Tucker Coliseum will host its first match-up of nationally-ranked men’s basketball teams this season when Arkansas Tech and Harding meet tonight (Thursday, Jan. 27) with first place in the Gulf South Conference West Division up for grabs. The nationally 23rd-ranked Wonder Boys (13-3 overall, 4-0 GSC) and the nationally 19th-ranked Bisons (15-2, 5-0) will begin their 124th all-time meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Tickets will be available at the door. Those with a valid Tech identification card will be admitted free. Arkansas Tech returned to the NCAA Division II top 25 this week on the strength of a seven-game winning streak. The Wonder Boys are 4-0 in the GSC for a fourth consecutive year. Harding has achieved its highest national ranking since joining NCAA Division II in 1995-96, and the Bisons have their best record after 17 games ever. They are 5-0 in the GSC for the first time. Their achievements so far this season and their national rankings are not the only areas in which Tech and Harding run neck-and-neck.
Consider these numbers:
*Scoring Offense: Tech 82.8 points per game, Harding 78.2 points per game
*Scoring Defense: Tech 64.8 points per game, Harding 66.2 points per game
*Field Goal Percentage: Tech 47.3 percent, Harding 47.6 percent
*Field Goal Percentage Defense: Tech 40.8 percent, Harding 40.1 percent
*Free Throw Percentage: Tech 69.2 percent, Harding 70.3 percent All of it indicates that this year’s first meeting between the Wonder Boys and the Bisons will be very different from their last meeting --- a 95-64 Arkansas Tech blowout win over Harding in Russellville on Feb. 13, 2010. “It’s really crazy how similar we are,” said Arkansas Tech head coach Doug Karleskint when asked about the comparisons between the Wonder Boys and the Bisons. “We’re expecting this game to go down to the wire. I think Harding is really solid, and I like the way we are playing right now.” Harding features much the same cast that compiled a 16-12 overall record and bowed out in the first round of the GSC Tournament last season. The Bisons’ improvement over the past 12 months is best exemplified by senior guard Stephen Blake. He was a nice role player during his first two seasons at Harding with an 8.7 points per game career average and a 39.7 career shooting percentage from 3-point range. This season, Blake is averaging 12.8 points per contest and his 55.7 3-point percentage is easily the best in the GSC. No other player among the league’s 14 men’s basketball teams is shooting better than 48.5 percent. “Blake’s shooting stroke has been unbelievable this year,” said Karleskint. “You watch him on film and he is making shots from 23 and 24 feet, even on the fast break. When you play with the confidence that he’s been playing with this year, it takes you to a different level.” Senior forward Kevin Brown (13.1 points per game), sophomore guard Bradley Spencer (11.2 points per game), senior guard Sam Brown (10.7 points per game) and junior forward Kirk Porter (9.2 points per game) join Blake in Harding’s regular starting five. Junior guard Johnie Davis (14.8 points per game) leads Arkansas Tech in scoring, and he has developed a penchant for getting stronger as the game goes along. Davis (photographed) scored all 19 of his points after halftime at Christian Brothers on Jan. 13. Nine days later at Delta State, he notched 16 points in the second half to finish with 20 points for the game. On both occasions, Davis led all players in scoring. On both occasions, the Wonder Boys came away with the win. “One of the gifts that Johnie is blessed with is he can run for days,” said Karleskint. “That’s a huge benefit for him because when other people are getting tired he’s still running the floor and attacking the basket. It picks our entire basketball team up when he is doing that.” Senior forwards Jeremy Dunbar (12.0 points per game) and James Causey (10.8 points per game) also average double figures in scoring for Arkansas Tech. Radio station KWKK 100.9 FM will broadcast Thursday’s game in the Arkansas River Valley. There will be live audio and live video feeds from the game available at www.athletics.atu.edu.