Expectations for the 2011-12 Tennessee State University Tigers basketball team are high due to the excitement they generated last season under second-year coach John Cooper. The Tigers won 10 OVC games and secured a postseason berth despite being picked to finish seventh in pre-season polls.
Keenly aware of the school’s hoops heritage, which includes such legendary names as coach John McClendon (a pupil of the game’s inventor James Naismith) and NBA stars Dick “Skull” Barnett, Leonard “Truck” Robinson and Anthony Mason, Cooper has upgraded the schedule. He’s also welcomed fresh faces (center Munira Bawa and forwards Kellen Thornton and M.J. Rhett among others) alongside returning veterans like pre-season All-OVC pick Robert Covington and guards Wil Peter, the lone senior among his starters, and Patrick Miller.
While there have been notable triumphs such as the 64-63 victory at South Carolina — TSU’s first over an SEC opponent, the Tigers’ early season has been turbulent. There was a one-point double overtime loss to Mississippi Valley and a three-point loss to Western Kentucky in the second game of the year. There was an awful opening rout against St. Louis, where they scored only 39 points, and the expected 102-69 blowout by then-No. 1 North Carolina on the road. There have also been tough defeats to area foes Middle Tennessee State University, 77-62, and Belmont, who next year will become an OVC rival, 75-62.
In addition, Kenny Moore was “suspended indefinitely due to conduct detrimental to the team.”
We spoke with Coach Cooper about the team and season shortly before the UNC game. He has since opted not to discuss the Moore situation. The Tigers’ next opponents include Central Michigan Dec. 10 and Delaware State Dec. 17. They open the OVC schedule at the Gentry Center against UT Martin Dec. 29.
Coach, congratulations on the South Carolina victory.
Thank you. Our kids fought hard, and they showed a lot of character. It’s a win that they deserved. So far this season we’ve only had one disappointing game, which was our opener at St. Louis. We played very hard against Western Kentucky, but just didn’t shoot the ball well. We’re finding out that when you play the game properly, hustle, and do the right things on the court, good things happen. But as a coach, what you want to see is constant improvement. Against Fisk [a blowout victory], I was disappointed. Fisk outplayed us in the second half, and with all due respect to them, that shouldn’t happen. We have more size and talent than Fisk. That’s just being outworked, and you don’t like to see that as a coach.
What do you tell your team when your next opponent is the top-ranked team in the country and you’re facing them on their home court?
You can’t be intimidated, and I don’t think that will be the case with us. My concern is that we go in there and give our best effort, no matter what it might say on the scoreboard. We’ve got some experienced players, and they have a much better idea of what it takes to compete on the road and in a hostile environment. So we’re not going in there with any fear. I’m certain we’re big underdogs, but that shouldn’t concern us.
Your team is now expected to compete for an OVC championship, something that was certainly not the case when you arrived in Nashville. How does that change your approach, or does it?
Expectations don’t mean anything if you don’t go out and perform. We certainly have more veterans, and we have some depth now [three transfers that are eligible this season plus a redshirt and three arriving freshmen], and what I’m looking for from everyone, starters or reserves, is maximum effort. The players who are doing what we want to see on the court will be the ones who play. We’re not concerned here with stats or reputations, just victories. But at the same time, we’re expecting leadership from our veterans, from people like Robert Covington [pre-all OVC selection], Kenny Moore [All-OVC Newcomer last season], Patrick Miller [OVC Freshman of the Year], Wil Peters and Michael Green. We’re looking for improvement every game as a staff. That’s our goal. We don’t talk about conference championships or tournament berths, but we stress getting better every game and every time we come on the court.
Speaking of the OVC, were you surprised by the caliber of play since coming from the SEC?
No, we knew firsthand how good the OVC teams were. Everyone these days sees everyone else, so you don’t get fooled or have any illusions. Winning games in this conference, especially on the road, is very tough. It takes maximum effort every game to win in the OVC, especially if you want to compete for the conference title and go to the NCAAs. It will be up to our players to meet the challenge, and our staff and myself to get them ready to play every night. There are no easy opponents, and no soft games. When we had our troubles in the first season I was still very optimistic. Then when we began to improve last season, I got more optimistic. But I also know that you either keep getting better or you drop off, and we definitely don’t want that to happen.
You don’t have the easiest pre-conference schedule in the world. You’ve got upcoming games against Middle Tennessee State and Belmont. Did you schedule these teams to toughen up your squad for the OVC?
Well, I guess you could say that the person who did that is a bit crazy [laughs]. Middle Tennessee and Belmont are strong schools, and you won’t find a better coach in the country than Rick Byrd. We better be ready when we go over there or it will be a very long night. These in-state rivalry games are good for everyone. They develop interest in your program, and you can also see where you stand locally, especially when you go against teams that are expected to challenge for their league titles. It would be great to establish real rivalries with our in-state teams, great for the fans, and for our team. I hope that we’ll have the Gentry Center full for Middle, and for our conference games. We can definitely use a home-court advantage, because we see what it can do for teams when we go on the road.
Finally, I know coaches don’t like to cite numbers or goals, but what would you consider a good result for this season?
I guess my quick answer would be for us to reach our potential as a team, whatever that is and as far as that takes us. We have some depth and some size. We’re a good 3-point shooting team most nights. What will determine how well we do and how far we go will be how we defend, how we rebound and how smart we play. If we’re working together as a unit, and no one is more concerned with their playing time or their statistics than with the welfare of the team, I think we can compete with anyone in the conference. So far we’ve had a couple of games where the ball didn’t go in the basket, but other than the first one I can’t recall another time so far when we haven’t hustled, when everyone wasn’t rooting for the other player, and when we stopped battling. Things like field goal shooting can be erratic, but hustle
and effort are things that are consistent and don’t change from game to game. So long as we do everything we need to do in those areas, I’m confident everything else will take care of itself.
Ron Wynn is sports editor of the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to The City Paper and its sister publication the Nashville Scene.