Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: Rivalries in the Ohio Valley Conference run deep. The constant tug of war between 2013 regular season conference champion Belmont and the Bruins' most heated competitor, Murray State, was enhanced yet again as last season wore down. A late regular season contest between the sides was decided by just three points, with Belmont emerging victorious. The Bruins made it to the Ohio Valley Conference title game during last year's conference tournament, but fell to Eastern Kentucky - a surprise team that turned on the burners late in the season and made its way into the NCAA Tournament. The shock was that Murray State and Belmont didn't square off in the conference's final battle. The rivalry between Murray State and Belmont will continue this season, as both teams will be top contenders yet again for the 2014-15 OVC crown.
Belmont, a member of the OVC East Division, will be the favorite to earn the division's top spot yet again, although the Bruins lost leading scorer and all-around threat J.J. Mann in the offseason. Belmont finished 14-2 in league play in 2013-14, which was the best mark in the conference. Coach Rick Byrd expects his team to be in the same position come the end of this upcoming season, and Murray State to be right there at the top with his program. Those two teams, along with Morehead State and Southeast Missouri State, figure to be some of the league's top squads this season, as each combines a solid returning lineup with some young, up-and-coming talent.
Eastern Kentucky, last year's conference champion, lost some key members of its team in the offseason, so a repeat shot at the league title diminishes quite a bit. But the automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament was an unexpected one last season, so anything is possible for the Colonels, who do get plenty of junior college transfers added to their roster. Eastern Kentucky, Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech and SIU-Edwardsville project to be in the middle portion of the conference. Of the four squads, Eastern Kentucky was the only one to finish last season with double-digit conference victories. That means all four programs had work to do in the offseason if they wanted to be considered part of the elite in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Jacksonville State and Tennessee State, both East Division members, suffered through a long and arduous 2013 campaign. The Gamecocks lacked any real offensive firepower last season, and the question of whether the team can score a sufficient amount will remain the same for this year. Tennessee State started painfully slow, and ended up only winning five games the entire season. Losing Patrick Miller to graduation was a killer. Miller was the only bright spot on a Tigers team that was doomed from the start. In the West Division, UT Martin projects to be in the bottom tier of the conference after finishing the 2013 season with just three conference wins - the fewest in the OVC. But the Skyhawks could be a surprise turnaround team in 2014 after stocking up on young talent with a strong recruiting class. Eastern Illinois didn't finish all that close to the bottom of the league last year, but the Panthers will find it hard to stay competitive after losing second-team All- OVC player Sherman Blanford. Their slow style of play might not be as effective this season if the Panthers don't have anyone particularly intimidating when it comes to scoring or on the defensive end. Although Eastern Kentucky proved that anyone can win the OVC with a hot streak, the focus entering this season should be solely on Belmont and Murray State.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Murray State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: East Division: 1. Belmont, 2. Morehead State, 3. Eastern Kentucky, 4. Tennessee Tech, 5. Jacksonville State, 6. Tennessee State; West Division: 1. Murray State, 2. Southeast Missouri State, 3. Austin Peay, 4. SIU-Edwardsville, 5. UT Martin, 6. Eastern Illinois
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
BELMONT: The Bruins (26-10, 14-2 OVC) have dominated the Ohio Valley Conference since joining the league just a few years ago. In fact, in both seasons as a member of the league, Belmont has taken the regular-season title, and is their fifth in a row dating back to the team's days in the Atlantic Sun Conference. There's no reason to think this season won't be any different for the Bruins, who do lose J.J. Mann - last season's OVC Player of the Year - to graduation. But the Belmont lineup was strong and well-rounded outside of Mann, and will be led this season instead not by one player, but by a group of experienced veterans. Craig Bradshaw (15.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 111 assists) returns to the lineup, as does Reece Chamberlain (10.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 170 assists). They'll likely be the starting guards after the duo started every game in which they played last season. Toss in Caleb Chowbay, who played in 36 games a year ago as a reserve player, as a leading candidate for more minutes, and the Bruins have a solid back court. Forward Evan Bradds should see an increased role underneath the basket for a team whose leading rebounder a year ago was Mann (4.8 rpg). Belmont will utilize a strong offensive gameplan once again, one that ranked eighth in the nation with almost nine 3-pointers a game last season.
MOREHEAD STATE: Turnover did hit Morehead State (20-14, 10-6) hard in the offseason. The Eagles saw two of their big men depart, including the OVC's leading rebounder in 2013, Chad Posthumus (10.9 rpg). Between Posthumus and Drew Kelly, the Eagles may be reeling just a bit from the loss of such big names. But there's way more reason for optimism for coach Sean Woods's squad this year, considering three highly regarded transfers are now eligible, including former LSU teammates Corban Collins and Jalen Courtney. They'll both bolster the Morehead State roster, which is led by senior guard Angelo Warner (17.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 103 assists), who was a force last season. Second-leading scorer from a year ago Brent Arrington (11.8 ppg, 66 steals) is back for his junior season, while senior Bakari Turner comes back after suffering a season- ending injury early into the 2013 campaign. The depth for the Eagles is seriously strong, which could make this a potential title-contender year for Morehead State, which averaged over 76 ppg a year ago.
