GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- The Tusculum University men's basketball team will tip off its 2020-21 season this Saturday when they host Wingate University at Pioneer Arena for a South Atlantic Conference contest beginning at 4 p.m.
Head coach JT Burton begins his third season at the helm of the TU program and has led the Pioneers to back-to-back winning seasons. Tusculum posted a 19-13 record last year and finished fourth in the league standings for a second straight season. The recipe for success has been a suffocating defense that allowed 70.2 points per game (2nd in SAC) and possessed a knack for attacking the boards, especially on the offensive glass where TU led the country in offensive rebounds per game (15.9 rpg) in the 2019-20 campaign.
The Pioneers are also coming off a season where they advanced to the SAC Semifinal for the first time since 2011. TU returns nine lettermen from that squad including four young men who were with the program last year and eight newcomers who join the fold this fall.
Gone are a trio of starters including three of the team's top five scorers. But TU brings back its leader in scoring and assists in All-Conference guard Trenton Gibson and the Pioneers' top rebounder and shot blocker in senior forward Brandon Mitchell.
The Pioneers will be playing a 20-game slate this season, all conference contests as Tusculum will have to ready out of the gate.
"We are going right into battle from the very beginning," said Burton. "Every game counts from day one, playing a 20-game South Atlantic Conference schedule and opening with a tough opponent in Wingate. Our team has navigated through fall camp well so far, including all the challenges coming with the pandemic. We will have our growing pains the veterans and new guys come together as a team. It's going to be an exciting season."
Gibson, a 6-4 junior from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, averaged a team-best 13.5 points per game (20th in SAC) and led TU in assists with 3.9 helpers per contest (7th in SAC). The 2019 SAC Freshman of the Year was also third on the roster in rebounding, pulling down 5.9 boards per game (16th in SAC). He scored in double figures in 24 of his 32 starts including last year's season-opener where he recorded a triple-double of 17 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists against 2019 NCAA Tournament participant USC Aiken.
Gibson enters his third season with the Pioneers with 814 points, 352 rebounds and 229 assists to his credit. His .784 career free throw percentage is eighth in Tusculum history while his 3.75 career assists per game average is seventh in the TU record book.
Gibson, a sport management major, has shined off the basketball hardwood too where he boasts a 3.96 grade point average and was named the 2020 SAC Elite 20 Award recipient for men's basketball. He also earned a spot on the CoSIDA Academic All-District first team and was tabbed to the Division II Athletic Director's Association Honor Roll.
Mitchell, a 6-9 product of Virginia Beach, Virginia, established a new TU single-season record with his 62 blocked shots last year, which were the most in the league and 12th-most in NCA II. His 1.94 blocked shots per game average was second in the SAC and 23rd in the country. Mitchell also led the league in offensive rebounds per game (1.94 orpg - 12th in NCAA II) and his 7.8 boards per contest rate were most on the team and third in the conference. His 250 total rebounds were the sixth-most by Pioneer in a season to raise his career rebound tally to 501. In 2019-20, Mitchell also poured in 9.3 points per game and led the team with eight double-doubles. He finished the season shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 70 percent from the free throw line.
In his 85-game career, he has totaled 585 points and his 136 career blocked shots are the second-most in school history, 23 behind TU shot-block leader Brad Hawks (159 from 2001-2005). Mitchell enters this season averaging 5.89 rebounds per game for his career, which is the seventh best average in program history.
Sophomore forward Joshua Scott returns for the Pioneers after he garnered a spot on the SAC All-Freshman Team. In his 29 outings, he averaged 5.4 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. Scott, a 6-5 native of Pompano Beach, Florida, scored in double figures seven times and finished the season with 156 points, 81 rebounds and 18 steals.
Justin Mitchell appeared in 27 games with seven consecutive starts early in the season. The 6-5 Lexington, Kentucky sophomore forward averaged 4.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in his rookie year.
Junior Adrian Cohen played in 26 games last season where he totaled 37 points, 22 rebounds and 15 assists. The 6-5 Woodstock, Georgia product has appeared in 51 games for the Pioneers where he is averaging 1.8 points and 1.1 rebounds per contest.
Sophomore guard Zack Dixon totaled 54 points and 17 rebounds in his 22 appearances last season. He shined late in the year where he posted a season-best 17 points in Tusculum's SAC Quarterfinal victory over Anderson.
Sophomore guard Keaston Brown (Lexington, Ky.) totaled 67 points, 35 rebounds and 27 assists in his 31 outings during his freshman season, while sophomore forward DyQuavis Wilkins, a 6-5 forward from Greenville, North Carolina saw action in all 32 games and averaged 1.8 points and 1.6 rebounds per contest. Wilkins also finished the year shooting 72.2 percent from the charity stripe. Peter Mgbechi, a 6-10 center from Nigeria, saw action in seven games last year and is expected to see more playing time in 2020-21.
Also returning to the program for the Pioneers are Makai Olden (Morristown, Tenn. / West HS), Cameron Willis (Springfield, Ky. / Washington County HS), Avishai Lowery (Athens, Tenn. / Athens Prep) and Miguel Boskovic (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain / IES Canaria Cabrera Pinto) who redshirted last season.
Coach Burton has eight newcomers on the Tusculum roster this season, highlighted by graduate student transfer James West IV. West, a 6-1 guard from Woodbridge, Virginia, committed to NCAA Division I Mount St. Mary's University out of high school and was also being recruited by Maryland, Wake Forest, Kansas State, Rice, MTSU and UNC Greensboro. He redshirted as a freshman due to injury three years ago (2017-18) and remained with the program where he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in 2020.
West played his prep career at Freedom High School in Virginia where he was an All-State selection while averaging 19.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals while shooting over 50 percent from three-point territory.
Rookie forward Inady Legiste brings an impressive resume with him from Stranahan High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The 6-7, 235-pounder averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots per game during his prep career. He was a FHSAA All-State first team choice and was the BCAA All-Star Game MVP. He led Stranahan to a pair of State titles and was also a 2020 Scholar Athlete.
Freshman guard Ray Tyler comes to Tusculum after graduating from Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Tyler, a 6-0 guard garnered All-State accolades and led Blackman to District, Region and Tournament titles last season.
Kobe Funderburk, a 6-0 freshman guard from Charlotte, North Carolina, was an All-Conference standout at Harding University High School where he was the state's top three-point shooter during his junior prep campaign.
Rookie forward Yan Kankela averaged 10.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game while playing at the St. John School in Charleston, West Virginia.
Freshman guard Dan Atkins posted 11 points and seven rebounds per game while garnering All-Conference honors at Claiborne High School. The 6-3 New Tazewell, Tennessee native led Claiborne to a region title and was an All-Academic Team selection.
Point guard Kairee Price was an All-Metro and All-District honoree during his prep career at Glencliff High School in Nashville, Tennessee. He accounted for 15.0 points and 5.7 assists per game while scoring 875 points in his career at Glencliff.
Peyton Blackburn, a 6-2 guard from Dublin, Virginia, was a two-time All-Conference selection from Pulaski County High School. He totaled 223 points and 153 rebounds in his senior campaign and graduated with honors.
Following Saturday's opener with Wingate, Tusculum will remain at home for Tuesday's SAC clash with UVA Wise, before beginning a three-game road trip including next Saturday's tilt against defending SAC Champion and nationally-ranked Lincoln Memorial.