Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ohio Valley Conference Preview


After running neck and neck with Samford and Tennessee Tech, Murray State pulled away with the Ohio Valley Conference title down the strech, winning the league by a full three games over Samford. Seeds two through seven were separated by only three games, leaving just one team, Tennessee-Martin, in the conference tournament with a conference record below. 500. In the conference tournament, Murray State demonstrated that they were clearly the best team in the conference, winning their three games by an average of almost 13 points per game. The Racers represented the Ohio Valley well in the NCAA Tournament, hanging tight with #3 seed North Carolina until the final seconds, losing by four. This year, with all of the losses by Murray State, there are several teams waiting to step up and gain league supremacy.

Favorite: Samford, after finishing second last season behind Murray State, might be the team best equipped to dethrone the Racers. However, they have to find a way to replace conference Player of the Year J. Robert Merritt, who led the team in scoring and rebounding a season ago. The four returning starters for the Bulldogs are led by potential all-conference big man Travis Peterson. He is a very good all-around player who can score, rebound, and pass the ball at a high level. He could develop into a Player of the Year candidate this season. Providing balance for Samford is all-conference guard Randall Gulina. He is a very good scorer from the backcourt. Joining him on the perimeter is point guard Jerry Smith, one of the best lead guards in the Ohio Valley. He is a good distributor and an outstanding rebounder for his position. Wings Joe Ross Merritt and Curtis West are also solid perimeter performers. Jason Black might step into the starting lineup at the vacated forward spot.

Contenders: Tennessee Tech had a very good season last year, finishing third in the OVC with a 19-12 overall record. They return one of the top backcourts in the country in Anthony Fisher and Belton Rivers, both possible all-conference selections. They were the top two scorers for the Eagles--and they both came off the bench. Both are very good all-around players, capable of playing both guard spots. Up front, the Eagles will have a lot of talent and depth. Jonathan Jones and Francis Kabore return as starters at the forward spots, while Amadi McKenzie was the top frontcourt scorer a season ago. As if that wasn't enough, South Alabama transfer Daniel Northern is expected to make an immediate impact when he becomes eligible in December. Southeast Missouri State has a very disappointing season a year ago, finishing next-to-last in the conference and going 7-20 overall. Moreover, they have to replace the top scorer in the OVC in guard Roy Booker, who put up 22 points per game. So why the optimism? Look no further than the arrival of transfers Michael Rembert from Bradley and Brandon Foust from Oklahoma. They immediately become one of the top frontcourt duos in the conference, and Rembert is going to be a candidate for OVC Player of the Year. Andrais Thornton also returns as a starter up front. On the perimeter, Paul Paradoski and Terrick Willoughby return as starters in the backcourt, while Eric Burtin and David Johnson saw plenty of minutes off the bench last season. Jacksonville State loses three starters from last year's fourth-place finisher, but they have enough talent to compete for a conference title. The Gamecocks boast arguably the best forward combo in the conference in Player of the Year candidate Courtney Bradley and potential all-conference player Dorien Brown. Bradley really came on towards the end of last season and will come to close to averaging a double-double this season, while Brown is another double-digit scorer and solid rebounder. Harold Crow played very well off the bench last season, and should step into the starting lineup this year. The backcourt is likely to be made up of JC transfers Will Ginn and Erik Adams. Ginn is a terrific passer, while Adams will provoide scoring from the wing.

Sleepers: Tennessee State would have been one of the top contenders had this been written last week. However, for the second season in a row, star guard Bruce Price tore his ACL and will miss the entire season. As a result, the Tigers will have to look elsewhere to find replacements for all-OVC players Wayne Arnold and Kareem Grant. One player they don't have to worry about, though, is Preseason Player of the Year Clarence Matthews. The 6-7 forward is a double-double threat every time he steps onto the court and can dominate a game in a variety of ways. He will be joined up front by center Larry Turner, who started last season and played well, and Mississippi State transfer Jerrell Houston, who will be expected to make an immediate impact once he becomes eligible. Reiley Ervin and Andrae Belton will comprise a solid backcourt. Ervin is one of the best point guards in the conference due to his passing skills. This might be the only time you'll ever see Murray State in the "sleepers" section. However, after losing four starters and coach Mick Cronin, the Racers are going to have a tough time contending for a league title. Shawn Witherspoon, a first-team all-OVC pick last year, will need to become a dominant performer with the inexperience in the lineup. He is an outstanding rebounder who will increase his scoring production. The returnee most likely to become a starter is guard Tyler Holloway, who has the ability to become a big-time scorer. Birmingham Southern transfers Ed Horton, a 6-3 guard, and Dwayne Paul, a 6-5 forward, will be counted upon to make contributions right away. The same goes for JC transfer Kevin Thomas, a 6-1 point guard. Eastern Kentucky was expected to be a top competitor in the Ohio Valley last season after reaching the NCAA Tournament two years ago. They stumbled to a 14-16 overall record and a fifth place finish, though. Moreover, they will have to replace two all-conference performers in guards Matt Witt and Jason McLeish. Three starters return for the Colonels, led by Darnell Dialls. He is one of the top forwards in the conference and could develop into an all-conference player this season. Michael Brock starts next to him. He is a good rebounder and defender. Lafayette transfer Jamaal Douglas will be an excellent addition to the frontcourt this season. He is an outstanding rebounder and a very good shot-blocker. Julian Mascoll and Mike Rose form a nice wing combo, while freshmen Ryan Dillman and Adam Leonard will battle for the point guard spot.

