Golden Eagles Gayden, Strange main attractions at 'Betsy camp

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   They weren't like Kobe Bryant playing a game with kids so that the team could win and go to McDonald's, but Leigh Gayden and Rusty Strange did show off their skills to a group of children on Tuesday morning.
   The two Tennessee Tech basketball players were on hand at Elizabethton High School to teach and to speak at the Cyclone boys basketball camp.
   "Basically I just wanted to come and speak to the kids," Gayden said. "And just show them what it's like to be in college, show some of the workout things that we do.
   "I've been in their shoes. I've been to camps, and heard people speak and listened to some of the things they had to say. I listened to what they said, and it's helped me get to where I am now. So basically I just wanted to come, and do the same thing and give the same type of information back to the young guys."
   This is the second appearance to the Cyclone camp for Strange, and he was glad to come back.
   "I came last year and talked to the camp a little bit," Strange said. "I had a great time. I got a chance to meet some of the community around here. Everybody around Elizabethton has treated me great. All the kids are great, and they listen real well. I had a great time last year, had a great time again this year, and maybe I'll be back again next year.
   "I just had a real good time coming out here, and teaching young kids moves and maybe instilling some work habits in them. It's just fun."
   Gayden was glad to see that the younger kids looked up to him.
   "It definitely puts a smile on my face to have the little kids look up to you," Gayden said. "It makes me proud to have younger guys look up to me."
   Gayden and Strange did take time out to reflect on the season Tennessee Tech had. The Eagles won the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title, and advanced to the NIT quarterfinals.
   "We had an awesome season," Gayden said. "We went 15-1 in the conference, and we lost to Murray State by one point in the conference tournament. But we were blessed to get a bid to the NIT and win some games in the postseason. That was the first time in Tennessee Tech history that we had ever won games in the postseason.
   "It was definitely good for us, because we made it to the elite eight in the NIT. There were only 16 teams playing college basketball, and Tennessee Tech University was one of those 16 teams."
   Gayden was injured part of the year with a broken wrist, while Strange had shoulder and back injuries. Strange had to redshirt last year, and he just made the best of it.
   "It was tough," Strange said. "I had to get my thoughts back together, and let some old injuries heal. I was trying to get back to the game where I wanted to be and not where other people wanted me to be. It was a great year for me. I grew in a lot of different aspects. Now I'm back playing Tennessee Tech basketball, and I couldn't be happier."
   Gayden though it was a tough thing for the Eagles to not get invited to the NCAA Tournament after having such a phenomenal year.
   "It definitely hurt," Gayden said. "That's the goal of every one of the Division I teams at the beginning of the year. That's what everybody's playing for the entire year. To have that chance taken away from you, it definitely hurts.
   "The good thing is we'll all be back next year, and we'll be able to defend our regular season title, and we'll get a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament."
   The Eagles will be playing next year with a new coach. Jeff Lebo resigned this spring to take the head coaching position at Chattanooga.
   Mike Sutton, an assistant under Tubby Smith at Kentucky, will take over the reins.
   Gayden understood Lebo's decision.
   "Of course it's definitely hard to go through a coaching change," Gayden said. "Especially in the midst of being a senior. I had been with Coach Lebo for three years. I was in one of his first recruiting classes. It was hard, but that's life. You have to deal with situations like that.
   "We definitely have to understand that college basketball is a business, and Coach Lebo has to look and think for his family. He made a decision for him and his family, so basically we have to respect that.
   "Tennessee Tech basketball is still going on. We have nine guys returning from last year, so next year we're going to have a great team. We've got good recruits and Rusty's coming back to play with us. We're not worried about that. Tennessee Tech basketball is still going to be there."
   Strange thinks the Eagles will be just fine under the new coach.
   "I was in the same recruiting class as Leigh, and we were one of (Lebo's) first recruiting classes," Strange said. It's hard to see somebody go that you were used to like that, but then again Coach Sutton has come in.
   "He's a real straight shooter. He's going to tell it like it is. He's going to instill a hard work ethic in us. And I think he's going to lead us to another championship."
   While Strange is now a redshirt junior, the 2002-2003 campaign will be Gayden's last.
   And he wants to go out with a bang.
   "I'm just looking forward to next year," Gayden said. "It's my last year, and I definitely want to help lead Tennessee Tech to the NCAA Tournament."