a major issue. Jaleel Queary is going to need to provide instant minutes (which you expect from a JUCO transfer) and Jordan Gaither will likely see quite a few minutes as a sophomore.
The frontcourt is in better shape, although it’s still a bit unknown. 6’8 Alex Bates has Division I experience, but played limited minutes at Northeastern. Kennedy Eubanks was a solid JUCO player, ranked in the top 150 last season by JucoJunction. 6’11 forward Michael Green had solid moments last year, earning two starts.
Predicted Starting Five
G Jay Harris
G Patrick Miller
F Kennedy Eubanks
F M.J. Rhett
F Michael Green
I tend to give the edge to returnees over JUCO players for starters at the beginning of the year, but at least one almost surely finds his way into the starting five. If the team wants to go smaller, Queary could replace Eubanks, although it could simply come down to which is stronger in early practices.
If you want Harris to back up Miller, Queary could find his way into the lineup alongside Eubanks.
I’ve been really high on Tennessee State the past two years in the these previews, thanks to a great, talented core of players. They don’t have that this year. In many ways, this reminds me of Murray State this past year: They have one really good player returning (although I’m not making a one-to-one comparison of Miller to Isaiah Canaan) but is losing a lot of the talent around him.
But the dropoff, while similar, appears much larger for Tennessee State than it did for the Racers last season.
Either way, it could be a very tough year for the Tigers, and a third straight winning season may be out of their reach.
3rd in the East