EASTERN KENTUCKY: Coach Jeff Neubauer turned what was a fairly above-average regular season for Eastern Kentucky (24-10, 11-5) into a postseason run fueled by strong play all around that led to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament by way of the league's automatic bid. Then-senior Glenn Cosey was a beast on the offensive side of the ball, leading the Colonels with 18.7 ppg and 142 assists in last year's campaign. He was a major part of EKU's run to the NCAA Tournament, but his presence will not be felt this season after his graduation. Corey Walden (13.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 100 assists) and Eric Stutz (8.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 24 blocks) are going to be the veteran leaders this season for the Colonels. The two players were crucial to EKU's success toward the end of last season, when the team ripped off seven consecutive victories. Neubauer went down to the junior college ranks and signed three transfers that will give the Colonels a little bit of size, which helps out Stutz underneath the basket. Eastern Kentucky will try to reprise its role as a defensive squad that led the league in steals last season.
TENNESSEE TECH: Things will be different for coach Steve Payne's squad this season after Tennessee Tech (17-16, 9-7) lost two of its top three scorers in the offseason. Center Dwan Caldwell (10.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg) returns to the lineup and will look to continue his role as the team's leading scorer. He is a presence underneath the basket, but the Golden Eagles will need someone outside who can take control and be the quarterback of the offense, much like Jeremiah Samarrippas (10.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.8 apg) was last season. The team hopes junior college transfer Torrance Rowe will be that guy, but it's always risky putting faith in a player that is just joining the program. Junior guard Josiah Moore (7.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg) will look for an increased role on the perimeter as a pure shooter, and Jordan Johnson will look to build on his 35 percent touch from beyond the 3-point arc. The Golden Eagles may struggle to get back to plus-.500 in conference play again after losing some key pieces, but can also be a surprise team in the Ohio Valley Conference if some of their newer players pan out.
JACKSONVILLE STATE: The Gamecocks (10-21, 4-12) endured a painful season last year as they struggled to a 10-21 overall record with just four wins in conference play. The team limped to a poor offensive showing (65 ppg) as a unit last season, which is a huge reason for such a down year. Coach James Green hasn't finished with an above-.500 record in OVC play in any of his six years with the team, but he's hoping this will be the year. There's a lot that needs to change, however, for his squad to accomplish that feat. And it absolutely starts on the offensive side of the ball. Darion Rackley led the team in scoring with 13.1 ppg, but will need to improve even further as the senior go-to guy this time around. His 62 turnovers last season were the most on the team, but he did also register 36 steals in 30 games played. Forward D.J. Felder returns as well after averaging 8.3 ppg, and is the leading returner on the boards with 4.9 rpg. With six freshmen on the roster, it's clear Green is trying to build up from the bottom as his team gets set to take the court.
TENNESSEE STATE: The Tigers (5-25, 4-12) didn't record their first win last season until Dec. 15, when they defeated Fisk in Nashville. Their first conference win came against another lowly OVC team (Jacksonville State) on Jan. 4. As Tennessee State gets set to start a new season, things look pretty bleak for the immediate future. The loss of Patrick Miller (23.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 123 assists) is absolutely monumental going forward. He was the only player on the team that held things together, and he served as the go-to scorer. The other double-digit scorer on the team was M.J. Rhett (10.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg), and he's gone this season as well. Three Tigers starters from last year transferred out as part of the seven total players that sought different programs. First-year coach Dana Ford has his hands full, and will have to turn to Jay Harris (7.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 24 steals) to be the leader of the team. He'll also have to count on 10 newcomers that are eligible to play this season. Montana transfer Keron Deshields is a big get for the Tigers, who will need all sorts of scoring help. They'll try to improve on last season's dismal record, which, on paper, shouldn't be too hard.
MURRAY STATE: Almost every team in college basketball has experienced some form of turnover from last season as they get set to start a new year. But Murray State's roster seems to be about as intact as any other squad in the nation. The Racers (23-11, 13-3) will be the favorites to take the West Division in the OVC for sure, as they return their top four scorers from a year ago. That includes standout sophomore point guard Cameron Payne (16.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 185 assists), who led the Racers in scoring as a true freshman. He was a member of the Ohio Valley's elite in just his first season, and with plenty of experience and more time to practice under his belt, his game figures to be much more fluid this year. Second-leading scorer and second-team All-OVC member Jarvis Williams (14.9 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 60 blocked shots) returns for his senior season. Williams was an absolute monster in the post and on the glass for Murray State, which has a relatively small lineup this season (Williams, at 6- foot-8, is the tallest player the team has). Former Clemson guard T.J. Sapp was a sensational sixth man for the Racers when he became eligible to play last December, and should see an increased role. Throw in players like Jeffery Moss, Jonathan Fairell and Tyler Rambo as key contributors, and this Murray State squad will be ready to go for the start of what should be a very strong year.
SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE: The Redhawks (18-14, 8-8) were the very definition of a "middle-of-the-road" team last season, finishing with an 8-8 record in OVC play. Finishing second in the West Division this season may seem like a bit of a stretch, especially after the team lost leading scorer Tyler Stone (19.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg) in the offseason. But outside of Stone, the Redhawks are about as strong as they were last year, with the addition of a year's worth of experience for some key players. Former junior college transfer Jarekious Bradley had an outstanding first season with SEMO, as the guard finished with 19.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 52 assists. He was a huge contributor to an offense that led the Ohio Valley Conference in scoring with 82.9 ppg. With no Stone inside, Nino Johnson (8.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg) figures to get a much greater role as the team's go-to big man. Antonius Cleveland (9.1 ppg) and Josh Langford (7.5 ppg) are both back after seeing some very valuable time on the floor. Head Coach Dickey Nutt will have to replace his son, Lucas, at point guard, however. Nutt dished out 191 assists last season, almost 140 more than the second-place finisher on the team. Still, SEMO looks like it can compete with a well- rounded roster this season.
AUSTIN PEAY: The Governors (12-18, 6-10) finished toward the bottom of the OVC standings last year, and have lost some key players off their roster that were valuable contributors a season ago. Both Travis Betran (15.9 ppg, 2.3 apg) and Will Triggs (12.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) are gone, so center Chris Horton is the lone double-digit scorer that returns to Austin Peay this season. Horton ended the 2013 campaign averaging 13.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 3.1 blocks per outing, so the 6- foot-8 junior will try and resume where he left off. The good news for the Govs is that they are deep at the forward position, with senior forward Chris Freeman set to battle junior college transfer Assane Diop for the other starting spot. High-scoring junior college transfer Khalil Davis could be the sharpshooter that ultimately replaces Betran, and freshman Josh Robinson can provide a scoring spark right away for Austin Peay. With a well-rounded potential lineup, the Governors seem ready to improve on a sub-par 2013 campaign. To do that, they'll need to cut down on turnovers (471 in 2013) and limit opponents' scoring (78.9 ppg allowed).
SIU-EDWARDSVILLE: SIU-Edwardsville (11-20, 7-9) made the OVC Tournament for the first time last season, and the lineup that got the team there returns nearly intact. The balanced lineup that averaged 73 ppg last season returns, led by junior guard Donivine Stewart (12.2 ppg), who was the only player to average double-digit scoring numbers for the Cougars. Stewart added 4.5 apg and 1.6 steals per outing in 31 starts as a sophomore, and shot 44.1 percent from the floor. Senior guard Kris Davis (9.5 ppg, 2.3 apg) is also back, so both Stewart and Davis should make up the starting back court for SIUE with some talented reserves ready to take the court. Names like Maurice Wiltz and Michael Messer were steady contributors last season. As for the forward positions, Keaton Jackson (9.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and guard/forward combo Rozell Nunn (8.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg) should see plenty of time on the court for the Cougars, while freshman Jalen Henry and junior college transfer Michael Chandler may have to help SIUE shore up some questionable post positions. The Cougars will likely be in the middle of the pack again, with another decent shot at making the conference tournament.
UT MARTIN: New UT Martin coach Heath Schroyer did a number on the roster in the offseason by bringing in a huge recruitment of young talent. The Skyhawks (8-23, 3-13) finished in dead last in the OVC standings last season, so a change will be necessary for Schroyer if his team wants to push for a postseason berth. Senior forward Myles Taylor returns after finishing his junior campaign with a team high-tying 14.6 ppg average, adding 6.3 rpg and 27 blocked shots to his stat line. Taylor and senior guard Marshun Newell (10.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.7 assists) will be the go-to scorers, leaders and playmakers for the Skyhawks, as they try to set an example for the six freshmen on the roster. Among the recruits for UT Martin this season is 7-foot-2 freshman center Nick Detlev, who comes in from Andrews Osborne Academy in Ohio, and second-team junior college All-America point guard Alex Anderson. The 5- foot-11 guard could easily make waves for the Skyhawks as soon as he takes the court. UT Martin could be a surprise team this season, but don't expect a finish anywhere near the top of the conference still.
EASTERN ILLINOIS: The Panthers (11-19, 7-9) were extremely inconsistent last season, finishing with a 7-9 mark in OVC play and a well-below .500 overall record. In the offseason, the Panthers lost leading scorer Sherman Blanford (14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 23 blocked shots) to graduation, which means EIU will have to look elsewhere for point production. The good news is that most of the team's other contributors are back, including athletic point guard Reggie Smith (13.1 ppg, 85 assists) and 6-foot-8 forward Chris Olivier (11.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg). Eastern Illinois has a very distinct height advantage over many teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, with seven players on the team's roster standing at least 6-foot-6. Junior forward Luke Piotrowski (6-foot-11) and his older brother Mat (7-foot-2) are like twin towers underneath the rim. If the Panthers can slow the tempo of the game down so the big men on the team can keep up and play solid defense and a set offense, the team might just have something this year. But ultimately it didn't work last year with a more athletic lineup, so it would be a surprise to see EIU finish near the top of the OVC this season.