Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The Ohio Valley Conference transformed into one of the most competitive mid-major leagues in college basketball as six of its members finished with winning records, including the three teams that surpassed the 20- win plateau last season.
After dominating the 2011-12 campaign with a 15-1 league record, Murray State faced new challenges with Belmont's arrival to the OVC and Eastern Kentucky's dramatic improvement. The addition of Belmont increased the member total to 12, which allowed the conference to utilize divisional play. The Racers were not as successful as the previous campaign, however they still managed to win the West Division. The Bruins made an instant impact though, as they lost just twice to conference rivals in their inaugural tour en route to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
While the landscape of the conference did not change over the past offseason, there is an opportunity for new stars to emerge with only two of the 11 players selected to the All-OVC first and second teams returning.
Belmont could make its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance despite losing their dynamic backcourt as coach Rick Byrd seems to always find a way to reload to keep his squad competitive. It will be challenged by divisional rival Eastern Kentucky, which brings back four starters and its top reserve from last season's 25-win team.
Murray State will remain relevant despite losing their leader, Isaiah Canaan, as he went on to be picked by the Houston Rockets in the second round of the NBA Draft. Coach Steve Prohm will have to mesh his new look roster together quickly though with Southeast Missouri State and Tennessee State both looking to make a run at this year's title as well. The Racers will also have to be weary of Morehead State, which added two transfers from LSU for second-year coach Sean Woods.
The next tier of the league consists of Austin Peay, Jacksonville State and Tennessee State. The Governors return four of their starters from their squad that finished last in the West Division, while JSU and TSU both need to rebuild after being depleted by graduation.
Four programs that have struggled in recent history sit at the bottom of the conference with Tennessee Tech, Eastern Illinois, Tennessee-Martin and SIU- Edwardsville rounding out the 12-team field. TTU finished dead last in the East Division with only five league wins, three less than any of its divisional rivals. SIUE and UTM were two of just three teams in the OVC to come up short of 10 total victories.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Belmont
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Belmont, 2. Eastern Kentucky, 3. Murray State, 4. Southeast Missouri State, 5. Tennessee State, 6. Morehead State, 7. Austin Peay, 8. Jacksonville State, 9. Tennessee Tech, 10. Eastern Illinois, 11. Tennessee-Martin, 12. SIU-Edwardsville
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
BELMONT: Byrd kept the Bruins' tradition of winning alive and upgraded the competition from the Atlantic Sun with the move to the OVC. After winning their fourth straight regular season conference crown, the Bruins survived an overtime thriller with Murray State in the conference tournament title game for their 26th and final win of the campaign. Belmont finished second in the conference in scoring defense with an allowance of only 64.2 ppg. Byrd no longer has the lethal backcourt duo of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson in his lineup as he enters his 29th season at the school. Junior guard Reece Chamberlain (3.6 ppg) did not get to see the floor too much while behind Johnson on the depth chart, but he will provide steady point guard play while J.J. Mann (10.5 ppg) takes over the role of go-to-guy on the offensive end. Senior forward Blake Jenkins (9.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is the top returning interior player for Byrd, who will have his frontcourt bolstered by the addition of Drew Windler, a Samford transfer who connected on 42.6 percent of his many 3- point attempts at his previous school.
EASTERN KENTUCKY: There has not been a Colonels team entering the season with expectations this high in quite some time thanks to four starters returning from the unit that jumped from the .500 mark in 2011-12 to a 25-10 standing. EKU was very efficient throughout the course of its breakout campaign and led the OVC in multiple statistical categories including free-throw percentage (.78), turnover margin (plus 5.69) and 3-point field goals made (307). Coach Jeff Neubauer is 122-99 through his first eight years in Richmond and is expected to improve upon that mark significantly with OVC Player of the Year candidate Glenn Cosey (15.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg) spearheading the attack. EKU will miss Mike DiNunno, who was the team's primary ball handler and second-leading scorer, but junior guard Corey Walden (13 ppg) should be able to step into a starting role after thriving off the pine. The Colonels did not have many tough matchups during their non-conference slate. With little depth at forward, 6-8 senior Eric Stutz (8.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) cannot afford to get into foul trouble as EKU faces tough road tests at NC State, Virginia Commonwealth and Wisconsin.
MURRAY STATE: Most programs would be satisfied with a divisional title and overtime loss to Belmont in the conference tournament championship game, however Murray State's season was labeled disappointing by many. Prohm's inaugural season with the Racers began with 23 consecutive wins before MSU's loss to Marquette in the third round of the NCAA Tournament left the rookie head coach with a 31-2 record. The Racers ended the 2012-13 season at 21-10 with victories over Auburn, St. John's and Belmont highlighting Prohm's second tour. Despite winning their division outright and falling by only two points in an extra session to Belmont in the conference title, many felt MSU had underachieved. The school has had no trouble reloading to finish with a winning record in OVC in every year since 1987. Prior to the first game of the season, the Racers' replacement for Canaan has already changed due to the recent announcement that redshirt sophomore guard Zay Jackson will transfer. Prohm will now hand the keys over to freshman guard Cameron Payne, who was named Mr. Basketball in Tennessee for his work as an assist machine. Payne will be joined in the backcourt by the team's leading scorer among returners Dexter Fields (6.5 ppg) and after Thanksgiving, Clemson transfer T.J. Sapp, who started all seven of his games with the Tigers. Prohm hopes to keep the frontcourt fierce with junior college transfers Jonathan Fairell (6-7, 225) and Jarvis Williams (6-8, 210).
SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE: The Redhawks have steadily improved each year under coach Dickey Nutt, who inherited a team that went 3-27 and 0-18 in 2008-09, the season before he arrived in Cape Girardeau. Southeast fans have to be pleased with the job Nutt has done as his squad ended last season with a 17-16 overall record and a .500 mark versus OVC foes. The improved Redhawks were one of the most exciting teams in the league as they ranked second in scoring offense with 74.5 ppg and hit on 46.9 percent of their field goal attempts. They rallied around Missouri transfer Tyler Stone in his second year at the school. Although the 6-7 forward rarely saw the floor with the Tigers, it was hard to tell as he instantly became the offensive leader for the Redhawks. He is only 32 points shy of the 1,000-point milestone after only two seasons. Junior forward Nino Johnson (11.1 ppg, 8.8. rpg) is an asset both as a scorer and a rebounder, while A.J. Jones (8.6 ppg) is the top returner to the backcourt. SEMO will need a spot-up shooter to emerge to fill the shoes of departed seniors Corey Wilford and Marland Smith, as Jones and Lucas Nutt have yet to prove themselves as legitimate threats from long range.
TENNESSEE STATE: The Tigers had a frustrating start with only one positive outcome through the first six games of the Travis Williams era before they picked up steam. TSU appeared to be a contender to win the OVC with six consecutive decisions over league rivals, but they could not continue their momentum any further and dropped three straight games to fall behind in the regular season race. Although the team's 18-15 overall record at the conclusion of the campaign left it with two less victories than the previous season, the slight drop off was understandable considering the progression throughout the OVC. TSU's strength was on the glass, finishing second in the conference in rebounding margin (plus 2.7). Williams's coaching ability will be tested much more in his second year without Robert Covington, Kellen Thornton and Jordan Cyphers, who combined for 44.9 points and 18.4 boards per game. The Tigers retained the only returning OVC first-team selection in senior point guard Patrick Miller, who is certain to increase his 14.3 ppg scoring average as the new main option. M.J. Rhett (5.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg) will also be asked to do more. TSU's success will depend on its new additions that include Jacksonville College transfer Kennedy Eubanks and the 6-8, 235-pound Alex Bates, who previously played at Northeastern.
MOREHEAD STATE: Woods left Mississippi Valley State hoping to take the Eagles to the next level. Unfortunately, the team digressed from 18 wins to only 15 victories due to a 6-8 performance against non-conference opposition. MSU will get better under Woods with time as his intense defensive philosophy requires the right mix of talent to operate with maximum results. It was made clear that most teams will have an impossible time matching the Eagles' intensity under Woods, as the team averaged 5.9 more rebounds per game than their opponents. MSU's trio of Angelo Warner (10.9 ppg), Chad Posthumus (7.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Bakari Turner (8.2 ppg) will create matchup problems throughout the course of the season. The 6-11 Posthumus finished the campaign ranked second nationally in offensive rebounding. The Eagles could be the surprise team if they find enough help within their deep class of fresh faces. Woods did his recruiting in bunches to increase his team's depth. Corban Collins and Jalen Courtney are both joining the program after previously playing at LSU, while Billy Reader and former Utah Ute Kareem Storey played together at the College of Southern Idaho.
AUSTIN PEAY: Dave Loos has amassed a 371-333 record over the course of his 23- year stint as the Governors' coach. Only eight of those victories came last season though, which was the second fewest total the program has tallied since he claimed his spot on the bench. Loos was also the school's athletic director until April, when he announced he would step down to focus solely on turning the program around. He has an experienced foundation to begin that task with four returning starters, with the OVC's leading scorer among returners in Travis Betran (17.2 ppg). APSU has a few more options on the offensive end with Will Triggs (12.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Chris Horton (8.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg) manning the forward positions. The Governors need to improve defensively after finishing 10th in the league in scoring defense (73.0 ppg). Lipscomb transfer Zavion Williams is expected to he a difference maker due to his production of 9.1 points and 2.6 assists per outing as a rookie with the Bison.
