I don’t care that Tennessee State entered today playing the fourth easiest schedule in the nation.
I don’t care that TSU lost today to UT, or that their “best” win, according to KenPom rankings, is at the 269th ranked team in the country. I don’t care that the Tigers have struggled with turnovers this season, that they allow a lot of threes, and their offense isn’t all that efficient.
I don’t even care they TSU enters Ohio Valley Conference play with the best record in the league.
More so than most, I like numbers. I watch stats almost as much as I watch games. At one point on this very site — I had written code to calculate and graph advanced stats that don’t show up on stat sheets. (Then I lost it. I don’t want to talk about it.) The numbers say — TSU’s okay. They have a lot of wins, but most of the OVC should have 9 wins playing teams like Kennesaw State, Stetson, and Grambling State, who ranks as No. 351 out of 351 teams in KenPom.
But no team may be “more” than their numbers than Tennessee State.
TSU is still a program in transition. Following a sharp decline after being OVC contenders, the school hired the youngest coach in Division I basketball, a 30-year, untested Illinois State alumnus by the name of Dana Ford. His first season — he had exactly one returning player, and was forced to enter a season with six freshman, and six JUCO transfers. It went about as well as you would imagine: Tennessee State didn’t win their first game against a Division I opponent until New Years Eve, and won just two more the rest of the year. TSU finished last in the conference for the second straight year.
They have a lot of wins, but most of the OVC should have 9 wins playing teams like Kennesaw State, Stetson, and Grambling State
This year, Ford turned over the roster yet again. An OVC-high five players transferred out of the program, and the young leader brought in another eight new faces.
But, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Of that dirty dozen in Ford’s initial class — three weren’t even available. One, Chima Azuonwu, was redshirted, and left the program after the season. But were two others as well. Two guys with Division I experience.
Two guys who have become instant leaders.
Tahjere McCall spent two years in the north, at Niagara University where he was an occasional starter who averaged about five points a contest. In Nashville — his point production has more than doubled in the first 13 games compared to his two years in the MAAC.
The other? The Tigers current leading scorer, Keron Deshields, who helped the University of Montana to back-to-back NCAA Tournament births.
But the talent on this roster goes even deeper: Add in the interior threat of JUCO transfer Wayne Martin, who leads the team in rebounding, and ranks inside the top five in the OVC in boards, while adding 13 points a game. There’s Long Beach State transfer Christian Griggs-Williams, who benefited from the “graduate transfer rule” to gain instant eligibility at TSU, and Darreon Reddick, (pictured at top of post) one of those freshman last year who had an opportunity to start almost the entire year, and is showing his growth
Despite inheriting a roster with virtually no experience at this level, and despite much of that roster not returning to Nashville after this past summer, Dana Ford, in one year, has assembled a roster that can compete with any team in the OVC.
How can I say that, even though they’re 0-4 against teams in the top-250 in the nation?
They just competed with Tennessee, and led in the final minutes. They competed with Middle Tennessee in a three-point loss in Nashville. And despite digging an early hole, they competed with Illinois State last week, forcing 17 turnovers in a loss.
They just compete. They proved it against the Volunteers, and they’ve been proving it all season.
Dana Ford, in one year, has assembled a roster that can compete with any team in the OVC
TSU is still an underdog in the conference. They play in a tough division, with one of the most experienced coaches in the nation, whose team just beat a very good Valparaiso team at home. That three-point defense I mentioned earlier will be tested by the likes of Eastern Kentucky, as will their penchant for turnovers could prove troublesome against both EKU and a resurgent Morehead State team.
But this team, the one that leaving Knoxville right now with a sour taste in their mouth; this team right now isn’t just a thorn in the East’s side. They’re not just a dark horse, or a team competing for a bye.
This team — is a threat. A threat to the status quo. A threat to the past two years of suffering and misery amongst the TSU fan base. With their retro jerseys, and their retro style of play, TSU isn’t playing like a team that’s going to accept “moral” victories.
They’re playing like a team that wins.
I’ve written before not to judge Dana Ford on last season. The situation he inherited was an impossible one, not just for a “young” coach, but anybody. Confidence can be dangerous. TSU should have plenty of it as they enter a new chapter in their own history.
The Dana Ford era has now officially begun. And by all indications, it’s going to be a bright one.