College Basketball Preview – Ohio Valley Conference
*** College Basketball Preview – Ohio Valley Conference ***
The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer
OUTLOOK: Last year, Austin Peay went undefeated during the regular season in
OVC play, a remarkable accomplishment to say the least. Unfortunately for the
Governors, they were knocked off by Murray State in the OVC Tournament
championship game. The Racers are considered the favorite to win this year’s
crown according to a preseason poll of the league’s coaches and sports
information directors. While that prediction is not surprising, the fact that
Tennessee State is expected to pose the stiffest competition is hard to
believe considering that the team was one of the worst in the nation just two
seasons ago. Tennessee Tech will be tough as always, and Eastern Kentucky has
high expectations after posting its best OVC season in a decade. As for Austin
Peay, it lost several key contributors from last year’s remarkable team, and
the program is expected to take a major step backward with regard to wins and
losses. UT-Martin may be a team to watch, as it can certainly contend if
things work out the way the coaching staff hopes. As for Jacksonville State,
which is entering its second season as a member of the conference, it could
make a bit more noise than a year ago. Samford simply doesn’t have the talent
to contend with the heavyweights, while Eastern Illinois lacks quality players
even in the starting lineup. Finally, Morehead State will struggle without its
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Murray State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Murray State; 2. Tennessee Tech; 3. Tennessee
State; 4. Eastern Kentucky; 5. Austin Peay; 6. UT-Martin; 7. Jacksonville
State; 8. Southeast Missouri State; 9. Samford; 10. Eastern Illinois; 11.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
MURRAY STATE: The Racers beat Austin Peay when it really counted last season,
and head coach Mick Cronin led the team to 28 wins in all, the second-highest
total in the history of the program. Now in his second year as leader of the
squad, Cronin has even higher expectations despite the fact that plenty of
talent was lost. Murray State enters the 2004-05 campaign with a revamped
roster, headed by senior guard Adam Chiles. Fortunately, the streaky Chiles
will get some help from a pair of high-profile transfers. Trey Pearson from
Ole Miss and Keith Jenifer from Virginia bring major conference talent to the
OVC, and both have a chance to put up outstanding numbers. If 6-10 Pearson
Griffith can provide the type of defensive play that the coaches expect, the
Racers should make good on the preseason predictions.
TENNESSEE TECH: Third-year head coach Mike Sutton returns two starters from
last year’s squad that tied for fifth in the OVC standings (7-9) and posted a
13-15 overall mark. While those results are hardly impressive, several of the
narrow defeats of a year ago could be wins in 2004-05. Senior All-OVC forward
Willie Jenkins (19.5 ppg) and junior guard Milone Clark figure to be the
leaders of the pack, as both are experienced and talented. Jenkins’
versatility makes him one of the most difficult players to defend in the
league, and Clark will get plenty of opportunities to shoot the ball. While
there are a handful of teams that will push Murray State, Tech might be the
best of the bunch.
TENNESSEE STATE: After winning just two games in 2002-03, the Tigers achieved
a shocking resurgence under first-year coach Cy Alexander. The 2003-04 team
posted a 7-21 overall record, but six of those triumphs came against OVC
competition. Best of all is that many of the key contributors on that team
were underclassmen who are back to make further strides. Senior forward
Roshaun Bowens (16.9 ppg) and sophomore All-OVC guard Bruce Price (17.6 ppg)
may be the best duo in the OVC, as both are capable of scoring 20 or more
points on any night against any opponent. Bowens’ athleticism makes him a
steady contributor on the boards, while Price can be explosive at times.
Alexander has plenty of talent at his disposal, and it will be interesting to
see how Tennessee State performs now that there are expectations to fulfill.
EASTERN KENTUCKY: In 2003-04, the Colonels recorded their highest OVC finish
in 10 years, winning five of their last seven regular-season contests to end
the campaign with an 8-8 league mark. Fortunately, three starters are back for
fifth-year head coach Travis Ford to help push the team over the bar of
mediocrity. Junior All-OVC guard Matt Witt (15.6 ppg, 5.5 apg) and senior
forward Michael Haney are perhaps the two biggest pieces of the puzzle, and
the health and performance of both is vital to the team’s overall success.
Witt played like a senior a year ago, and there is no reason to expect
anything other than improvement. Haney grabbed 6.3 rpg a year ago and should
be able to up that number marginally.
AUSTIN PEAY: The Governors have little chance of duplicating last season’s
success, and that statement is meant in no way to put down the program. The
fact is that Austin Peay is simply not as experienced or talented as it was in
2003-04. If this year’s group of Governors is going to finish near the top of
the OVC standings, Anthony Davis will probably have to exceed expectations.
