2001-02 Ohio Valley Conference Preview
by Dan Hauptman
The nation’s eighth oldest conference enters its 54th year of existence. The nine-team Ohio Valley Conference looks to be very competitive in the 2001-2002 season. For the first time in almost a decade, Murray State is not the clear-cut favorite to earn the conference’s automatic ticket to the NCAA field of 65. This has given teams such as Tennessee Tech, Tennessee-Martin and Morehead State hope that they will be the ones performing in front of the nation come March.
Last season, Tennessee Tech won the regular season championship with a 13-3 OVC record. However in the postseason tournament, Eastern Illinois earned the automatic NCAA Tournament berth and advanced to its second Big Dance. In the finals of the tournament, the Panthers overcame a 21-point deficit and defeated Austin Peay 84-83. That game marked the fifth time in the past eight years that the OVC championship game was decided by three points or less. That sets the stage for this season, a campaign that promises to be filled with more basketball theatrics and drama all over the Ohio Valley region.
1. Tennessee Tech: The Golden Eagles will try this season to do something they weren’t able to do last year (20-9, 13-3): put the exclamation point on a great campaign. A year ago, the team had the best conference record during the regular season, but was not able to match the success in the postseason tournament as Tech lost to Austin Peay.
Coach Jeff Lebo, a former University of North Carolina point guard, won his second consecutive OVC Coach of the Year award in the 2000-2001 season. His hopes of taking the school to the next level are boosted by the return of four starters, including Leigh Gayden and Brent Jolly, junior guards that earned preseason all-conference honors. The veteran squad was overwhelmingly picked by the league’s head coaches and sports information directors to repeat as OVC men’s basketball champions in 2001-2002. The Golden Eagles hope to win more than just a regular season championship for this season to be considered a success.
2. Eastern Illinois: Last year, as a result of winning the OVC postseason tournament, the Panthers were seeded 15th and lost to finalist Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Although the school lost Kyle Hill to the NBA, the team still has preseason OVC Player of the Year Henry Domercant patrolling the paint. Domercant, a junior forward, finished as the fourth leading scorer in the nation one year ago, averaging almost 23 points per game.
This year, the team is very young, with just one senior, forward Todd Bergmann, on the roster. Junior center Jan Thompson joins Domercant and Bergmann on the Panther front line, the same set of big men that started on last season’s squad. Coach Rick Samuels, in his 22nd year at the university, will have a tougher time filling the two backcourt spots. Hill and last season’s point guard, Matt Britton, both graduated, leaving a huge hole to fill if the team plans to be playing during March Madness in 2002.
3. Murray State: The Racers will try to rebound this season after failing to win at least a share of their eighth consecutive OVC regular season championship last year. The team tied for second place during the 2000-2001 regular season (17-12, 11-5), and lost to eventual champion Eastern Illinois in the conference tournament. It was a disappointing season for the OVC’s usually premier team.
Coach Tevester Anderson begins his fourth year at the school with many key returning players on the roster. Returning senior guard Justin Burdine, the team’s leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, and point guard Kevin Paschel will return as the squad’s starting guards. Chris Shumate is also expected to play big minutes at the guard position for the Racers. Up front, sophomore center Andi Hornig is back and will be joined by newcomers Jamar Avant, who sat out last season as a Prop. 48, and James Singleton, a 6-foot-8 junior college transfer.
4. Morehead State:
The one word that describes this year’s Eagles team is hope. The team has not won the OVC regular season championship since 1983-1984, and has not won the postseason tournament since the same season. This year, thanks to four returning starters and a very strong recruiting class brought in by coach Kyle Macy, there is hope that a championship may come to Morehead, Kentucky in the foreseeable future. Last season, Ricky Minard took home the league’s Freshman of the Year award after averaging 16.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Minard and Kyle Umberger, a 6-foot-6 senior, both were All-OVC honorees one year ago.
Also back starting for the Eagles team that finished with a 12-16 record are junior forward Iker Lopez and junior point guard Marquis Sykes, who led the conference in assists as a sophomore. Five former high school standouts make up the promising freshmen class. The new Eagles include versatile Indiana all-star Corey Burns, Hoosier all-stater Kyle Hankins, Kalilou Kamara from France, Illinois all-stater Ramon Kelly and Ohio all-stater Chad McKnight.
