Thursday , Nov , 02 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Ohio Valley Conference

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) –
OUTLOOK: Last season, Tennessee State finished a modest 11-9 in league play,
good for a fifth-place tie. So why are the Tigers our pick to win the OVC this
year? Well, the club may possess the league’s top two players, and that is a
good start. Samford will be near the top of the standings by all accounts, as
four returning starters will provide plenty of continuity. Tennessee Tech lost
some key contributors from a year ago, but there is enough talent remaining to
give fans of the program some hope. Austin Peay struggled through a bit of an
off year in 2005-06, as the program’s fifth-place finish falls well short of
expectations. The two best players from a year ago are gone, but the Governors
should be competitive regardless. Both Jacksonville State and Southeast
Missouri lost some big-time scorers, so it will be interesting to see who will
fill in as primary offensive performers on those squads. Eastern Kentucky lost
two players who combined to average 36.3 ppg, so expectations aren’t too high
heading into this new campaign. Murray State is a perennial conference power,
but with four starters gone from a year ago, first-year head coach Billy
Kennedy enters with little hype. Eastern Illinois, Morehead State and
Tennessee-Martin round out the OVC, and a run by any of the three at the title
would be somewhat shocking.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Tennessee State

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

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

TENNESSEE STATE – Is this the year that coach Cy Alexander puts the Tigers on
top? We think so, mainly because of the dynamic duo of Reiley Ervin and
Clarence Matthews. Ervin is simply the league’s best playmaker, as the 5-10
guard is coming off a sophomore campaign that saw him score 9.1 ppg in
addition to his 4.9 apg. As for Matthews, the 6-7, 250-pound forward posted
13.7 ppg and 8.5 rpg as a junior. Add to the mix Bruce Price, who poured in
19.3 ppg in six outings last year before suffering a knee injury, and TSU is
one of the clear-cut favorites to make a run at the OVC title. There isn’t
much proven depth, but Alexander is a good enough coach to fill the void.

SAMFORD – If any team is capable of knocking off the Tigers, Samford looks
like a prime candidate. Sure, J. Robert Merritt, the 2005-06 OVC Player of the
Year, is gone, but coach Jimmy Tillette still has plenty of talent in place.
Joe Ross Merritt, the brother of last year’s top performer, returns with
intentions of playing of much more integral role. Randall Gulina is the most
explosive returnee for the Bulldogs, as the 6-1 guard posted 12.6 ppg a year
ago. As for Travis Peterson, the team’s center, he returns 11.2 ppg to the
mix. Jerry Smith has already started three years at point guard, and while not
a sensational performer by any means, his steady play gives the Bulldogs an
advantage over many of its opponents.

TENNESSEE TECH – The losses from last season’s Tennessee Tech team are
significant, as Keyon Boyd, Milone Clark and Derek Stribling all produced
solid offensive numbers. The backcourt appears to be in good hands, however,
as Anthony Fisher (12.9 ppg) and Belton Rivers (12.0 ppg) are both proven
scorers who will get many more touches this year than last. The biggest
question surrounds the frontcourt, as the club lacks proven performers at
small forward, power forward and center. Coach Mike Sutton is slowly
recovering from a disease that has weakened him physically, so it remains to
be seen how much the team’s leader will be on the bench this season.

AUSTIN PEAY – Of the three returning starters in place for the Governors, none
averaged more than 8.3 ppg a year ago. Maurice Hampton (16.4 ppg) and Zac
Schlader (14.4 ppg) are gone, and replacing that level of production is never
easy. Dave Loos has been the leader of the Govs for 16 years, and he has
always preached defense first. If the team is unable to light it up at the
offensive end, at least there is a sound defensive philosophy in place to hold
opponents in check. Keep an eye on Wes Channels, as he has the athletic tools
to be a major contributor. He hasn’t proven anything thus far, however, so
fans should be cautiously optimistic.

