Former area standouts Statam, Tucker set for NCAA tournament with Jacksonville State
Andre Statam admits this wasn't exactly how he envisioned things.
When the Cape Girardeau Central boys basketball standout made the decision two years ago to continue his career at Jacksonville State, he didn't expect things to go this well this soon.
"I didn't have no idea," Statam said. "I just knew I was just working. My dream was to be a Division I basketball player. That was my goal."
The dream, however, has escalated quickly, and on Friday, Statam and former Charleston standout Greg Tucker will take to the court in the NCAA Tournament when the 15th-seeded Gameocks (20-14) face second-seeded Louisville (24-8).
"Coming here with Greg and Delfincko (Bogan, former Charleston star who transferred out of the program in the offseason), it was just us working toward our goal, and I was happy to be working with guys I knew from back home," Statam said. "That was never in mind, to go to the big dance. This is just a dream come true."
While Statam is still a sophomore carving out a role and proving himself, Tucker is a senior who is second on the team with 11.3 points per game. After playing at Mineral Area College out of high school, the former Blue Jay joined forces with Bogan and Statam in Jacksonville, Alabama, ahead of last season.
For Tucker, the NCAA Tournament was always what he was working toward.
"I wouldn't have came if I didn't believe we could win," Tucker said. "I feel like I've always been a winner and I pride myself on that, so I believed from the jump ... that we could turn it around."
Outside the program, there weren't as many believers. Jacksonville State was picked to finish 12th out of 12 teams in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll. That would have left them outside of the OVC Tournament.
Instead, the Gamecocks went 9-7 in conference play, earned themselves a No. 4 seed and then won three games -- beating Southeast Missouri State and top-seeded Belmont in the process -- to claim the OVC Tournament championship and clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Both are first-time accomplishments for the program.
"To be honest, it happened so fast I couldn't even believe it," Tucker said. "It was something I always dreamed about, and over the past few years, with me transferring, I pictured myself in that moment. To be in that moment, it was hard to believe at first. Once I settled into it it was all excitement and joy.
"It means everything to me. Everything that I've ever worked towards in my basketball career has paid off in this moment. The late nights, getting up to work out in the morning, it's paid off."
The roots that bind Tucker and Statam to Southeast Missouri also tighten their bond to each other. Both referred to their relationship as a "brotherhood" or "brotherly love" more than a friendship, and Statam is happy to admit how much Tucker has influenced him, as well as how much it meant to see his friend end his career on the big stage.
"Greg is pretty much like blood to me. That's like my big brother," Statam said. "I've learned everything from him. I pretty much spend all my time with him every day.
"We sat down and almost teared up about it. We did it. We made it. It's his last ride. To send someone out on their last ride like this, it's great. ... There's nothing better than winning a championship with a group of guys you love, and now you can only go and make your life better."
The championship season, both players believe, was sewn from the very start of the year, when first-year JSU head coach Ray Harper sat down with his new team. It was during that meeting that the Gamecocks steeled themselves against the naysayers and challenges ahead.
"We knew we had talent coming back and weren't going to finish 12th," Tucker said. "We put that chip on our shoulder and used that every day. ... That fueled us on the daily. It helped us to win big games."
Both Tucker and Statam point to the first game of the season, a road win over Tulsa, as a critical moment and confidence boost.
"Our first win was Tulsa, and nobody in the world, I think, expected us to go get that win," Statam said. "When we got that, we knew the chemistry was there."
That was the start of a non-conference schedule that, combined with last year's slate that saw JSU travel to Virginia Tech, UAB and Alabama, the team believes has prepared it for this moment against an elite program like Louisiville.
"Our schedule, we didn't play at home in the first semester," Statam said. "We traveled over 10,000 miles and played Maryland and Missouri State. I just think it's a speed bump and a challenge we need to get over. ... It's just going to be the biggest challenge we've ever had."
This will be Tucker's last ride, but Statam will return next year and try to help the Gamecocks continue to build on some major accomplishments.
"I've just seen him become more of a complete player," Tucker said. "He can rebound, shoot it; he has a high basketball IQ. Also, how he's transformed his body. He was a little heavy coming in, and he's got in great shape. It shows what kind of person he is and the hard work he's put in."
Before looking to the future, the two have at least one more game left together.
They may have ended Southeast Missouri State's season, but on Friday there will be plenty of eyes in Southeast Missouri on the Gamecocks, rooting on JSU.
Both Statam and Tucker said they'll have family and friends making the trip to Indianapolis to see the game, and countless others have offered messages of support.
More than a few local brackets will have Jacksonville State pulling off an upset, and with the momentum of its OVC Tournament run, Statam believes, why not?
"I just tell them we've got a great, winning coach and I feel like the chemistry we have is just remarkable," Statam said. "We're tighter than any other team in the nation. The games we've been through, we always stay together whether we won the game or lost the game or lost the game.
"There's always a cinderella team in the NCAA (Tournament). Always. I feel like that could be us this year."
The Gamecocks tip off against the Cardinals at 1:45 p.m. Friday on CBS.