JACKSONVILLE STATE: Although the Gamecocks played well enough to finish at the .500 mark with an 8-8 OVC record for the second consecutive season, their low APR prevented them from participating in the conference tournament. While JSU's ban has been lifted, it will have trouble reaching the same heights due to the loss of a few significant seniors. Coach James Green did a great job of preparing his squad defensively, which yielded a scoring defense average of 64.9 ppg to rank third in the league. The Gamecocks have a proficient backcourt with Brian Williams (13.1 ppg) and Darion Rackley (13.7 ppg) returning. JSU needs to become a better rebounding team, but that improvement may require some recruiting as the biggest issue is a lack of size. Junior college transfer D.J. Felder will help on the front line as his 6-7, 225-pound frame will make him one of the Gamecocks' biggest players right away. Freshman forward Earnest Hunter (6-8, 215) could provide assistance on the interior if he is able to increase his strength and awareness in a timely manner.
TENNESSEE TECH: Coach Steve Payne's second season with TTU delivered the opposite result of his inaugural 17-12 campaign as his rotation's lack of experience made it difficult to compete against the senior-filled OVC. Now with a 31-31 career record, Payne has more veterans than most of his counterparts for his third year as head coach. Maturity may not be enough for the Golden Eagles as their lack of production on the offensive end (64.8 ppg) gave them just the 10th ranked scoring offense in the OVC. Their problems on the offensive end may get worse with leading scorer and rebounder Jud Dillard no longer around. Payne will rely heavily on his senior duo of Dennis Ogbe (10.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Jeremiah Samarrippas (9.5 ppg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 spg) to pilot TTU back to a winning record. Ogbe will be much more important on the offensive end without Dillard present, which could be the remedy to the team's scoring woes, as he led the OVC with a 61.3 percent clip on field goal attempts. Freshman spot-up shooter Shirmane Thomas will see some action because his ability to stretch defenses will open up the paint for Ogbe.
EASTERN ILLINOIS: After going 6-4 as the interim head coach of UNLV at the conclusion of the 2003-04 season, Jay Spoonhour had a long wait before the opportunity to take over a Division I program on a full-time basis arrived. The son of the late Charlie Spoonhour began his tenure with EIU at square one as the team was coming off its second consecutive losing season and did not have any impact players returning. The Panthers tended to play at a slower pace which led to the OVC's best scoring defense (64.2 ppg) and worst scoring offense (60.4 ppg). Spoonhour showed he is capable of developing talent as EIU won eight of its final 12 regular season games. A slow start and first round exit of the OVC Tournament gave the Panthers an 11-21 overall record at the conclusion of the season, but the strong finish indicated they have a bright future under Spoonhour. A dramatic improvement to EIU's record is not going to come easy with only four lettermen back for the 2013-14 campaign. Luckily, EIU retained three of its top four scorers in Josh Piper (10.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg), Sherman Blanford (10.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Alex Austin (9.3 ppg). Seven new faces will try to make up the difference with junior college transfer Mat Piotrowski standing out due to his enormous 7-2, 265-pound frame.
TENNESSEE-MARTIN: Jason James enters his fourth season at UTM looking to finish with less than 20 losses for the first time in his career. Although the Skyhawks were one of only three teams in the conference to finish the season with less than 10 wins, they were able to knock off five OVC rivals after going winless in conference action in 2011-12. They also pulled off a shocking one-point win at Murray State, which was their first on the Racers' home floor in program history. James did not make too many improvements through recruiting, which means the Skyhawks will have to hope the group that didn't fare too well a season ago develops into a competitive unit. Poor defensive play caused the majority of the misfortune, as UTM had trouble matching the average of 76.5 ppg it allowed to its foes. If James can better his squad's defensive play, he may have his best season as a head coach, considering the Skyhawks have a nice offensive centerpiece in junior forward Myles Taylor (16.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) along with a trio of solid complementary players in Justin Childs (8.4 ppg), Terrence Smith (10.6 ppg) and Mike Liabo (13.4 ppg).
SIU EDWARDSVILLE: The Cougars made the jump from Division II to the OVC prior to the 2011-12 campaign and they have struggled during their infancy in the NCAA's most competitive division. Coach Lennox Forrester's team took a minor step in the wrong direction last season with a 9-18 overall record and 5-11 mark in OVC games. To make matters worse, two of the wins came over non- Division I foes Eureka and Robert Morris-Illinois. SIUE won 10 games with six coming in league play in its inaugural year as a Division I program. Forrester has not been able to instantly build SIU into a formidable unit which was clearly evident on both ends of the floor a year ago. The Cougars ended last season ranked second to last among OVC schools in scoring offense (62.9 ppg) and also had the worst field goal percentage defense (46.2). Junior guard Kris Davis is the pace-setter on the team due to his scoring prowess that has yielded a double-digit scoring average in both of his seasons at the collegiate level. Former Colorado State guard Maurice Wiltz (8.3 ppg) and Michael Messer (8.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg) will join Davis in the backcourt, while Forrester's frontcourt will be filled with newcomers, one of which likely being junior college transfer Keaton Jackson (6-10, 205).