Davis did not post enormous offensive stats last year because of the
tremendous balance achieved by the defensive-minded squad, but he will
definitely need to be more assertive when this campaign begins. That fact that
Davis was named a First-Team All-OVC selection is proof that the coaches think
highly of him.
UT-MARTIN: The Skyhawks will open their 2004-05 season on November 20th
against ACC heavyweight Duke on the road, a monumental test to say the least.
While they figure to have little chance of even keeping that contest
competitive, the OVC schedule should provide plenty of chances for victory.
UT-Martin should not be considered one of the league’s elite squads, but a
.500 finish or slightly better can be expected. Earl Bullock is a 6-1 senior
guard who has tremendous range on his jumper. Regardless of the game
situation, Bullock is never hesitant about putting ball in the air. Jeremy
Kelly and Jared Newsome are both back to carry the offensive load, and that is
great news for head coach Bret Campbell. Newsome led the way as a sophomore
with 14.4 ppg, while Kelly netted 13.8 ppg as a junior. Now more experienced,
both should shine once again.
JACKSONVILLE STATE: Considering that Jacksonville State was in its first year
as a member of the OVC in 2003-04, the seven league victories that the team
posted were fairly impressive. The squad went 14-14 overall and may be able to
improve on that mark slightly since the adjustment period is well underway. A
strong recruiting class may be the key, as the Gamecocks do not have a proven
scorer in the lineup. Carlos Lumpkin, Rod Venner, Brandon Davis and John
Haynesworth are four of the recruits brought on board by head coach Mike
LaPlante, and all bring something valuable to the fold. Lumpkin is a 6-7
forward from Georgia who led the state in rebounding at 12.2 rpg and shot 52
percent from three-point range as well. As for Venner, the 6-2 guard led all
Georgia high schoolers with a 20.2 ppg scoring average.
SOUTHEAST MISSOURI: Derek Winans, a senior guard for the Indians, has been
named to the All-IVC Second Team here in the preseason. Winans, who has
started 84 straight games and has led the club in scoring in each of the last
three seasons, will miss several weeks of action because of a stress fracture
on the inside of his leg. Fortunately, he is expected to be ready for the
start of the campaign. Last year, Winans averaged 14.4 ppg thanks to 41.7
percent shooting from three-point range. There are plenty of other experienced
players on the roster for the Indians, and they must produce positive results
this season for the sake of head coach Gary Garner. Put simply, Garner will
not survive another 4-12 OVC campaign.
SAMFORD: The Bulldogs enter their second season as a member of the OVC with 11
returning players and two talented newcomers. The roster is comprised of four
seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and five freshmen, three of whom were
redshirted a year ago. Head coach Jimmy Tillette was not surprised that his
team was chosen to place 10th in the league, especially considering the amount
of young players that will be relied on heavily. One rookie to keep an eye on
is Curtis West, a player who will bring toughness, a winning mentality and
tremendous quickness and athleticism to the team according to his new coach.
Fellow rookie Jason Black can play either guard position, and that versatility
figures to earn him immediate playing time.
EASTERN ILLINOIS: Last season, Josh Gomes placed 13th in the league in scoring
with an overall average of 13.6 ppg. Now a junior, Gomes will be a marked man
by the opposition, and it remains to be seen how he reacts to the added
attention. All signs say that he will have a tremendous season, as the junior
excelled during a seven-game stint in Costa Rica over the summer. Gomes was
chosen to the All-OVC Second Team, and he appears to be ready to live up to
the expectations. As for some of the fresh faces, Eastern Illinois was
successful in its attempt to add some size to the lineup. Wes Wilkin and
George Tandy are a pair of centers who still have a lot of improving to do,
but their size (6-8 and 6-9, respectively) may earn them some immediate
playing time. Expect many more losses than wins for the Panthers even if Gomes
MOREHEAD STATE: Last season, Ricky Minard led the OVC with a scoring average
of 21.8 ppg, and he went on the be a second round NBA Draft pick. His
sidekick, Chez Marks, was fourth in the league with an average of 17.0 ppg,
and he is gone as well from the program. So how do you replace a total of 38.8
ppg from your lineup plus the 7.3 rpg and 5.1 apg that Minard provided?
Simple, you don’t. The Eagles will struggle mightily without the departed
stars this year, that we can say with confidence. There are no notable
returnees to speak of, and any more than four victories in league play would