Arkansas Tech is the No. 1-ranked team in NCAA Division II men’s basketball now, but before the season started Gulf South Conference coaches did not tab the Wonder Boys as the favorites to win the GSC West Division.
That honor went to Delta State.
The Wonder Boys (17-0 overall, 4-0 GSC) and the Statesmen (13-3, 4-0) will begin the process of settling that matter on the floor when they meet for the first time this season on Saturday.
Tip-off at Tucker Coliseum is set for 6 p.m. Tickets will be available at the door beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday. Admission will be free for those with a valid Tech identification card.
If the game between Tech and Delta State is as close as the preseason poll was, then Saturday night promises to deliver one whale of a contest.
The Statesmen received four first-place votes and a total of 44 points when coaches were asked to pick their preseason favorites.
The Wonder Boys also received four first-place votes, but Tech only accumulated 42 points because one coach picked it to finish fourth in the GSC West. DSU received nothing lower than a second-place vote.
Fortunately for Arkansas Tech, none of that will amount to a hill of beans come 6 p.m. Saturday. What will matter for the Wonder Boys is reclaiming the defensive intensity that vaulted them to the No. 1 spot in the NCAA Division II poll.
Tech only allowed one of its first 14 opponents to shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
But two of the Wonder Boys’ last three foes have topped that figure, including Ouachita Baptist’s 53.8 percent shooting against Tech in a 74-65 Wonder Boys’ win on Thursday. It was the highest field goal percentage against Arkansas Tech this season.
And then there is one of Tech head coach Mark Downey’s favorite mantras --- “39 percent wins.” The Wonder Boys held 10 of their first 14 opponents below the 40 percent shooting mark that Downey sets as a defensive goal for his team.
The fourth-year Tech head coach knows that returning to that level of defensive performance will be critical against Delta State.
“We’ve put that press in, and that skews things a little bit,” said Downey. “We forced 33 turnovers against Henderson State and they shot 50 percent. And then Ouachita shot 54 percent, but we forced 25 turnovers. So it skews it a little bit, but it’s still not something I am happy about.
“We need to understand that when they don’t turn it over, we need to get in a stance, pressure the ball, lock them down, help each other and guard them as a team,” continued Downey. “We need to do a better job, and the same thing with the glass. We haven’t rebounded the basketball like we want to the last couple of games. That’s got to get better.”
Delta State will pose Arkansas Tech’s defense with a challenge.
The Statesmen are second in the GSC West in scoring at 79.3 points per game. Four DSU players average double figures in scoring, led by senior forward Roderick Ollie (14.1 points per game).
The engine that makes Delta State go is senior point guard Chad Akins. An All-NCAA Division II South Region selection last season, Akins is fifth in the country in assists (7.2 per game). He is on pace to become the Statesmen’s all-time leader in career assists later this season.
“He’s the head of the snake,” said Downey of Akins. “That’ll be our job --- to cut the head off the snake. He makes them go. If they didn’t have him, I don’t know where they’d be. They are talented, but they need someone to keep them together. He does such a good job dictating the tempo and controlling the game.
“We need to take the ball out of his hands,” continued Downey. “We need to stop him from creating for other people, and we need to try to wear him out. If we can do that, I think we’ll be successful.”
Arkansas Tech is led by its own all-region caliber guard --- senior Brandon Friedel. His 16.5 points per game average is tied for the fifth-highest in the GSC. He leads the league in 3-point field goals made (3.24 per game) and ranks second in the Gulf South in 3-point field goal percentage (.482).
Senior guard Renard Allen (11.9 points per game) and junior forward Jeremy Dunbar (10.4 points per game) also average double figures for the Wonder Boys.
Junior point guard Laithe Massey is second in the GSC in steals and fourth in assists, and he has provided Tech with a big scoring boost since the start of league play. He has averaged 11.8 points per game in conference action, including a 17-point effort against Ouachita on Thursday.
Saturday will mark the Wonder Boys’ first-ever home game as the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
The largest crowd to ever see Tech’s men play at Tucker Coliseum was 3,248 for the 1988 NAIA District 17 title game against the University of the Ozarks.
The Wonder Boys have had nine home crowds of 2,000 or more fans since the opening of Tucker Coliseum, but Tech’s men have not enjoyed that level of home support since 2,363 turned out for a game against Ozarks on Feb. 6, 1995.
“The crowd really got us going for the Henderson State game (on Jan. 14),” said Downey. “Composure is going to be a big deal in this game. The team that holds its composure, sticks to its game plan and does not get too high or too low is the one that will win the game. The crowd is something that we’ll have to feed off of, and I think the crowd could go a long way toward determining Delta’s composure too. With our system, the crowd can really get behind us and pump us up.”
Russellville radio station KWKK 100.9 FM and www.athletics.atu.edu will have live play-by-play coverage of Saturday’s game.]]>