Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
OUTLOOK: The Ohio Valley Conference is a mid-major program that has belonged
to Murray State the past three seasons. The Racers were one of the most
impressive teams in all of college basketball with a 31-2 record last season,
with only one loss in OVC action. However, a new addition to the league will
provide Murray State with a formidable opponent.
Belmont brought its streak of three straight NCAA Tournament appearances with
it as it joins the OVC this season. Although it is not impossible, it is
unlikely either Murray State, Belmont, or any OVC program receives an at-large
bid to the NCAA Tournament. This means either the Racers or Bruins are likely
to duke it out for the right to advance to the Big Dance.
Although Murray State and Belmont are the top two candidates to win the
conference, Tennessee State should not be completely overlooked after its
second-place OVC finish in 2011-2012.
SE Missouri State, Tennessee Tech, and Morehead State are the next three in
line. The Redhawks were in great position to finish last season with a winning
record before losing five of their last six games to close out the year 15-16
overall. Tennessee Tech lost Kevin Murphy to the NBA, but the Golden Eagles
still have a fighting chance with their other high-scoring swingman still in
the fold. Morehead State will try to climb back into the top tier of the OVC
under the program's new head coach, Sean Woods.
Austin Peay has some work to do as Dave Loos returns only one starter from an
underachieving season. Jacksonville State would be in great position to make a
big leap this year with all five starters back, but the Gamecocks are banned
from postseason play this season because of the program's low Academic
SIU Edwardsville is eligible for postseason play this season after not being
able to compete for the OVC Championship in its first year in the league. The
Cougars picked up five wins in their last eight games to close out 2011-2012
with some momentum.
Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, and Tennessee Martin are lurking at the
bottom of the OVC. EIU will have a new look as Jay Spoonhour begins his first
season as the team's head coach with no returning starters. There is little
doubt that the Colonels will miss their high-scoring tandem of Jaron Jones and
Joshua Jones, who averaged a combined 27.9 ppg. EKU will struggle trying to
replace the departed guards' firepower. UTM has nowhere to go but up after
going 0-for-16 in OVC games and 4-27 overall in 2011-12.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Murray State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Murray State, 2. Belmont, 3. Tennessee State 4.
SE Missouri State, 5. Tennessee Tech, 6. Morehead State, 7. Austin Peay, 8.
Jacksonville State, 9. SIU Edwardsville, 10. Eastern Illinois, 11. Eastern
Kentucky, 12. Tennessee Martin.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
MURRAY STATE - Steve Prohm set the bar high in his first season as a head
coach by leading MSU to a 31-2 overall record, the best start in school
history, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. A repeat of that success is
unlikely following the graduations of key contributors Donte Poole (14.0 ppg,
3.6 rpg), Ivan Aska (10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg), and Jewuan Long (8.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg).
The task became even more difficult when sophomore guard Zay Jackson was
suspended for the season due to an off-court incident. The Racers still have a
great chance to repeat as OVC Champions with First-Team All-American Isaiah
Canaan running the show. The senior guard turned down the NBA to return for
his senior season after netting a team-high 19 ppg. UAB transfer Dexter Fields
is the leading candidate to start at the off guard position. Ed Daniel (6.8
ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Brandon Garrett (6-9, 200) are projected to serve as MSU's
primary post options. Canaan was the engine that made the Racers go last
season. The senior guard is set to prove more doubters wrong in his final
BELMONT - The Bruins' entry into the league led to the OVC's adoption of
divisional play. Belmont is a heavy favorite to win the East Division after
finishing last season with a 27-8 overall record which includes a one-point
loss at Duke and notable wins over Middle Tennessee and Marshall. Coach Rick
Byrd continued to have his name come up as more glamorous jobs became
available during the offseason, but he elected to return to Belmont for his
27th year with the program. Belmont lost its two best interior scorers in Mick
Hedgepath (9.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Scott Saunders (10.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), but its
elite backcourt duo of Ian Clark (12.2 ppg) and Kerron Johnson (13.8 ppg)
should be able to lead the Bruins on another impressive campaign.
