Forgive the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys if, especially among their veteran players and head coach Mark Downey, smiles cross their faces when they walk into the DeSoto Civic Center on Friday. Twelve months ago, the Wonder Boys made history in that building by winning the first Gulf South Conference Tournament championship in Arkansas Tech men’s basketball history. Now it’s time to defend that title. The Wonder Boys (26-1) will face the West Georgia Wolves (13-14) in first-round action at 2:45 p.m. Friday in Southaven, Miss. The game can be heard live on Russellville radio station KWKK 100.9 FM.
Click here to access an Internet stream of the radio broadcast.
Arkansas Tech defeated Valdosta State 79-66 on March 8, 2009, to capture the GSC Tournament title. It was a springboard to a remarkable 12 months for the Wonder Boys.
Since cutting down the nets at the DeSoto Civic Center, Tech has made its first-ever men’s basketball appearance in the NCAA Division II Tournament, won a game in that event for the first time ever, set a school record with 25 straight victories to open the 2009-10 season, set a GSC record by holding the No. 1 spot in the NCAA Division II poll for six straight weeks and earned its first GSC West Division regular season title.
“We’ve only lost twice since the last time we were in Southaven,” said Downey, who received his first GSC West Division coach of the year award this week. “That’s a pretty unbelievable year. It’s one to remember, and hopefully we can go back in there and re-create some memories. It’s a wonderful place to play. Hopefully we can play well and see what happens.”
It took 17 years for any men’s basketball program to successfully defend its GSC Tournament title. Delta State finally broke the code with back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998.
Since then, two other GSC programs have successfully defended the GSC Tournament championship in men’s basketball. Henderson State took the trophy home to Arkadelphia three straight years from 1999-2001. Montevallo, which has since left the league, captured back-to-back GSC Tournament titles in 2004 and 2005.
Now, an Arkansas Tech program that only qualified for the GSC Tournament once in its first 10 years of eligibility has a chance to become just the fourth repeat postseason tournament champion in Gulf South Conference history.
“Survive and advance — that’s basically what you have to do,” said Downey. “There was some magic in that building last year. If we’re so lucky to move on, there are some really good teams in front of us. We would love to bring that trophy home again.”
The Wonder Boys earned the No. 1 seed in the GSC Tournament from the GSC West Division with defense.
Arkansas Tech leads the GSC in field goal percentage defense (.398), 3-point field goal percentage defense (.294) and steals (10.19 per game). The Wonder Boys rank second in the GSC and ninth in NCAA Division II in scoring defense (60.3 points allowed per game).
But Tech’s season and its success have been defined by one factor above all others — creating extra possessions. The Wonder Boys have done that by leading the GSC and ranking second in NCAA Division II in turnover margin (+6.62 turnovers per game). They also average a +4.8 rebound margin.
Tech’s opponent on Friday — West Georgia — knows all about the Wonder Boys’ ability to generate extra possessions. Tech outscored the Wolves 30-11 in points off turnovers in an 89-70 Wonder Boys’ victory over UWG in Russellville on Nov. 30.
That Arkansas Tech win earlier this season came in the first-ever meeting between the two men’s basketball programs. Now, after never crossing paths in their first 14 years as fellow GSC members, the Wonder Boys and Wolves will meet twice in the 2009-10 season.
West Georgia has lost four of its last five games. Its only win since Feb. 9 is a narrow 96-95 escape against Carver Bible College.
The Wolves are led by senior forward John Pringle, who averages 13.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He is a two-time All-GSC East Division selection.
Arkansas Tech counters with Brandon Friedel, a senior guard and the GSC West Division player of the year. He ranks eighth in the GSC in scoring (15.1 points per game).
Junior forward Jeremy Dunbar scored a season-high 21 points in Tech’s regular season-ending win over Christian Brothers. He is averaging 11.9 points per game, while senior guard Renard Allen (11.6 points per game) gives the Wonder Boys three players averaging double figures in scoring.
Junior point guard Laithe Massey adds 9.9 points per game. Massey ranks fifth in the GSC in assists (3.96 per game) and he leads the league in steals (1.96 per game).
Allen and Massey joined Friedel as Tech’s three representatives on the 2009-10 All-GSC West Division team.
The winner of the Tech-UWG game will meet either Arkansas-Monticello (14-10) or Valdosta State (24-3) in the semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. UAM and VSU play at 12:30 p.m. Friday.
The opposite side of the men’s bracket pits Delta State (19-7) against North Alabama (12-15) at 5:30 p.m. and Harding (16-11) against Alabama-Huntsville (21-5) at 7:30 p.m. in other first-round action on Friday. The winners of those games will play in semifinal No. 2 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
The men’s championship game is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. Sunday.]]>