Tennessee State's Travis Williams and the University of Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin go way back.
In fact, Williams remembers watching Martin play for the Atlanta Hawks while he was an assistant at Georgia State. The two have since crossed paths as worked their way up to their current jobs as head coaches.
But lately when Martin bumps into Williams on the recruiting trail, he grimaces even before the latter says anything. He knows exactly what Williams wants.
“Cuonzo is a good friend of mine so every time I see him I’m constantly reminding him, ‘Can we get a game? Can we get a game?’ ” Williams said. “That is the humorous thing about it. I saw him a few weeks ago on the road recruiting for the April period and he said, ‘Trav, man, you’re killing me, you keep killing me. I said, ‘Man, I want the game. I want to be able to play.’ We played one of the toughest schedules last year so I always want to play a tough [non-conference] schedule for us going into conference play.”
Williams and TSU will get the rare in-state showdown next season when the Tigers travel to Knoxville in November. A date and time have not been announced but Williams said the one-year deal is nearly finalized.
The schools have met on the basketball court just twice. Tennessee won both times — in the season openers for TSU for the 1990-91 season and the 1998-99 campaign.
“I have tremendous respect for Cuonzo and what he has been able to do with the program over there,” Williams said. “It was big for me and the program. I just think it is a great opportunity for us to go to Knoxville and play that caliber of a program. Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to go in there and have a strong showing — a good showing, if you know what I mean.”
TSU will try to regroup after losing four seniors and three of its top four scorers. The Tigers went 18-15 last year, finished with the third-best record in Ohio Valley Conference play and made the CollegeInsider.com Tournament for the second straight season. All-OVC point guard Patrick Miller returns for his senior season after averaging 14.8 points and setting the school record with 195 assists.
Tennessee, conversely, returns three of its top four scorers after going 20-13 and reaching for the NIT second straight year. But the Vols suffered a blow last week when Trae Golden announced he would transfer. The point guard averaged 12.1 points and had 121 assists.
Even so, with Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson returning, the Vols could crack several preseason Top 25 polls.
“Especially early on November we’ll kind of being find out about our program and what direction we want to go,” Williams said. “You look at the parity of college basketball, every given night you should be prepared to play. Our guys are going to prepare whether it is a Belmont or a Tennessee, we’re going to have the mindset that we’re going to prepare regardless of the program. We’re going to go in and play hard.”
Williams, in his first year as head coach, showed last year he wasn’t afraid to challenge his team early.
The Tigers played one of the tougher non-conference schedules, with games against BYU, Middle Tennessee State, Missouri, Minnesota and South Dakota State.
For the 2013-14 season, TSU will return trips to Drexel and USC Upstate, host MTSU and play crosstown rival Lipscomb. Williams said the entire schedule will be released later this summer.
But perhaps the most enticing matchup filled with local ties is when Miami (Ohio) comes to TSU’s Gentry Center in December. The RedHawks are returning a trip after the teams met during the 2011-12 season as part of ESPN’s BracketBusters.
Leading the RedHawks is former TSU head coach John Cooper, who spent three years with the Tigers and led the program to its first 20-win season in 32 years. He bolted for the Miami job last year and left the door open for Williams, who had been Cooper’s assistant the previous three years.
“Me and coach Cooper have known each other for a long time so it will be great,” Williams said before starting to laugh. “It will be a great opportunity to bring him back. And we’ll just leave it at that.”