Benson Era Officially Open as Eagles Host Belmont Abbey on Saturday Night
JEFFERSON CITY — The enthusiasm on the Carson-Newman College has been building since last spring. Saturday night at Holt Field House, the Chuck Benson era finally begins when the Carson-Newman men's basketball team hosts Belmont Abbey. Tip-off is 7:30 p.m.
Benson, who was named head coach in mid-June, rebuilds with a few pieces returning from last season's 11-17 team and has had to reload in only a few short months.
Newcomers, Antonio Sullivan (Louisville, Ky.) and Bradley Tumer (Mt. Dora, Fla.) will both be lied upon heavily to take over the starting roles at the top two guard spots. Tumer has had only a week of practice while rehabbing a leg injury, but he'll likely start on Saturday night.
Sullivan has been the Eagles best player and leading scorer through three exhibition games, averaging 14.7 points per game. He poured in 18 in the Eagles loss to Tennessee State on Monday.
The Crusaders represent a real challenge for the young Eagles squad. Guard Richard Barbee is a former Conference Carolinas player of the year. Junior forward Kyle Phillips, at 6-foot-9, is a major presence inside the paint and has already shown his ability against NCAA Division I teams in the exhibition season. Benson hopes his team is ready.
"I've liked our effort (in practice) and hopefully that carries over to the game," Benson said. "We're playing a veteran Belmont Abbey team. They've got a 6-9 post player Kyle Phillips who I've seen myself put 18 on Clemson. It'll be a good challenge."
Matched up against Phillips will most likely be sophomore center Joe Meady (Strawberry Plains, Tenn.). Meady only played in 15 games last season, but has put in the work to become a starter this season. Meady must become a physical presence inside that the Eagles need.
"This year I think we're a whole lot faster and have an up tempo style," Meady said. "We need to show everybody that we're a whole different team than last year."
Collin Crane (Knoxville, Tenn.) will be assisting Meady on the inside, but for the most part, Benson will be counting on new faces like Ishmael "Ish" Sanders (Cleveland, Tenn.),
Levon Tate (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), Kevin Leatherwood (Charlottesville, Va.), Ray Likely (Eustis, Fla.), Tyler Cross (Jacksboro, Tenn.), Tyler Smith (Andersonville, Tenn.) and Julian McBee (Knoxville, Tenn.).
"There's no way to speed up that maturation process and get guys experience that don't have experience," Benson said. "We've got nine new players in this program and a new staff. I don't think we could get any greener. And yet I've liked our practices."
Those practices have been full speed and brutal, but they've helped develop the new players and prepare them for the road ahead.
Benson will look to Sanders to provide some outside shooting and ball distribution as he will most likely start the opener for the Eagles. Being tougher and more physical has been something Benson has been instilling in his players from the start.
"I feel like we're taking strides to that every day," Sanders said. "The way that we're practicing full speed all the time, it'll only make us better."
Building a winner for the Eagles is going to take a lot more than early success. It's going to take sacrifice. Saturday at Holt Field House Benson will find out if his players are ready to make that commitment.
"Unless we have some guys that choose to make the sacrifice that winners make, then we're at best a .500 club," Benson said. "If we have guys that will sacrifice, then there's no limit on what can happen."
The Eagles follow up their game with Belmont Abbey with the Tusculum Classic in Greeneville, Tenn. Carson-Newman will face Georgia College on Nov. 19 at 5 p.m., then Hillsdale on Nov. 20 at 2 p.m.