Monday , Oct , 31 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Ohio Valley Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Ohio Valley Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: The casual college basketball fan knows little about the Ohio Valley
Conference and may not have heard of some of the teams in the league. It is a
safe bet, however, that most have heard of Murray State and Austin Peay, the
two teams that have been perennial powers in the conference and have made
recent trips to the NCAA Tournament. Once again this season, the Racers and
Governors are expected to challenge for the OVC title. It is unlikely that a
team from the OVC will earn at at-large bid to the Big Dance, so winning the
conference tournament is vital. Tennessee Tech won the 2004-05 regular season
title, and with four starters back in the fold there is no reason to expect
the team to have a major fall-off. Eastern Kentucky won the OVC tourney a
year, and it will be interesting to see if the program can keep winning
despite the loss of head coach Travis Ford who left for UMass. Southwest
Missouri State lost a number of key contributors from last season, but an
influx of juco talent should help. Tennessee State can score with anyone, but
the club must play better defensively than it did in 2004-05. Samford needs to
score more and maintain its strong defensive play to finish near the top of
the standings. As for Eastern Illinois, Morehead State, Jacksonville State and
Tennessee-Martin, all four figure to lose more games that they win this
season. Still, the OVC appears on the surface to be one of the more wide open
leagues in the country, so expect every team to enter the campaign with an
abundance of confidence.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Murray State; 2. Austin Peay; 3. Tennessee Tech;
4. Eastern Kentucky; 5. Southwest Missouri State; 6. Tennessee State; 7.
Samford; 8. Eastern Illinois; 9. Morehead State; 10. Jacksonville State; 11.


MURRAY STATE: Last season, Murray State was knocked out of the OVC Tournament
in the first round for the first time since 1987. There were many new faces on
that team that hadn’t been exposed to the big-game atmosphere, and the lack of
experience was evident. Now, those players are back with another year under
their belts, so Murray State should be better simply for that reason. It
certainly doesn’t hurt that guard Trey Pearson is back in the fold after
earning First-Team All-OVC honors a year ago. Pearson averaged 14.5 ppg and
3.7 apg as a sophomore, and he proved capable of scoring from the perimeter as
well as when driving to the basket. Teammate Keith Jenifer will run the club
from his point guard position, and the team will benefit tremendously if he
can prove to be a solid scoring threat to go along with his top-notch ball-
handling skills. The Racers haven’t been OVC regular season champs since tying
for the top spot in 2000, but this could be the year they get back to the

AUSTIN PEAY: A couple of seniors will be the key to Austin Peay’s success this
season. Guard Maurice Hampton and center Zac Schlader form one of the better
duos in the league, and those two veterans must be outstanding in order for
the Govs to win their second regular season title in three years. Hampton shot
better than 41 percent from three-point range en route to 14.7 ppg last year,
while Schlader netted 12.7 ppg to go along with 6.8 rpg. Hampton showed his
explosiveness by tallying 19 or more points on nine occasions in 2004-05, but
the team lost seven of those contests. Clearly, the Govs will be most
successful if they can achieve balance at the offensive end. Sophomores such
as Todd Babington and Fernandez Lockett must play more like experienced vets
than young, developing prospects.

TENNESSEE TECH: Tech won the league’s regular season title last season and is
no doubt still disappointed over its dismissal from the OVC Tournament. While
the talent is in place to make another run conference supremacy, the absence
of head coach Mike Sutton will be difficult to deal with. Shortly after last
season, Sutton was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, and it remains to
be seen if he will be healthy enough to rejoin the team. Associate head coach
Steve Payne is in charge for now, and he will benefit from four returning
starters. Derek Stribling may be the best of the bunch, as he averaged 11.8
ppg a year ago and is certainly capable of improving on that figure. Keyon
Boyd, Milone Clark and Anthony Fisher are all expected to be key backcourt
contributors, and while none put up big offensive numbers a year ago, the
talent is certainly there.

EASTERN KENTUCKY: Jeff Neubauer has been a part of a winning program, as the
new Eastern Kentucky head coach was on the staff at West Virginia when the
Mountaineers reached the Elite Eight last season. Neubauer’s first season
should go fairly smooth, especially considering that Matt Witt is back in the
fold. Will averaged 14.4 ppg and 6.3 apg a year ago and should have been a
First Team All-OVC selection. The fact that he wasn’t picked for the squad
should serve as motivation for Witt, who should get some help in the backcourt
from Zach Ingles (11.7 ppg). Alonzo Hird averaged 8.4 rpg last season, and the
fact that he shot 65.7 percent from the floor last year is proof that he can
score efficiently when given the opportunity. Neubauer wants his team to play
a more high-tempo game than it has in the past, and the Colonels appear to be
one of the league’s better teams on paper.

