November 3, 2017

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MARTIN, Tenn. - For the 2017-18 University of Tennessee at Martin men’s basketball program, it’s been business as usual under head coach Anthony Stewart.

Despite the fact that the Skyhawks are coming off three straight 20-win seasons and back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship appearances, UT Martin was tabbed to finish eighth in the preseason polls voted on by the league’s head coaches and sports information directors.

“We don’t pay any attention to that stuff,” said Stewart, who tied a Skyhawk single-season record with 22 victories in his debut season in 2016-17. “I’ve been part of Skyhawk basketball for the last three years and we’ve been picked right around the same as we’re picked this year. Yet our results are remarkably better. We handle our business like we do rather we’re picked first or last. At the end of the day, it’s not where you start it’s where you finish.”

Since joining the UT Martin program in 2014, Stewart has helped build one of the best programs not only in the OVC but in the state. The Skyhawks are the only OVC program to win a postseason game in each of the last three seasons, notching five victories over that stretch. In addition, UT Martin is one of just two schools in the state of Tennessee to post three consecutive 20-win seasons over that stretch.

“We went about our business in the offseason and really reiterated the things that what we wanted to do moving forward one, two, three, four years in advance,” Stewart said. “We had a good mix in this signing class with two graduate transfers, one senior transfer, six junior college transfers and a freshman. My hat’s off to my staff that went out and signed and evaluated some really good players.”

For that upward trend to continue, the Skyhawks will once again have to rely on several new options. Going into the 2016-17 season, UT Martin depended on nine newcomers while replacing four starters. The Skyhawks responded with one of the best seasons in school history, shattering the program record for points (2,693), field goals made (966), rebounds (1,312) and assists (555).

Stewart and UT Martin face a similar situation this season, as 10 newcomers will look to fill the shoes of four departed starters - two of whom claimed All-OVC accolades. Those four seniors combined to make 122 starts last season as the Skyhawks qualified for another trip to the Postseason Tournament (CIT).

“This team is different because we have so many new faces,” Stewart said. “Actually, I think we’re ahead of schedule with the group we’ve brought in. Any time you bring in new players, new faces and different personalities – you would tend to think it would take a longer time than normal or necessary to get everybody on one page. I don’t think we are behind any bit on our basketball mentality, our effort or things of that nature. We are on one page right now.”

Stewart is comforted by the fact that the aforementioned newcomers will join a returning nucleus of Matthew Butler, Kahari Beaufort, Fatodd Lewis and Mike Fofana.

A mix of those ingredients results in a plethora of options for Stewart’s arsenal in 2017-18.

“I like our talent level – we are as talented as we have ever been,” Stewart said. “The immediate thing that jumps out to us with this particular team is our depth. We can go 13 deep on this team. We can sub in from our bench and not miss a beat. I think last year, we were a little thin when we went to the bench and this year, that won’t be the case.”

Headlining the returners is Butler, who was named to the 11-man Preseason All-OVC squad. The 6-2, 185-pounder manned the point guard position for the majority of the last season but also showed the ability to become one of the league’s most lethal scorers. As the only Skyhawk to start in all 35 games in 2016-17, he averaged 13.7 points, 3.7 assists (10th in the OVC) and 2.9 rebounds per contest while knocking down 82 trifectas. He is expected to shoulder a heavy load for UT Martin once again this year.

“It’s Matthew’s team to lead,” Stewart said. “Being a senior and being a guy who was near the top in the country in minutes played last season, he took note of that and put on some extra muscle for the wear and tear that the OVC can put on a body. I’m looking for a big season for Matthew.”

The junior tandem of Delfincko Bogan and Darius Thompson may also see time at the point in 2017-18. Bogan was ranked as the 44th best junior college prospect in the nation by after the do-it-all combo guard averaged 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game at Moberly Area Community College last season. Thompson has also been impressive during the preseason as he is coming off a season where he shot 38.6 percent from three-point land and boasted a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio at Mineral Area College.

That trio will join Beaufort, graduate transfer Lorenzen Wright, Jr. and Parrish Hewitt on the wing. Beaufort’s role gradually expanded throughout the 2016-17 season, eventually ending the year as a starter in the backcourt. Wright is a three-point specialist who posted a team-high 35.4 percent mark from three-point range at Robert Morris last season. Hewitt will push for playing time as the team’s lone freshman after dialing up 25.3 points per game as a senior at Douglass High School in Memphis.

Although he has to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules, former Colorado State guard Kevin Little has provided a spark by pushing the UT Martin guards each day in practice.

After he spent his first two seasons as one of the first names called off the bench, Fatodd Lewis will slide into a starting role in 2017-18. He tossed in 11 double-digit scoring games last season, including a trio of 15-plus point efforts.

“Fatodd is going to be a huge part of what we do,” Stewart said. “As a junior here and a third-year player in our program, he’s earned that. He’s really improved his game - I’ve watched this kid develop himself from a young kid to a man.”

Fofana showed immense potential during 19 games as a true freshman last season and has perhaps shown the most improvement of anybody on the squad. He will contend for a starting spot this season at the small forward position.

Five additional newcomers give the Skyhawks some muscle on the interior.

Jailen Gill enters the fold after dialing up team-highs in scoring (13.1 points per game) and rebounding (8.0 per contest) as a sophomore last season at Antelope Valley College. Graduate transfer Dominique Williams brings valuable Division-I experience after sitting out last season at Radford and playing 55 games over two seasons at FIU. Junior Jerome Davis is coming off a season where he tallied 11.4 points on 64.7 percent shooting to go along with 6.8 rebounds at John A. Logan College.

Centers Terrence Parker (6-9, 230 pounds) and Dalen Victor (6-10, 210 pounds) give the Skyhawks a pair of intimidating presences in the post. Parker piled up all-conference honors with averages of 10.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per outing during his sophomore campaign at Three Rivers College last season. Victor joined the UT Martin program in late August as a walk-on after averaging 10.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in his final season at Eastern Oklahoma State College.

All told, the Skyhawks have been ignoring the outside noise and appear primed for another deep postseason run in 2017-18.

“We are going to roll up our sleeves, come to work every day and work hard,” Stewart said. “We’re going to exceed everyone’s expectations as we’ve done every year I’ve been here. That’s our mantra – we’re just driven.”

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