Last season in the wide-open Ohio Valley Conference, seven teams finished within three games of each other at the top of the standings. Tennessee Tech won it by one game over Eastern Kentucky and Murray State. In the conference tournament, Eastern Kentucky beat #5 seed Austin Peay to gain the automatic bid. They then gave Kentucky much more than the Wildcats anticipated from the OVC champs before bowing out. This season should be similar to last year's, with several teams expected to be in the running for the crown.Favorites: Eastern Kentucky returns four starters from that NCAA Tournament team, including one of the best mid-major point guards in Matt Witt. He went for over 14 points and 6 assists every night. Joining him in the backcourt is defensive specialist Jason McLeish, who is also a decent scorer. Double-figure scorer Zach Ingles is on the other wing, giving the Colonels possibly the best perimeter in the league. One of the best post players in the OVC is also back. Alonzo Hird is a load to stop down low and is poised for a huge season. Darnell Dials should step in at the vacated power forward spot. Murray State has arguably the best player in the league in guard Trey Pearson. He is an excellent shooter that can do pretty much everything on the court. Four other starters also return. Point guard Keith Jenifer and part-time starter Darnell Hopkins are two very solid players in the backcourt. Up front, an abundance of players are back that made major contributions a year ago. Shawn Witherspoon and Justin Orr both started and produced well last season, but Issian Redding and Charles Johnson also played extremely well off the bench at the forward positions and will push for starting jobs. 6-10 Pearson Griffith will start at center.
Contenders: Tennessee Tech returns four starters, but loses the OVC Player of the Year in Willie Jenkins. They must find someone to replace him. However, they do return some quality players, starting with All-Conference candidate Derek Stribling. He can play a multitude of positions, ranging from the two to the power forward spot. The backcourt combination of Keyon Boyd and Milone Clark is excellent as it is, but the addition of East Carolina transfer Belton Rivers should bolster is even further. 6-2 Anthony Fisher is one of the league's top sixth men. Possible starters Isaiah Mills and Jonathan Jones as well as solid forward Amadi McKenzie join Stribling in the frontcourt. Tennessee State, like seemingly every other team in this league, returns a stud backcourt. All-Conference guard Bruce Price is the main performer from the perimeter, but Wayne Arnold is also a solid player. Reserve Reiley Ervin is a decent role player off the bench. Forwards Eric King and Kareem Grant return up front. Both averaged about 10 points per game. Oklahoma transfer Larry Turner is eligible after the fall semester, and should have a huge impact inside for the Tigers. Samford has one of the best forwards in the league back in J. Robert Merritt, a first-team All-OVC pick a year ago. Jerry Smith, Randall Gulina, and Joe Ross Merritt provide inside-outside balance for the Bulldogs. Ryan Woolsey is expected to start, while 6-4 freshman Jason Black is poised to make an immediate impact.
Sleepers: Austin Peay may have the best inside-outside combination in the league in guard Maurice Hampton and center Zac Schlader. Hampton has the potential to have a huge, Player of the Year-like campaign, while Schlader is one of the better post players in the conference. Todd Babington, Derek Wright, and Fernandez Lockett all will see extensive playing time, with Babington and Lockett starting on the perimeter. Tomas Janusauskas should start next to Schlader. Southeast Missouri State lost nearly all of their key players, but reinforced the squad with several transfers, both D-I and JC. However, they also return the starting backcourt of Paul Paradoski and Terrick Willoughby. As far as the transfers that are going to produce immediately, Roy Booker looks like the best bet. He should be a go-to-guy on the perimeter. Inside, returnees Ketshner Guerrier and Waylon Francis will be molded with newcomers Andrais Thornton, Tyrell White, and John Chappell.
Rounding Out the Pack: Eastern Illinois returns an all-league lock in guard Josh Gomes, who is one of the best scorers in the conference. George Tandy and Bobby Catchings form a solid frontcourt duo, as Tandy was last season's Freshman of the Year, and Catchings is a versatile inside-outside scorer. Bill Duany and Jake Sinclair are decent perimeter options and could start. Morehead State has a potentially dynamite backcourt in senior Quinton Smith and redshirt junior Quenton Pryor. Smith is an all-around solid producer, while Pryor was injured all of last season. Cory Burns and JC transfer Shaun Williams should form an acceptable forward tandem, while a slew of other newcomers are expected to vie for time. Tennessee-Martin has an excellent swingman returning in Jared Newson, who will contend for league honors. Will Lewis and center Cleve Woodfork join him in a very good frontcourt. Woodfork is very underrated within the league. Jason Thompson is a good bench player down low. In the backcourt, Jeremy Kelly and Tolliver McLennon, neither of whom were on the team last season, will start. Aaron Ferrell and Justin Flatt will see lots of time on the perimeter, as well. Jacksonville State returns all five starters, including three double-figure scorers. Walker D. Russell is one of the best mid-major point guards that no one has heard of; he averaged over 14 points and 7 assists a year ago. B.J. Spencer and Anthony Wilson are both solid scoring wings. Dorien Brown should have a bigger year in the frontcourt, next to Carlos Lumpkin, who needs to improve his production.
Prediction: Eastern Kentucky and Murray State will be in a dogfight throughout the season, with up to four other teams having a legitimate shot at the title. However, in the end, the Colonels experience, point guard Matt Witt, and their offensive balance will prevail and they will win the league's automatic bid. Trey Pearson can carry Murray State to the NCAA Tournament, but he will have to settle for the NIT this season. This is going to be an exciting season in the Ohio Valley, though.
Player of the Year: Trey Pearson, SG, Murray State
G- Matt Witt, Eastern Kentucky
G- Trey Pearson, Murray State
G- Josh Gomes, Eastern Illinois
F- Jared Newson, Tennessee- Martin
F- J. Robert Merritt, Samford
G- Walker Russell, Jacksonville State
G- Maurice Hampton, Austin Peay
G- Bruce Price, Tennessee State
F- Derek Stribling, Tennessee Tech
C- Alonzo Hird, Eastern Kentucky