A simple look at last year’s final standings would reveal the obvious: Tennessee State was light years behind the usual conference behemoths. But it wasn’t all that long ago that the Tigers were scrapping with the likes of Belmont and Murray State. In 2011-12, TSU notched 20-wins, on their way to a second place conference finish. It seemed that the momentum was poised to continue under Travis Williams, as the Tigers earned 18 wins in his first season, finishing with the third best conference record.
That was just one season ago. It already feels like a lifetime for many Tigers fans.
The bottom fell out last season, with a five-win campaign costing the second year coach his job, while a combination of a senior-heavy class and the expected transfers after an awful year left just one returning player for new head coach Dana Ford.
The rebuilding effort will almost certainly be long, but Ford already draws parallels to one team at the top of the league. When Murray State took a chance on first-time head coach Steve Prohm three years ago, one his largest accomplishments to date was recruiting NBA-caliber guard Isaiah Cannan to campus. Ford, a former assistant under John Copper at Tennessee State, was responsible for recruiting the likes of Robert Covington, Patrick Miller, and Kellen Thorton, the architects of TSU’s rise just a few years ago.
His effort to bring the Tigers back to contention — or at the very least, relevance — will begin with a roster of players mostly gathered during a two-month long sprint this summer. A host of freshman and JUCO transfers joins Jay Harris, the Tigers lone returner.
“We’re new. We don’t expect to light the world on fire,” Ford admits.
The good news for Ford is that Harris seemed to peak down the stretch last season, and there’s hope that momentum could continue into this fall. While Harris averaged just 7.4 points per game last season, he worked his way into the starting lineup for the team’s final 12 games, and scored in double figures in four of the Tigers final seven contests. Despite being just 5’10, Harris didn’t play the role of point last year. Instead, he served mostly as the two-guard as Miller ran the offense.
As the team’s only returner, Harris also naturally falls into the role of being a ‘leader.’ “Sometimes, he sticks out like sore thumb in terms of his leadership, ” Ford says of Harris. “Everyone else is quiet, and he’s talking.”
The rest of the backcourt equation is much more up in the air. 6’1 freshman Charles Tucker, rated a two-star recruit by ESPN and Rivals, will likely see significant playing time at the point, and could even factor into a starting role. “Cha-Cha,” as he’s known, also made the MaxPreps honor role as a junior, helping Montrose Christian to a 19-5 record.
Another guard is already making strides.”I think Xavier Richards is a junior college kid who’s shown some things in practice that may warrant some playing time,” Ford said at last week’s OVC media day. Richards averaged 19.2 points per game along with eight rebounds and three assists while at Baltimore Community College, and was named a third-team NJCAA All-American.
“We’re new. We don’t expect to light the world on fire.”
Other guards, such as freshmen Darreon Reddick and Rodney Simeon are also in the mix for the Tigers. According to Ford, there may be plenty of minutes, and touches, to go around. “Our goal on offense is work — pass up a good shot for a great shot,” Ford say. “What we’re going to try to do on makes is try and slow the ball up. On misses, we’re going to push as fast as we can, and we’re going to have a balanced attack. You can probably see anywhere from eight guys averaging from five points to 12 points.”
“It’s a team game on the offensive end for us,” Ford adds. “You’re not going to see a lot of two-man game, or one-on-one, we’re going to move the ball, we’re going to play a four-on-one motion offense, we’ll see some ball-screen offense, as well as some set plays.”
Inside, the Tigers are likely to start the season a bit undersized, even by Ohio Valley Conference standards — but it’s not likely to last. Among Ford’s dozen new additions are 6’9 freshman Christian Mekowulu, and 6’11 freshman Chima Azuonwu, both members of the OVC Ball “spelling nightmare” team. Both from Georgia, both averaged double-doubles last season. The question: will they be ready on November 14th at the four or five?
Tigers DPPP fell as fast as their win total last season, as the Tigers ranked 336th out of 347 teams defensively. (Lower numbers are better)
It’s more likely that Ford will turn to JUCO transfers initially, including 6’5 forward Marcus Roper, 6’6 Christian Crockett, and 6’6 Demontez Loman. Roper spent the past two years at New Mexico Military Institute, and last season, averaged 15 points a game, and shot 39% from three-point range. While Roper is more of a mid-range scorer, Loman is more of a traditional power forward — netting 8.4 rebounds a contest last year at Brunswick Community College.
Crockett falls in between the two extremes, and also has limited Division I experience, spending his freshman year at Mt. St. Mary’s, although he saw very limited action. Also in the mix, 6’8 freshman Zachary Lee, who rated as the fourth-best prospect in New Mexico last season by Full Court Press, thanks in part to having more than four blocks a game.
Anyone expecting Tennessee State to have things figured out when the season gets underway on November 14th is clearly misguided. Bringing together this many new players — things might not be figured out on February 14th, a point Ford himself admits. But, as expected given the situation he’s inheriting, it’s not the only thing he’s looking for.
“You’re probably going to see a lot of boneheaded mistakes,” Ford says about his team. “You’ve got a lot of first-year players who don’t understand how to win at this level, yet, but they’re great kids, they’re going to be very respectful, they’re going to play as hard as they can. It’s going to be a major emphasis on defense and rebounding, and we’re also going to share the ball on offense.”
Ford, a former assistant under John Copper at Tennessee State, was responsible for recruiting the likes of Robert Covington, Patrick Miller, and Kellen Thorton, the architects of TSU’s rise just a few years ago.
“It’s not just basketball that’s hard for freshman,” Ford adds. “It’s going to study hall, being on time, lifting weights, going to get treatment. All those things require discipline. Maybe in high school they weren’t required to do those things, but not in college they are. So it’s extremely difficult, and you just can’t budge. You’ve got to make it non-negotiable, and hopefully when they become second semester freshman they’ve got it figured out a little bit.”
At just 30 years of age, Ford is joining a seemingly growing contingent of head coaches under 40 in Division I college basketball. Younger coaches often bring enthusiasm and recruiting prowess to their schools, and Ford is swimming in both. But let’s be clear — the odds are much higher Ford’s career will begin losing season, possible even single-digit wins, than on a more positive note. While TSU showed little, if any patience, with their previous coach (although the circumstances warranted the decision they made) the Tigers aren’t just one or two players away — and it’s far too early to tell whether Ford’s somewhat unprecedented 12-member recruiting class will produce more hits than misses.
Tennessee State isn’t a traditional basketball power in the OVC, but that’s not to say that there aren’t expectations surrounding the first year coach. The recent success of the program isn’t a distant memory for fans — and they may need to hold on to those memories for at least another season. Will this year be better than last? It’s certainly likely, given the state of the program. Hopefully, the enthusiasm surrounding Ford will return next season — when the Tigers could more realistically challenge the pack.
Of course, this seems like a great time to remind everyone: John Cooper won just nine games his first year.