GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- A new era begins this weekend when the Tusculum men's basketball team opens the season when they travel to Banner Elk, North Carolina for the South Atlantic Conference / Conference Carolinas Challenge.
Tusculum will tip off the 2017-2018 campaign on Friday when they take on King University for a 5 p.m. contest. TC will wrap up the Challenge on Saturday with a 6 p.m. contest against host Lees-McRae.
Head coach Nick Pasqua will take his 23-man roster into the season with the return of six lettermen from last year's 12-17 squad that finished eighth in the conference standings. The Pioneers will be looking for contributions from several Division I and II transfers as well as a batch of talented freshmen.
"I am excited about this year's roster. We have a good mix of returners and newcomers. The new players we have signed will play a big role in our success this year, but we also have several returnees that will see significant minutes, and be key contributors," said Pasqua. "I also believe we have a good mix of skill, and athleticism that should allow us to play the up-tempo style that I want Pioneer basketball to be known for."
"I think our biggest strength is our ability to shoot the basketball. I think we can put out lineups this year that will have five legitimate threats from beyond the three-point line. We also have some guys that are versatile and can play multiple positons which is a plus."
Pasqua knows Friday's opening opponent well as his Pioneers square off against his alma mater and former employer King. Pasqua served on the King coaching staff for nine seasons, including the last six as associate head coach with legendary Tornado skipper George Pitts.
"Opening up against King is very unique. King is a place that will always be very special to me," Pasqua added. "I spent 13 years there between playing and coaching, and opening up with them hopefully gives our team a little more motivation to work hard knowing that I just came from there. Coaching against Coach Pitts will also be something very unique. We spent the last nine years working side by side, and I credit him with me being able to be the head coach at Tusculum at this point in my career. He was an unbelievable mentor to me, and spent just as much time coaching me to be a head coach as he did coaching the players we had at King. I know the type of competitor he is and he will have King extremely prepared and ready to go on Friday."
Returning from last year's roster is senior guard Ronnie Baylark, who finished second on the team in scoring averaging 13.1 points per game (19th in SAC). Baylark, a 6-2 native of Crestview, Florida also tallied 2.9 rebounds per contest and led the league with his 85.1 free throw percentage, including 87.1 percent in SAC games. He was also tops on the team with his 47.1 three-point percentage, which as eighth in the league.
Junior forward Zach Hartle is back after tallying 4.7 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. The 6-7 product of King, North Carolina, provided an accurate three-point threat off the bench, shooting 41 percent from behind the arc. He also connected on 21 of his 23 free throw tries for 91.3 percent success rate.
Junior center Connor Mitchell returns as does redshirt sophomore guard Diego Poore. Mitchell, a 6-8 native of Kingsport, Tennessee, tallied 1.6 points and 2.5 rebounds per game as he saw action in every game. Poore, a 6-2 product of Crossville, Tennessee, made six appearances off the bench in his first season of action for the Pioneers.
TC returns a pair of talented sophomores in Trey Blevins and Caleb Hodnett. Blevins, a 6-0 point guard from Monticello, Kentucky, stepped up as a true freshman last season averaging 5.1 points and 1.2 assists per outing. He saw action in 27 games where he shot 38.7 percent from three-point land and 78 percent at the free throw line.
Hodnett, a 6-8 forward from Adolphus, Kentucky, provided an inside/outside presence as a rookie as he played in all 29 games. Hodnett averaged five points and 3.7 rebounds per contest and shot 45 percent from the floor, including 36.1 percent from three-point territory.
Also back from last year's roster is junior guard Malik Tyree. The Lynchburg, Virginia native was hampered by injury last season, following a 2015-16 campaign where he played in 11 contests, averaging 1.5 points and 1.3 rebounds per game.
Tusculum also returns redshirts Hunter Parrish (Oviedo, Fla.), Victor Corrales (Eden, N.C.), Tarique Wynn (Asheville, N.C.), Dustin Day (Jonesborough, Tenn.) and Ethan Harmon (Greeneville, Tenn.) from last year's roster.
