Tech Tidbits: GAC Crown in Hand, NCAA Tourney Next

Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys 2024 GAC Tournament Champions
The Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys: 2024 GAC Tournament champions.

As the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys gathered on Sunday night to celebrate the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in seven years, head coach Mark Downey spoke to his basketball team and set the tone for the upcoming week.

“You guys have risen to one challenge after another,” said Downey. “The one thing I’m most proud of with you guys is the character you’ve shown. I could go on and on and on. This is the most selfless group I’ve ever been around. It’s been so fun. I don’t want it to end. We’re going to Minnesota to win…whatever we have to do. I’m proud of you guys and I love every one of you.”

Arkansas Tech University (25-6) will face nationally second-ranked Minnesota State University (29-2) on the Mavericks’ home floor at the Taylor Center in Mankato, Minn., at 5 p.m. Saturday. Live coverage will be available on KCJC 102.3 FM, and the EAB Media Group app.

The Wonder Boys’ only path to the NCAA Tournament was to win the Great American Conference Tournament. They achieved that on Sunday afternoon with a 72-57 victory over Southern Nazarene University at FireLake Arena in Shawnee, Okla.

Arkansas Tech led 33-27 at halftime and took control of the game by opening the second half on a 7-0 run. The Crimson Storm had defeated the Wonder Boys twice during the 2023-24 regular season and eight of the last nine meetings between the two programs before Sunday.

“We said it all day…we have to be the aggressor,” said Downey during the post-game radio interview. “I felt like the two times we got beat by (Southern Nazarene), we weren’t the aggressor. We didn’t guard them like we were the aggressor and we didn’t attack them offensively like we were the aggressor. We had to be the aggressor today, and I thought we were, especially at the start of the second half.”

The Wonder Boys have played primarily man-to-man defense while ranking top 20 in the nation in scoring defense this season, but they turned to a 2-3 zone at times on Sunday.

“It slowed (Southern Nazarene) down some and got them out of their rhythm,” said Downey. “We really defended today. We scored it well enough and rebounded it well enough to win, and we only turned it over seven times.”

Junior guard Cassius Brooks was named GAC Tournament most valuable player. He scored 21 points in the championship game after putting up a career-high 26 points in Arkansas Tech’s 54-53 semifinal win over Northwestern Oklahoma State University and 17 points in the Wonder Boys’ 67-65 victory over Harding University in the first round.

“He’s an everyday guy,” said Downey when asked about Brooks. “All of these guys are everyday guys, but Cassius is the definition of it. He just keeps bringing it and bringing it. I’m so happy to see him be the MVP and have success.”

Brooks was joined on the All-GAC Tournament team by fellow ATU juniors Tommy Kamarad and Kade Shaffer as the Wonder Boys extended their winning streak to 10 games and became the first men’s basketball program to accumulate three GAC Tournament titles. Arkansas Tech also owns the men’s GAC Tournament championship trophies from 2012 and 2015.

In addition to Brooks, Kamarad and Shaffer, the Wonder Boys’ regular rotation features junior guard Taelon Peter, the GAC player of the year; junior forward Josh Mitchell, who leads the GAC in blocked shots this season; freshman guard Braden Tanner, who is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range; junior guard Trey Allen, who scored a career-high eight points (all in the second half) in the GAC Tournament final; junior forward Sean Cobb, who provides the perfect complement to Mitchell as part of ATU’s two-man rotation in the post; and junior forward Isaac Ragland, who made himself a bona fide folk hero with regular season 3-point shooting performances against East Central University and Oklahoma Baptist University that were integral in making all of this possible.

I try to steer away from hyperbole, so I don’t type this opinion lightly: a win on Saturday at Minnesota State would be the greatest upset in the history of Arkansas Tech men’s basketball. With that written, I fully expect the Wonder Boys to be prepared, to compete and to have an opportunity at the end. All they have to do is take what they have earned.

“There are so many great stories on this team,” said Downey. “This group is just so fun to be around. I’m having the time of my life. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had coaching a team, and that’s no disrespect to my other teams. I think I’m there now because of the person I am today as compared to the other teams I’ve taken to the NCAA Tournament. I don’t want it to end, and they don’t either, so we’ll go play another one.”

Talk to you on the radio.

Tech Tidbits is a column written by Sam Strasner, ATU director of university relations and radio play-by-play voice for ATU football and basketball.