JACKSONVILLE STATE – Last season, the Gamecocks had arguably the league’s best
backcourt duo in B.J. Spencer and Walker D. Russell. Those two players are
gone, and while there are questions to be answered at both guard positions,
the frontcourt figures to be solid. Courtney Bradley racked up 15.3 ppg and
7.6 rpg a year ago, and he has the potential to challenge for OVC Player of
the Year honors. Dorien Brown, another forward, posted 11.0 ppg last season
and figures to get more offensive touches in 2006-07. Will Ginn is a talented
juco transfer expected to play the point, and he can flat out pass the ball.
One thing for sure is that the Gamecocks won’t be underestimated.

SOUTHEAST MISSOURI – Scott Edgar, a former coach at Murray State, takes over
at Southeast Missouri, and while three starters are back from last year’s
club, none averaged double figures in scoring. The team won only four of 20
league games a year ago, but the expectation is that the club will make up for
the loss of scoring machine Roy Booker by sharing the ball and getting
contributions from a number of individuals. The hope is that Michael Rembert
and Brandon Foust, who came over from Bradley and Oklahoma as transfers,
respectively, will boost the level of play as soon as they get on the floor.
With a wealth of newcomers, every position is up for grabs. Regardless, the
club should at least by competitive on most occasions.

EASTERN KENTUCKY – While Eastern Kentucky finished two games below .500 a year
ago, the club was two games above .500 in its league tilts. With three
starters back in the fold, head coach Jeff Neubauer is cautiously optimistic.
Jason McLeish and Matt Witt are gone, and they were clearly the two best
players from a year ago, Darnell Dials is a promising forward, while seniors
Julian Mascoll and Michael Brock bring some maturity and experience to the
lineup. Jamal Douglas, a transfer, will add some toughness and scoring ability
to the frontcourt. It will be surprising if the Colonels can repeat last
season’s conference win total.

MURRAY STATE – Last season, Billy Kennedy led Southeastern Louisiana to its
first ever NCAA Tournament bid. Now, Kennedy takes over as the leader of the
Racers, and he certainly has some work to do with just one returning starter
in place, forward Shawn Witherspoon (10.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg). Trey Pearson and
Justin Orr were expected to be two of the best players for the squad this
year, but the former was released from the team in the off-season while the
latter transferred. Tyler Holloway didn’t play a great deal as a freshman last
season, but the talented guard made the most of his opportunities. Now, he may
just be the best scoring option on the team in what appears to be a rebuilding
year for the proud Murray State program.

EASTERN ILLINOIS – Of the three starters that are back in place for Eastern
Illinois, none averaged double figures in scoring. On a positive note, all
three netted just over nine points per contest, so there should be some
balanced scoring among the starters. Unfortunately, there is no proven depth
in place at any position, as the roster is flooded with newcomers. Of the
three returning starters, none are seniors. Coach Mike Miller is obviously in
a rebuilding mode, and while he would prefer not to go 5-15 again like he did
last season, it is hard to imagine a huge improvement by this team.

MOREHEAD STATE – Shaun Williams is not particularly big for a post performer,
but he has the athleticism to excel. Last season, Williams posted 16.4 ppg and
6.4 rpg, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the 6-6 senior make an
appearance on the All-OVC First Team at season’s end. Quentin Pryor scored
10.6 ppg a year ago, and he appears to be the top scoring threat in the
backcourt. Four starters are back in all for new head coach Donnie Tyndall,
who played for the Eagles back in the early 90’s and spent a decade as an
assistant coach for various programs. Tyndall has a good mixture of fresh
faces and experienced veterans, and since the team won only three of 20 league
games a year ago, there isn’t a great deal of pressure to win right away.

TENNESSEE-MARTIN – Someone has to be picked last, and Tennessee-Martin just
seems like the appropriate choice. Sure, the club does return three starters
from a team that won nine league games last season, but the two starters that
have departed accounted for a combined 35.5 ppg. None of the three remaining
starters averaged more than 7.0 ppg in 2005-06, so don’t expect any OVC Player
of the Year contenders to emerge. There simply isn’t much reason to get
excited about the Skyhawks, as they have lost many more games than they have
won in Bret Campbell’s seven years at head coach. Expect more of the same this
season.