Senior leadership should lead the Skyhawks toward the top of the conference race, after finishing 5-11 last season. Nine lettermen, including four starters, from last year’s team are back this season for coach Bret Campbell. The top returning player is senior forward Brian Foster, named the 2001 Newcomer of the Year last season.
Joining Foster on the front line are senior center Jeremy Sargent, the league’s leading shot blocker last season, and Okechi Egbe, a versatile junior who was the OVC Freshman of the Year two years ago. Two point guard transfers, Brooks Smith and Jair Peralta, should help distribute the ball to the talented big fellas. Last year’s starting point guard, Michael Jackson, has moved over to the shooting guard position.
6. Austin Peay:
The Governors were leading Eastern Illinois 72-51 with nine minutes remaining in last year’s tournament title game when disaster struck. The Panthers made a furious comeback and won by one point, thwarting Austin Peay from advancing to its first NCAA Tournament since 1996. The devastating loss leaves coach Dave Loos, who is also the university’s athletic director, and his players in the position of having revenge on their minds during the entire 2001-2002 season. The team will have to do this while trying to replace the output of forward Trenton Hassell, who graduated and is now playing in the NBA.
Nick Stapleton, the school’s only returning starter, will have to step up his game and blend well with the underclassmen who are expected to fill the remaining starting positions. Reaching the finals of the conference tournament could be a pipe dream if the youngsters are not able to grow up mentally and physically while playing quality minutes in important contests. Circle the date: Eastern Illinois travels to Clarksville, Tennessee to play the Governors on New Year’s Eve.
7. Eastern Kentucky:
The Colonels, along with Tennessee State and Southeast Missouri State, do not have a strong chance of enjoying success in the upcoming season. Last year, EKU only won one conference game in Travis Ford’s first season as coach at the school. The former standout Kentucky guard will have two starters from last year’s team on his 2001-2002 squad.
Spanky Parks, a senior guard with one of the greatest names in the conference, senior swingman Clinton Sims, as well as senior forward Chris Carswell should provide some help to the many fresh faces on the team. Three players who redshirted last season (transfers Shawn Fields and Jon Bentley and injured Ben Rushing) are undoubtedly key factors if Ford and Co. hope to turnaround the fortunes of the Colonels.
8. Tennessee State: (10-19, 7-9 in OVC last season)
Another second-year coach with a famous name is in charge of the Tigers. Nolan Richardson III, the son of the legendary Arkansas coach, hopes to improve on the positive strides the team made last season. This year’s squad will rely heavily on another Richardson, sophomore point guard Garrett. As a freshman in 2000-2001, he was an All-OVC honorable mention pick as a result of scoring 11.4 points per game and leading the conference in steals.
The other returning starter is 6-foot-4 senior Kyle Rolston. His leadership and solid play up front will be vital if the Tigers have any chance of bettering last season’s record and winning more than half of their OVC games. Also important will be the performance of four junior college transfers and very versatile freshman Roshaun Bowens.
9. Southeast Missouri State: (18-12, 8-8 in OVC last season)
Oh, how much has changed for the Indians in the past two years. Although Southeast won the league’s regular season and tournament title in 1999-2000, the team is drastically different and should struggle mightily this season. The school faces a massive rebuilding effort after losing its top four scorers from last year’s squad. The only returning starter is junior Drew DeMond, a center who started 23 games last season and shot 58 percent from the field.
Head coach Gary Garner enters his 5th year at the university. His biggest task will be finding new players to fill the roles of the players lost after last season. As bad as this year may turn out to be for the Indians, there is hope in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Two junior college transfers (Demetrius King and Kenny Johnson) and four freshmen (Brett Hale, Derek Winans, Kevin Roberts, and Adam Crader) should form a solid nucleus for years to come.
Regular Season Champion: Tennessee Tech
Tournament Champion: Tennessee Tech
Player of the Year: Henry Domercant, Eastern Illinois
Freshman of the Year: Roshaun Bowens, Tennessee State
Coach of the Year: Rick Samuels, Eastern Illinois