TENNESSEE STATE - The Tigers are under new management as Travis Williams was
promotoed from within to head coach after John Cooper exited to take over at
Miami-Ohio. Cooper left after Tennessee State went 20-13 and upset Murray
State on the road. Williams inherits a very good OVC team even with the losses
of Wil Peters (7.4 ppg) and Kenny Moore (7.2 ppg). The Tigers should continue
to run their offense through NBA prospect Robert Covington, who could be named
the OVC Player of the Year at the year's end. Covington averaged 17.8 points
and 7.9 rebounds last season despite being the main focus of every opposing
coaching staff. Junior guard Patrick Miller (11.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg) provides a
scoring option from the perimeter for TSU, which begins its season with a six-
game road trip.
SE MISSOURI STATE - Dickie Nutt is pushing the Redhawks in the right direction
as they finished 9-7 in OVC play and 15-16 overall in his third season with
the program. SE Missouri State collapsed down the stretch, winning only one of
six games in a season-ending plummet below the .500 mark. The Redhawks will
miss forward Leon Powell (10.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and his physical interior play.
They will also miss adept guard Marcus Brister (7.5 ppg). However, SEMO has an
able leader in Tyler Stone (14.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), who has proven to be one of
the best forwards in the entire OVC. The senior guard duo of Marland Smith
(12.3 ppg) and Nick Niemczyk (9.2 ppg) will join Stone in the starting lineup.
Lucas Nutt is a solid backup guard and Colin Ferguson (6-9, 250) could help
SEMO inside right away.
TENNESSEE TECH - While Murray State and Steve Prohm demanded all the
attention, Steve Payne quietly coached TTU to a 19-14 record and took the
Golden Eagles to the postseason in his first year at the school. Although they
lost one of the premier scorers in the nation, the Golden Eagles retained the
OVC's leading rebounder, Jud Dillard (8.7 rpg). Despite being just a 6-5
swingman, Dillard managed to lead the conference in boards and was third in
scoring (17.7 ppg). Jay Johnson (6-7, 215) and Anthony Morse (6-8, 210) will
add much needed depth up front for TTU as it attempts to reach the 20-win
MOREHEAD STATE - The Eagles are set to begin the Sean Woods era after Donnie
Tyndall's departure for his alma mater, Southern Miss. Woods has some massive
shoes to fill as he is replacing a coach who led Morehead State to the third
round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Eagles' fans may be disappointed they lost
the coach that led them to four straight winning records and three
postseasons, but Woods comes in fresh off of leading Mississippi Valley State
to the Big Dance. Morehead State has some rebuilding to do after losing its
leading scorer Terrance Hill (13.3 ppg) and Ty Proffitt (9.9 ppg). The 2009
Mr. Basketball in Tennessee, Drew Kelly (10.2 ppg), and sophomore guard Angelo
Warner (6.0 ppg) are the top two assets inherited by Woods. The Eagles also
brought in several newcomers, including the explosive point guard Jeff
Simmons, who transferred from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Morehead State could be the surprise team in the conference if Kelly thrives
in a leadership role.
AUSTIN PEAY - The Governors lost four starters from last season's team, but a
change in personnel may be what a team that finished 12-20 needs. Dave Loos,
who has held the head coaching position at APSU since 1990, has more wins than
any other coach in OVC history. Loos will have to rebuild around senior guard
Jerome Clyburn (6-1, 180), who is the team's leading scorer (6.3 ppg) among
returners. Austin Peay will rely on the services of its incoming recruiting
class which is highlighted by Cory Arentsen (6-5, 185), Chris Horton (6-8,
195), and A.J. Lynch (6-2, 170). Arentsen was considered one of the best
shooters in the state of Illinois while playing for Mater Dei High School.
Horton will make an impact as a shot blocker and rebounder right away. APSU
is unlikely to be a competitor any time soon, but its future looks bright.
JACKSONVILLE STATE - The Gamecocks were the most improved team in the
conference last season, moving from five wins to 15 under the guidance of
coach James Green. Unfortunetely, Jacksonville State will be unable to make
the next step and compete for the OVC crown due to the school's poor Academic
Progress Rate, which solicited a postseason ban from the NCAA. The Gamecocks
may not be eligible to play in the conference tourney, but they will be a
fierce competitor during the regular season. All five starters, including
talented scoring guard Brian Williams (13.2 ppg) are back for 2012-2013.
Ronnie Boggs (7.4 ppg) and Mason Leggett (5.3 ppg) will rejoin Williams in the
backcourt, while Tarvin Gaines (10.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Nick Cook (6.0 ppg, 4.8
rpg) man the forward positions.