NCAA Division I transfer Peyton Woods joins the Tusculum line-up after playing the past two seasons at Chattanooga. During his two seasons at UTC, the Mocs posted a 48-18 record, including 25-11 in Southern Conference play which included a 2016 sweep of the SoCon regular season and tournament titles to earn a berth to the NCAA Tournament. The 6-4 guard from Monticello, Kentucky, scored 103 points in his 31 games at UTC.
During his prep career at Wayne County High School in Kentucky, Woods scored 2,467 points and connected on 362 three-point field goals, the fifth-most in state history. His teams recorded 103 win in a three-year period while garnering All-State honors on two occasions.
Junior guard Jackie Davis joins the Pioneers after playing at Odessa Junior College where he helped the Wranglers to a 28-6 record and a NJCAA Region V Championship. Davis, a 6-4 product from Long Beach, California, started his collegiate career at NCAA I Washington State as he played in 11 games for the Cougars and earned a spot on the Pac-12 All-Academic Team. Davis played his high school career at Rolling Hills Prep as he averaged 24.8 points, 5.1 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game while earning All-State honors and was a McDonald's All-American Game nominee.
Center Tobe Okafor will provide size in the paint as well as a strong shot blocking presence with his 6-foot-11 frame. The Lagos, Nigeria graduate student played previously at NCAA Division II Arkansas Tech as he helped the Wonderboys to a 15-14 campaign, finishing second on the team with 32 blocked shots. He shot 66 percent from the floor and averaged 2.9 points and 3.0 rebounds per contest. Okafor, who is a graduate student at Tusculum, played one season each at NCAA I Grand Canyon University and started his collegiate career at Western Texas College. While at Western Texas, he recorded 66 blocked in his rookie season which ranked 27th in the nation.
Junior guard Connor Greene joins the Tusculum program after attending Northeast State Community College. Greene, a 6-2 native of Bristol, Tennessee, played at Tennessee High as the Vikings advanced to the TSSAA Sub-State round.
Junior guard Donovan Donaldson played the last two seasons at NCAA II Trevecca Nazarene University. The 6-1 Nashville, Tennessee native made 26 starts last year with the Trojans and averaged 13 points, three rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. In his rookie season at TNU, he appeared in 26 games, averaged 6.7 points per game and shot 49 percent from the field. He played his prep career at Hillsboro High School in Nashville where he averaged 14.5 points, 5.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds as he led the Burros to a 24-9 record and the district and region titles as his team advanced to the TSSAA Quarterfinals.
Peeler, a 6-3 guard from Charlotte, North Carolina, was a two-time All-Conference performer at Myers Park High School. He averaged 22.6 points, 7.4 assists and 1.7 steals last season.
Smith, a 6-5 guard from Montevallo, Alabama, was a finalist for Mr. Basketball honors for the State of Alabama at Montevallo High School. The two-time All-State honoree averaged 20.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.1 blocked shots per game.
Smallwood, a 6-3 guard from Brentwood, Tennessee, was a two-time TSSAA 11-AAA All-District selection at Ravenwood High School. Smallwood poured in 19.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 3.6 assists per game as he also garnered All-Mid State second team accolades.
Mitchell, a 6-7 forward from Virginia Beach, Virginia, averaged 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots per game at Salem High School.
DeBusk, a 5-10 guard, played his prep basketball locally at Greeneville High School. DeBusk helped lead the Greene Devils to an 18-11 record and earned All-Conference, All-District and District All-Tournament honors in 2017. He averaged 10 points per game and led GHS in assists.
Gibbs, a 5-7 guard from Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, was a two-time All-Area selection at South Walton High School where he was his team's most valuable player.
Following this weekend's games in Banner Elk, the Pioneers will be on the road for two games next week with trips to Lee University (Nov. 15) and Belmont Abbey College (Nov. 18) before opening at home on Nov. 21st when they host Lee in a rematch at Pioneer Arena. Tusculum will open conference play on Nov. 29 when they host nationally-ranked Lincoln Memorial University.
"My goals are pretty simple. I want us to compete every night and win as many games as we possibly can. The South Atlantic Conference is extremely difficult, and I know it is a process trying to reach a championship level," Pasqua said. "If we can compete every night, and continue to grow as a team, I believe we will be playing our best basketball as the tournament approaches in March."