MEN'S HOOPS OPENS SEASON TOMORROW AT ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK; LOOKS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DEPTH IN YEAR FOUR OF JASON JAMES ERA
November 8, 2012
MARTIN, Tenn. - The University of Tennessee at Martin men’s basketball team opens the 2012-13 campaign against perennial Sun Belt Conference contender Arkansas-Little Rock at the Jack Stephens Center on Friday, Nov. 9. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
The Skyhawks were successful in their only preseason tuneup - a 109-79 dismantling of Illinois College last Friday. In that game, UT Martin boasted five players in double-figures scoring, led by Bobby Jones’ 27 points in 25 minutes. Myles Taylor (19 points), Mike Liabo (16), Justin Childs (14) and BJ McLaughlin (12) also reached double-digits in the scoring column for UT Martin, who shot 66.7 percent (16-for-24) from three-point range.
Arkansas-Little Rock returns five players - including a pair of starters - from last season’s squad that finished 15-16 and was eliminated in the Sun Belt Conference tournament by eventual winner Western Kentucky.
The Trojans’ top returning player is junior forward Will Neighbour, who earned All-SBC second team accolades last season after averaging 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest. Joining him in the frontcourt is Michael Javes, who compiled 5.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game last season.
Entering his fourth season at the helm of UT Martin basketball program, Jason James says that the talent is on hand for the Skyhawks to make a run in 2012-13. What James likes even more than his talented roster is the depth in which UT Martin will employ on each and every night.
“We are deeper and more athletic than some of the teams we have had in the past,” James said. “From a depth standpoint, we could be more balanced than years past. Our basketball IQ is very high and that allows us to do different things, especially on the offensive end.”
Indeed, UT Martin returns four starters this season, not including one of the team’s best playmakers in Terence Smith. Smith, who at times was UT Martin’s best player as a freshman in 2010-11, missed all of last season because of a medical redshirt after averaging 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per outing two years ago.
“It’s good to see Terence back in uniform, running up and down the floor,” James said. “We are encouraging him to take his time and get his feet wet. He is getting more comfortable by the day and once he gets fully comfortable, we will see the same old Terence. Once he gets accustomed to what it feels like to play at a high level again, he will play a lot better.”
This season also marks the return of a healthy Liabo on the wing for the Skyhawks. Despite playing all of last season with an ailing hip after an offseason injury, Liabo poured in double-figures in the scoring column in 28 out of 30 games and ranked fourth in the OVC in three-point field goals made (2.3 per game) and seventh in scoring (15.2 points per game).
“Mike has come a long way since last season,” James said. “He has learned to be more efficient offensively and compete a lot harder on the defensive end. Last year was tough for him because of what he went through off the floor but he is getting back to normal physically and mentally. He is healthy and is responding well.”
Alongside Liabo last season, one constant was the play of Myles Taylor on the low block. Despite his youth, the 6-7, 250-pound bruiser established himself as one of the most talented post players in the Ohio Valley Conference – scoring double-figures in 21 games, including five games of 20 or more points. His strong play down the stretch led to an OVC Freshman of the Year award, as he became just the third player in program history to earn that accolade.
“Myles has gotten better and I think a big reason for that is his footwork has gotten better,” James said. “He can finish with both hands around the basket. He’s an emotional player and we are trying to harness that. If he can keep his emotions under control and just play basketball he is a pretty tough player.”
The Skyhawks also return junior Omari Minor, who chalked up a team-high 30 starts at the point guard slot last season. Minor was steady for UT Martin in 2011-12, ranking fourth in the OVC in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6) in conference play while ranking second on the squad in steals (1.2 per game).
Minor leads five players who could see time at the point this season. That group includes Smith, Khristian Taylor and newcomers Childs and Dee Oldham.
Khristian Taylor saw time in 15 games last season as a freshman, cracking the rotation in late November/early December. The 6-2 Akron, Ohio native logged 11 minutes per game and was more comfortable as the season went along.
