Tennessee Wesleyan still looks like the class of the Appalachian Athletic Conference basketball race. But it’s a close call.
Coach Mike Poe’s team has a 6-1 record as the midpoint of the league schedule approaches. Milligan and Virginia Intermont are just a game back and feeling pretty good about themselves. Three other teams have three losses.
The Bulldogs (12-7 overall) were a prohibitive favorite in the preseason.
“It’s a lot tighter at the top than we expected,” Milligan coach Bill Robinson said Thursday. “Everybody thought Tennessee Wesleyan was just going to run away with it. I don’t necessarily see that happening now.
“I think there are six teams that can compete for a championship.”
The Buffs (12-9) did lose to Wesleyan in a battle for first place in Lacy Fieldhouse last Saturday. The 82-79 loss snapped a four-game winning streak.
The Buffs host Point (5-3) on Saturday.
“The two games we’ve lost in conference were by one and two,” said Robinson. “We’re competing with everybody. We had a shot to win against Tennessee Wesleyan.”
Tyler DeVault and Torian Sitton are averaging 12.9 points apiece, with Mickey Woods at 10.4 and Cartree Pettis 9.9. DeVault and Sitton are also the team’s leading rebounders, at 5.7 and 5.6, respectively.
Pettis, the freshman guard, leads the league in steals (2.7).
The Buffs are now playing without forward Ignas Palaima, their 6-11 junior forward. The Lithuanian, who transferred in before the season, was unable to maintain academic eligibility.
“The thing that’s disappointing is he worked really hard,” said Robinson. “The language barrier just made it too difficult for him.”
Palaima played in the first 17 games, averaging 7.1 points and 3.9 rebounds.
“Not having definitely changes what we do,” said Robinson. “We’re going to have to double in the post some now and chase shooters more. But our guys like to play that way, and we’ll make it work.”
Robinson got his man earlier this week when forward Tyler Rose signed with Milligan.
Rose is averaging 18 points, seven rebounds and five blocks as a senior at Calvary Baptist Day School in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“We identified him as our top recruit a year ago, and we got him,” said Robinson. “He turned down a couple of Division II offers to sign with us.”
The coach knows his next recruit well. It’s his son, Will Robinson, who is having a fine senior season at Elizabethton High School.
“I’m hoping he’ll be the second piece for us,” said Robinson. “We’ve talked about this since he was five years old. I think we just see that happening soon.”
The Milligan women began the week with a national ranking for the first time this season. They’re No. 23, with a record of 14-7.
“To be honest, I’m a little surprised by that, pleasantly surprised,” coach Rich Aubrey said Wednesday. “I really don’t know what it means at this point, but it could be a path to the national tournament as an at-large team. As we get closer to the tournament, it means more.”
Despite suffering their first conference loss last Saturday against Tennessee Wesleyan, the Lady Buffs are still in first place at 7-1. Union and Wesleyan are just a game back, with Reinhardt fourth at 5-3.
“I feel good about where we are,” coach Rich Aubrey said Thursday. “There’s still a lot of work left, but we’ve almost made one lap through the conference and we’re in first place.”
The Lady Buffs rolled past Columbia College 67-58 on the road Wednesday night, putting back-to-back losses behind them. They led by as many as 34 in the second half.
“I think we played with a sense of urgency,” said Aubrey. “Good teams take adversity and make something good out of it.”
The Lady Buffs featured a balanced attack, led by Kayla Kelly. The junior from Chattanooga is averaging 14.8 points per game.
Jaimee Hill (11.0) and Johneshia Good (10.9) are also scoring in double figures, and Dorian Freeman (9.3) and Tracy Hardiman (8.6) aren’t far from it.
Kelly and Freeman are the team’s top rebounders, at 6.0. Hill and Good average 5.9.
“We have multiple people who can contribute as far as scoring, rebounding and defense,” said Aubrey. “We’ve been able to mix things up all season.”