SOUTHWEST MISSOURI STATE: The Bears lost a ton of close games a year ago, and
some key contributors from that squad are gone. The good news is that an
influx of juco transfers with some serious talent should keep the program near
the top of the standings. One player to keep an eye on is Roy Booker, a
transfer from Montana who was forced to sit out last season. Booker is an
explosive scorer who can get to the basket with ease, and he figures to be the
offense’s go-to guy. Paul Paradoski is a strong ball-handler and distributor,
and the team will clearly benefit if he can contribute offensively. This may
be the most athletic team that Gary Garner has had in his nine years at SMS,
and that is certainly a bold statement. The Bears have many question marks as
the 2005-06 season begins, but there is reason to expect success.

TENNESSEE STATE: No team in the OVC scored more points than the Tigers last
season. Unfortunately, no team gave up more points, and better play at the
defensive end will clearly be key to the squad’s success this year. The fact
that guard Bruce Price is back is exciting for fans of the program, as he
averaged 13.7 ppg as a sophomore to go along with 3.4 apg. He will get some
help in the backcourt from Wayne Arnold, who averaged 10.1 ppg a year ago on
the strength of his 40.1 percent efficiency from behind the arc. Oklahoma
transfer Larry Turner is the most intriguing player on the front line, and he
will be flanked by Kareen Grant and Eric King. Last year, King posted 10.4 ppg
and 6.5 rpg, and there is no reason to expect anything less than the same
level of production this season. Tennessee State is the type of team capable
of making an unexpected run at the regular season title.

SAMFORD: The Bulldogs struggled to put the ball in the basket last year, as
their average of 64.4 ppg is poor by any standard. Fortunately, however, the
club was able to excel at the defensive end, limiting foes to just 62.1 ppg,
the best mark in the league. Samford features a Princeton-style offense, a
deliberate approach predicated on patience and movement without the ball. That
philosophy helps to explain the low scoring output, as the club likes to use a
great deal of the shot clock. Still, the Bulldogs do return one of the
conference’s top scoring threats in the person of J. Robert Merritt, one of
only two 2004-05 All-OVC First Teamers who will be back on the floor this
year. Merritt scored 16.5 ppg a season ago, and his 6-6 frame makes him a
difficult player to defend. Randall Gulina netted 10.4 ppg on better than 50
percent shooting from the field last season, impressive efficiency for a
guard. What Samford needs to be successful is a couple of front court players
to emerge a legitimate offensive threats.

EASTERN ILLINOIS: With 10 players back for the Panthers, there is reason for
optimism that they may be able to challenge for their first conference title
since 1991 (Mid-Continent). The team possesses a serious scoring threat in the
person of Josh Gomes, a 6-3 guard who averaged 16.8 ppg last season. It is
possible that he can net 20.0 ppg, as he is a terrific free-throw shooter who
always has the ball late in games. Expect Gomes to get some help from reigning
OVC Freshman of the Year George Tandy, who exhibited a great deal of
physicality on the low block as a rookie. Tandy needs to be more aggressive at
the offensive end, but expect that to come with experience. If senior Jake
Sinclair can run the point effectively, Eastern Illinois could be better than
.500 in league play.

MOREHEAD STATE: Back in 2003, the Eagles tied for the OVC regular season
title. Things have seemingly gone down hill since that point, as the lineup is
full of fresh faces. A couple of true freshmen are currently competing for a
starting guard spot, and that is cause for some concern. Quinton Smith will
man one of the backcourt positions, and he averaged 10.8 ppg a year ago on the
strength of 90.2 percent shooting from the foul line. No other double-digit
performers return, so coach Kyle Macy hopes his rookies and juco transfers are
up to the challenge of contributing immediately. Shaun Williams and Ryan Allen
are the two juco transfers expected to have the biggest impact, but this
Morehead State squad figures to struggle any way you look at it.

JACKSONVILLE STATE: Walker D. Russell is the premier ball distributor in the
OVC, as he averaged 7.6 apg a year ago in addition to netting 14.2 ppg. If he
was surrounded by better talent, Russell would certainly receive much more
attention than he does. Far from just an offensive force, he also recorded 2.2
spg a year ago and should be able to at least maintain all of the impressive
stats this season. B.J. Spencer, Russell’s backcourt mate, netted 11.5 ppg a
year ago, and fellow guard Anthony Wilson contributed 10.9 ppg thanks to his
efficient shooting from behind the arc. While the backcourt is certainly
capable of putting up strong offensive numbers, the forwards have not been
serious threats at the offensive end and must improve significantly in that
area. Also, the Gamecocks surrendered 49 percent shooting from the field to
opponents a year ago, and that figure is simply unacceptable.

TENNESSEE-MARTIN: Someone has to be picked last, and while UT-Martin is our
pick, it is certainly conceivable that the club can finish as high as seventh.
Senior swingman Jared Newson tallied 15.4 ppg and 6.8 rpg a year ago, and he
is clearly one of the league’s top 10 players. Newson will get plenty of
offensive support from the team’s center, Cleve Woodfork, a 6-9 senior who
tallied 12.0 ppg a year ago while shooting 55.1 percent from the field. The
Skyhawks will face Louisville to open the season, and while the team seemingly
has no chance of even staying close to the Cardinals, the matchup with one of
the nation’s premier teams will certainly serve as a wake-up call. There are
many questions to be answered, including who will run the team from the point,
and we will find out soon enough.