Childs joins the Skyhawks out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where he led the Bulldogs to a pair of conference titles and a 44-11 mark in his two seasons. Oldham was one of two freshmen signees for UT Martin, as he is fresh off setting the Wilson Central High School all-time scoring record while leading the Wildcats to a Class AAA state tournament appearance last season.
“Omari is our only true point guard and everybody else is a combo guard but all of our guys understand how to play the point,” James said. “We have different lineups we can play because all of our guys at that spot bring different dimensions. Omari is our best on-ball defender and he has gotten better at keeping us organized. Terence and Justin give us bigger options at the position – both of those guys are very explosive in getting to the rim and can make plays off the bounce. Dee and Khristian are more of system point guards and both have potential to really help us.”
Smith and Childs will also see time at the 2-guard position for UT Martin, joining Liabo (174 points shy of becoming the program’s 16th member of the 1,000 point club) and newcomer Jones.
Jones comes to UT Martin after a 32-5 season at Eastern Oklahoma State College last year. The spot-on shooter averaged just over 14 points a game while leading the Mountaineers to their first NJCAA Tournament appearance since 1961.
“We are very versatile on the wing,” James said. “We have four guys who can be effective in different ways. Mike and Bobby can stretch the defense and are very aggressive with the ball. Terence and Justin can do a bit of everything and are good at making plays happen.”
The Skyhawks also have collected several big bodies in the post, as five players stand 6-7 or taller. Myles Taylor is at the forefront of the group, which also includes the team’s only two seniors in Jeremy Washington and Corderio Maclin. Junior Pierre Mopo as well as newcomers Tobias Dowdell and McLaughlin will provide quality minutes for the UT Martin frontcourt in 2012-13.
Washington is one of only two returners who saw time in all 31 games last season (along with Minor). At times the offense ran through Washington last year, as he delivered an extraordinary 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio (69 assists against 37 turnovers).
Maclin showed potential last season, boasting one of the best point-per-minute ratios on the team (6.3 points in 14.5 minutes per game). His .490 field goal percentage was the second-highest mark on the team.
Mopo saw time in eight contests last season, pulling down 13 rebounds in 15 minutes of action. His best game came at Southeastern Louisiana on Feb. 18, when he snagged a career-best eight boards in just 19 minutes.
One of the best athletes on the UT Martin roster, Dowdell will have three seasons of eligibility for the Skyhawks after a year at Lawson State Community College. He shot 56 percent from the floor for a Cougar squad that posted a 23-8 mark last season.
At the high school level, McLaughlin found success while prepping against the best teams in the state of Missouri. He led the Hawks to a 45-9 record in his final two seasons at Hazelwood Central High School.
“A luxury that we have is that all of our post players can play both the ‘4’ and the ‘5’,” James said. “Our post position is not as deep but we can play different lineups and be effective. Myles is in the middle and will be a focal point from a post presence standpoint. Jeremy and Corderio are veterans and have been around to see everything. To this point, they have been very willing to fill in where we need them. Tobias is a different type of player that we have had here – he can run the floor and jump very well and is very athletic. BJ is our best option to step out and make a shot but his skill is being a warrior and competing every night.”
All in all, the Skyhawks have the look and feel of a much-improved squad in 2012-13, which is also the first year that the OVC has adopted divisional play. UT Martin is paired in the West division with Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, Murray State, SIU Edwardsville and Southeast Missouri, while the East division features the likes of league newcomer Belmont, Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, Morehead State, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech.
Each team will play a home-and-home series with teams from its divisions, while facing the teams from the opposite division once during conference play.
“Even with the new format, you still have to compete and try to find a way to win games,” James said. “The league will be tough as usual from top to bottom. On any given night, any team can win. You still have to lace your shoes up and play.”
Live video for the Arkansas-Little Rock game will be available at this link: . Fans can also hear the Trojans’ broadcast of the game at this link: http://radio.securenetsystems.net/v4/index.cfm?stationCallSign=KHLRFM &tmpl=componentand track live stats here: http://www.ualrtrojans.com/liveStats/liveStats.dbml?&DB_OEM_ID=7400.