SIU EDWARDSVILLE - The Cougars made the jump from Division II to the OVC last
season and finished with a 10-17 overall record in their inaugural campaign.
Coach Lennox Forrester was awarded a contract extension for his work and SIUE
has potential with four returning starters, including leading scorer and
rebounder Mark Yelovich (15.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) back in the fold. Yelovich has
decent size (6-6, 223) and consistently exhibits his fundamentally sound
approach to the game. Fellow senior Jerome James (6-6, 215) averaged 12.7
points and 5.9 rebounds per game starting in the other forward slot last
season. Forrester managed to add some much needed size to the roster by
recruiting Grant Fiorentinos (6-10, 230). SIUE will miss Corey Wickware's
scoring ability in its backcourt, but Michael Messner may be ready for a
breakout year after a decent sophomore campaign (7.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg) off the
bench in 2011-2012. The senior-led Cougars could really make some noise in the
OVC if Yelovich and Jones stay healthy.
EASTERN ILLINOIS - The Panthers are back at square one with a brand new coach
and no impact players returning from last season. Jay Spoonhour, son of the
late Charlie Spoonhour, has only 10 games of head coaching experience at the
Division I level under his belt as he served as UNLV's interim coach in 2004
and went 6-4 during that time. EIU lost three double-digit scorers and the
only Panthers back who played meaningful minutes are Josh Piper (4.3 ppg) and
Austin Akers (1.3 ppg, 2.1 apg). Piper had a few impressive performances
during his freshman season, including a 17-point outing, and could be the go-
to-guy. After he declined offers from Nebraska and Hofstra, Bronx native
Dennis Green (6-3, 190) became the marquee player of EIU's recruiting class.
The Panthers will add impact transfers Taran Buie (Penn State) and Jamal
Coombs-McDaniel (Connecticut) to the rotation when they become eligible in the
winter. EIU is not expected to be a competitor right away under Spoonhour, but
the new look program appears to be headed in the right direction.
EASTERN KENTUCKY - The Colonels have few big voids left in their lineup after
the graduations of Jaron Jones (17.0 ppg) and Joshua Jones (10.9 ppg), who led
the program to a 16-16 finish in 2011-2012. Coach Jeff Neubauer needs to
figure out a way to get his squad to succeed on the road, as it won just four
games away from home all last season. EKU's biggest flaw was its rebounding,
as opponents averaged 4.1 more boards per game. With both Joneses gone, the
team will look to Northern Illinois transfer Mike DiNunno (9.5 ppg) to step
into a leadership role while running the point. EKU's backcourt could be just
as potent with the addition of its two talented transfers, Tarius Johnson
(Miami-Ohio) and Corey Walden (Stetson). Johnson is not eligible until the
fall semester ends, but he showed the ability to light it up while earning
junior college All-America honors in 2011-2012. Walden started 24 games and
was a unanimous selection to the 2011 Atlantic Sun Conference All-Freshman
Team after a strong rookie campaign (12 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.3 spg) at
Stetson. While its backcourt may be sound, EKU is still lacking in the paint.
Sophomore forward Eric Stutz will have to be a warrior inside until another
EKU forward shows he can be effective. The weak interior and lack of overall
depth will make it tough for the Colonels to reach the .500 mark again.
TENNESSEE MARTIN - The Skyhawks have a tall mountain to climb after going
winless in OVC action last season. Coach Jason James saw his career winning
percentage plummet to new lows as his squad managed just a 4-27 overall
record. UTM only produced two wins over Division I programs and went on a
tenuous 14-game losing streak during the heart of its schedule. The good news
for James is that he returns four starters from that team, including its
leading scorer, Mike Liabo (15.2 ppg). The junior swingman showed he can score
from anywhere on the floor by netting 27 points in the team's regular season
finale. Also back is OVC Freshman of the Year, Myles Taylor (13.7 ppg, 5.2
rpg), who uses his wide frame to score inside. Freshman guard Dee Oldman (6-4,
180) will provide an immediate scoring punch and open things up for Liabo and
Taylor. Junior college transfer Bobby Jones (6-3, 185) is another promising
addition to the squad. The Skyhawks struggled last season without their point
guard, but Terence Jones (11.3 ppg, 3.1 apg) will solve that issue as he
returns from his medical redshirt. UTM can only improve after hitting rock
bottom last season, but may not venture far from the conference basement.
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