2015-16 College Basketball Previews: Tennessee State Tigers

Second-year head coach Dana Ford will have his work cut out for him again in 2015-16, trying to rebuild the Tennessee State Tigers after back-to-back five win seasons.
Second-year head coach Dana Ford will have his work cut out for him again in 2015-16, trying to rebuild the Tennessee State Tigers after back-to-back five win seasons.

For the past few years, the Ohio Valley Conference has been dominated by four programs: Belmont, Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, and Morehead State. No matter what happens in the conference, those four programs always seem to be at or near the top.

One team looking to get back into contention is Tennessee State. The Tigers are coming off back-to-back dismal seasons, in which they won five games in each year. In 2014-15, the Tigers had a new head coach in Dana Ford, and a new sense of excitement around the program. However, the level of excitement was never reached, and the team is still in a rebuilding mode.

Heading into 2015-16, the Tigers are looking for any positive momentum that they can translate into future success down the road. How will the Tigers bounce back after another dismal season? What will we see from the Tigers on offense this season, with key starters and an impact transfer becoming eligible in the second half of the season?ge

Plenty of questions surround the Tennessee State Tigers as they head into the 2015-16 campaign. Have a read to see what they’ll bring to the hardwood this year, and what one can expect from the Tigers.

Who’s Missing

The Tennessee State Tigers have found themselves in the bottom of the Ohio Valley Conference standings each of the past two seasons. Players, fans, and coaches alike are hoping that the 2015-16 season will be different, but the outlook doesn’t look too promising as of right now.

Entering the season, the Tigers say goodbye to two of their back court starters from a season ago. Both Jay Harris (top photo) and Charles Tucker have departed from Tennessee State, leaving holes at guard positions that will need attention.

Last season, Harris was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 11.1 points per contest. He appeared in all 31 games for the Tigers, making 23 starts. When conference play hit, Harris’ performances went up a hitch or two, upping his point per game average to 11.6 points per game against conference opponents. While 11 points per game may not seem like a lot on the surface, when you consider that Tennessee State only averaged 57.8 points per game as a team, Harris accounted for almost 20% of the team’s offensive production. Harris shot 41.1% from three point range on the season, and 39.4% from the floor overall.

Charles Tucker, Harris’ back court mate last season, is also gone from the Tigers. Tucker appeared in all 31 games for Tennessee State last season, making 18 starts over the year. Tucker averaged 5.1 points and 1.3 rebounds per contest. He also accumulated a team-high 71 assists on the year. While their production levels weren’t the highest, the duo accounted for 28% of the Tigers’ overall production on a game-by-game basis.

Tucker is transferring to Panola College.

The Tigers also lose some role players via the transfer route as well. Christian Crockett is transferring to Cameron College, Zach Lee is off to Otero Junior College, and Rodney Simeon is transferring to Lawson State CC.

Who’s Returning

Even though the Tigers only won five games a season ago, a few key contributors from the 2014-15 team return this season, giving the team and head coach Dana Ford an element of familiarity on the hardwood.

Forwards Christian Mekowulu and Demontez Loman return to anchor the front court, while Darreon Reddick returns to the starting lineup in the back court. Add in key reserves like Xavier Richards and Marcus Roper into the starting lineup, plus a key transfer eligible in the second semester, and  the rebuild could take a positive step in 2015-16.

Junior guard Marcus Roper is the top scorer returning from last year’s team, The 6’5” guard averaged 10.0 points per contest last season while mainly coming off the bench. Roper played in 29 games, but only made 11 starts.

Over the course of the season, Roper made his case for more playing time, and he could be rewarded with a starting role this season. In 2014-15, Roper scored in double-figures in 13 games overall, eclipsing the 20-point mark on five different occasions. In his first game as a Tiger, Roper poured in 23 points and pulled down 8 rebounds. Roper put together a strong career at the New Mexico Military Institute before transferring to Tennessee State, averaging 16 points per game as a sophomore. With more playing time coming his way this season, Roper could be poised for a breakout season in the Ohio Valley Conference.

In the front court, sophomore forward Christian Mekowulu returns to lead the way. As a freshman last season, the native of Lagos, Nigeria averaged 8.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest. Standing at 6’9” and 232-ponds, Mekowulu has the size to become a viable threat on both ends of the floor as his game improves and he gains more experience. In 2014-15, he had five games in which he recorded 10 or more rebounds, and eight games scoring in double figures. Mekowulu took home the OVC Freshman of the Week award twice last season, and will be looking to add more hardware this season.

Demontez Loman (4.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Xavier Richards (6.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), and Darreon Reddick (7.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) all played in all 31 games a season ago, and could factor into the starting lineup on a regular basis this season.

Once conference play hits, the offense for Tennessee State will receive a big boost in the form of Binghamton-transfer Jordan Reed. In his first two seasons with the Bearcats, Reed averaged 16.6 points and 9.5 rebounds as a freshman, then 15.4 points and 8.9 rebounds as a sophomore. As a junior, the 6’4” guard only played in a handful of contests due to a falling out with the coaching staff. Reed transferred from the program midway through the season, and committed to Tennessee State. After sitting out the first half of this year, Reed will be eligible for the second semester, and should slot into the starting five and become the go-to offensive threat.

Projected Starting Five

Guard: Xavier Richards (SR)

Guard: Darreon Reddick (SO)*

Guard: Marcus Roper (SR)

Forward: Demontez Loman (SR)

Forward: Christian Mekowulu (SO)

*When Binghamton-transfer Jordan Reed is eligible to play for the Tigers, he could slide into the starting five and become a go-to option on the offensive end.

Schedule Notes

The Tennessee State Tigers open the season on the road after their home exhibition game and their own Big Blue Madness. Road contests at both Loyola (MD) and Ohio kick off the 2015-16 season for the Tigers. A win over either the Greyhound or the Bobcats would be a massive confidence booster moving forwards, but don’t think too far ahead just yet. Last season, it took until December 31st before the Tigers would knock off a Division I opponent (Kennesaw State).

A three-game home stand will likely be the Tigers’ best opportunity to notch their first wins of the season, as games against Fisk University and Reinhardt University bookend a matchup with instate rival Middle Tennessee. From there, the Tigers pay a visit to Kennesaw State, looking to make it two wins in two years over the Owls. This four-game stretch could yield a few wins for the Tigers, and give them confidence moving forwards.

A home-and-home series over the span of 10 days against Stetson will pose an underrated test for the Tigers, as Stetson has some up-and-coming talent of their own that could give the Tigers some headaches. A date against Grambling State in the HBCU Legends Hardwood Classic is sandwiched in the middle, with a game against Alcorn State taking place a few days later as the Tigers’ second game in the tournament.

A four-game road swing caps off the Tigers’ non-conference slate, and takes them into the heart of Ohio Valley Conference play. Road dates at Illinois State and Tennessee will give the Tigers a pair of big tests as they get ready for conference action.

The non-conference portion of the 2015-16 season will pose some big challenges for the Tennessee State Tigers, but there are some opportunities for the team to score some wins and build confidence moving forwards.

The 2015-16 season will be another one is filled with growing pains for the Tennessee State Tigers. There’s talent on the team, and they will get a boost from the addition of Binghamton-transfer Jordan Reed and Long Beach State-transfer Christian Griggs-Williams will add some depth to the team.

Dana Ford will have his work cut out for him in his second season as the head coach of the Tigers, This season should provide a positive step in terms of a rebuild for the program, but only time will tell just how big that step will be. Tennessee State still looks like they are at least another season or two away from making a big jump up the standings.

– T.B.