Rounding Out the Pack: Eastern Illinois loses the majority of their team, returning only four players from a team that finished 9th in the conference and 6-21 overall. They do have one of the best point guards in the conference, though. Mike Robinson is a very good all-around player that can score and distribute the ball well. He is the leading returning scorer for the Panthers. Bobby Catchings returns on the wing. The 6-6 scorer could be poised for a big year. Jake Byrne is a space-eater down low but is developing into an above-average big man. The newcomers are going to have to make a huge impact. Ousmane Cisse is an athletic post player, while Justin Brock is another solid big man. Jon'Tee Willhite will make an impact in the backcourt. Austin Peay might see their streak of 13 straight seasons with an above-.500 league record come to an end this year. All-conference performers Maurice Hampton and Zac Schlader are gone, leaving a young but talented team for veteran coach Dave Loos. Derek Wright and Kyle Duncan make up a decent backcourt that will continue to develop. Forward Drake Reed is the third returning starter. He is a solid scorer and rebounder who will have to become more of an offensive option this season. Guards Todd Babington and Landon Shipley performed admirably off the bench last season, and could see expanded roles this year. Fernandez Lockett could have a breakout season in the frontcourt. Morehead State returns four starters from last year's team, but that was a team that went 3-17 in league play and 4-23 overall. The Eagles have talent, but it needs to translate to wins this season. Shaun Williams is one of the top players in the conference. The 6-6 forward is a big-time scorer who is also a very good rebounder. He might have to put up huge numbers every night for this team to be competitive. Solid forward Ryan Allen joins him up front. The perimeter is deep. Quentin Pryor is a very good long-range shooter who will need to improve his production this year, while Cordaryl Ballard and Tyke Cockerham also return in the backcourt after seeing extended minutes last season. JC transfers Brandon Callahan, Jamyron Steward, and Nikola Stojakovic will be counted upon to make an impact. Tennessee-Martin finished last season strong, and hope to carry that momentum over to this year. The only problem is that no returnee averaged more than seven points per game a year ago. Zerek Knight and McClennon Toliver both came off the bench last year and need to replace Jared Newson and Jeremy Kelly, who combined for over 35 points and 10 rebounds last season. The frontcourt is solid, with three returning starters. Will Lewis and McKale Jones are solid scorers and rebounders, while Cleve Woodfork could develop into an all-conference candidate at center. JC transfer Gerald Robinson will also contribute up front.

Prediction: No Murray State in the title race? It's hard to believe, but it could be true this season. They just lose too much production and too many players from last year to compete for an OVC championship. With the Racers out of the way, Samford looks like the team to beat. Randall Gulina and Travis Peterson form the best inside-outside combo in the conference. However, Tennessee Tech has outstanding guard play, Southeast Missouri welcomes two big-time transfers, Jacksonville State has an excellent forward duo, and you can't forget Clarence Matthews of Tennessee State. In other words, the Ohio Valley could be wide-open this season, but Samford looks like the best choice heading into the season.

Player of the Year: Clarence Matthews, PF, Tennessee State

All-Conference Team:
G- Randall Gulina, Samford
F- Shawn Witherspoon, Murray State
F- Courtney Bradley, Jacksonville State
F- Clarance Matthews, Tennessee State
C- Travis Peterson, Samford

Second Team:
G- Mike Robinson, Eastern Illinois
G- Jerry Smith, Samford
G- Anthony Fisher, Tennessee Tech
F- Shaun Williams, Morehead State
F- Dorien Brown, Jacksonville State

1 comment:

  1. People don't realize that Murray State reloads EVERY year. The road to the conference championship perennially goes through Murray, Kentucky and this season is no different.

    Austin Peay might look down on paper, but head coach Dave Loos always has the Govs ready come conference time.

    Eastern Kentucky a sleeper? Yeah, at the wheel. The Colonels will be neck and neck with Eastern Illinois and Martin for the cellar.

    Team to watch? Southeast Missouri State finally fired coach Garner and hired Tennessee assistant Scott Edgar. Edgar was the head man in the mid-to-late 90s for Murray state and won a couple of conference championships with now European pro Marcus Brown. This man started his career with Nolan Richardson and can recruit the heck out of that I-55 corridor between Memphis and St. Louis. SEMO will be a perennial contender in the OVC for the foreseeable future.