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Mid-Continent Preview

November 28, 2005 Conference Notes No Comments



Mid-Continent Conference 2005-06 Preview

by James V. Dowd

The upcoming Mid-Continent Conference season has coaches from top to bottom excited about the prospects of a league that is as deep as it has ever been. While Oral Roberts is heavily-favored to repeat as regular-season champions, recent years have shown that you can’t award the conference tournament championship and automatic NCAA Tournament berth until the clock runs out.

Juniors Ken Tutt and Caleb Green look to separate Oral Roberts from the pack, but will receive chase from Valparaiso, led by Preseason All-Conference picks Dan Oppland and Mohamed Kone, and IUPUI, led by honorable mentions Brandon Cole and George Hill.

Defending conference tournament champion Oakland looks to improve on its fifth-place finish from last season with help from a strong recruiting class – influenced strongly by their surprise ticket to the Big Dance. Along with a strong freshman class, coach Greg Kampe will have access to junior Calvin Wooten, a Rutgers transfer who returned to the Detroit area after suffering a torn ACL during his sophomore season.

Moving through the conference, Chicago State coach Kevin Jones is optimistic that his team can improve on last year’s performance despite losing his top three scorers, citing newfound chemistry on a squad chock full of new transfers.

Knowing that their league has become increasingly visible on a national level with the Cinderella stories like last year’s Oakland team and Bryce Drew’s Valparaiso team, Mid-Continent Conference coaches look forward to showing the nation that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Preseason All-Conference Team
G Quinton Day, Jr., UMKC
G Ken Tutt, Jr., Oral Roberts
F Caleb Green, Jr., Oral Roberts
F Dan Oppland, Sr., Valparaiso
C Mohamed Kone, Sr., Valparaiso
Honorable Mention: Brandon Cole, F, Sr., IUPUI; George Hill, G, So., IUPUI; David Jackson, G, Western Illinois

Conference MVP: Caleb Green, Oral Roberts
Freshman of the Year: Derick Nelson, Oakland
Newcomer of the Year: Calvin Wooten, Oakland
Coach on the Hot Seat: Kevin Jones, Chicago State

1. Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles
2004-05 Record: 25-8, 13-3 Mid-Con (1st)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Mickey Michalec, Sr.
F Caleb Green, Jr.
F Larry Owens, Sr.
G Ken Tutt, Jr.
G Jonathon Bluitt, Sr.
Schedule Highlights:
11/23-26 @ Great Alaska Shootout
11/23 vs. USC
11/25 vs. Eastern Washington or Marquette
12/28 @ Oklahoma
12/31 @ Minnesota
2/18 @ ESPN Bracket Buster Game

After losing just two of their top ten scorers from last year’s regular-season conference championship team, the Golden Eagles are the clear favorites to repeat this season. But this time around, they’re aiming to complete the job in the Mid-Continent Conference tournament and earn an NCAA tournament berth.

The Golden Eagles’ most significant loss was guard Luke Spencer-Gardner, who averaged 9.1 ppg last year and provided a serious deep threat, sinking 46.4-percent of his three-point attempts. Lucky for head coach Scott Sutton, his top two scorers return in the form of juniors Ken Tutt and Caleb Green, the latter of whom is the Hoopville and Mid-Continent Conference preseason player of the year.

Green was named last season’s conference player of the year after finishing second in the league’s overall scoring and rebounding categories. Should Green and Tutt continue to contribute 15 to 20 points per game, the Golden Eagles should have no problem leading the league in scoring for the second straight season.

Another key to a successful title defense will be the play of senior center Mickey Michalec, a former Texas Tech transfer. The 6-11 big man will be counted on to provide an inside scoring threat, open up the driving lanes and outside shots for Green and Tutt, and to secure rebounds that Green cannot.

Having lost five total players from last season’s roster, freshmen forwards Daren Johnson, Sylvester Spicer and Marchello Vealy will add depth to the Golden Eagles’ bench along with junior college product Eric Fowlkes, a 6-4 athlete who can fill in at guard or forward.

Once the Golden Eagles reach their Mid-Continent Conference schedule, they will likely be battle tested and ready to go, especially on the road. From December 11th until Jan 4th they play 7 straight road games, including their first two conference tilts at Chicago State and Southern Utah.

2. Valparaiso Crusaders
2004-05 Record: 15-16, 10-6 Mid-Con (3rd)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Mohamed Kone, Sr.
F Dan Oppland, Sr.
F Ron Howard, Sr.
G Seth Colclasure, Sr.
G Jimmie Miles, Jr.
Schedule Highlights:
12/7 at Marquette
12/18 at Duke
2/18 ESPN Bracket Buster Game

After losing Kenny Harris, one of their top-three scorers and conference sixth man of the year, to injury when he collapsed during a workout in April, the Crusaders look to take on his no-quit attitude while trying to spoil Oral Roberts’ chance at cruising to a second straight conference title.

While Valpo will be without his 9 ppg, Harris has inspired his Crusader teammates with his recovery after spending several weeks in a coma. Fortunately, coach Homer Drew has eight of his top nine scorers from a year ago returning, Harris being the exception.

The Crusaders will look to senior forward Dan Oppland to lead this year’s charge. Oppland provides a physical force in the front court, owning the third-best scoring average in the league and leading the squad by example off the court as a third-team Academic All-American. In the front court, Oppland will be joined by center Mohamed Kone, a 6-11 transfer from the College of South Idaho.

Senior Ron Howard provides Valparaiso’s premiere deep threat, knocking down 37 from downtown last season. Howard’s versatility will also be an asset for Drew, who can slot him at guard or forward. Drew also hopes to count on senior Ali Berdiel, who sat out the majority of last season with a foot injury.

There should be an early indication of what this year’s team is made of when they face Marquette and Duke just 11 days apart, both on the road.

3. IUPUI Jaguars
2004-05 Record: 16-13, 9-7 Mid-Con (4th)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Michal Vavrek, Sr.
F Brandon Cole, Sr.
F Maushae Byles, Sr.
G George Hill, So.
G Blair Crawford, Sr.
Schedule Highlights:
12/20 at Vanderbilt

Head Coach Ron Hunter is one of the most colorful characters in all of NCAA basketball, and despite losing three key players – Akeem Clark, Johnny Miller and James Booyer – to graduation, the Jaguars should contend for the conference title. Hunter has a history of bringing in freshmen and transfers that keep IUPUI near the top of the league.

Senior forward Brandon Cole will be forced to play a key role if the Jaguars hope to return to the NCAA tournament where they lost in the first round to Kentucky two years ago. Cole was among the league’s top ten scorers and rebounders last year and will be joined by seniors Maushae Byles and Michal Vavrek, both of whom improved vastly throughout the course of last season, in the frontcourt.

The Jaguars’ backcourt will be led by sophomore George Hill, who knocked down over 50 percent of his shots last year. Hill has shown great maturity handling the ball and feeding it in to Cole and the now-departed Booyer, and will likely continue to improve by leaps and bounds under Hunter’s tutelage.

Early on, the Jaguars don’t play a weaker non-conference schedule than many of its counterparts, but must take advantage of settling in on the road. If the Jaguars have any hopes of a league title, they must be ready to finish off their conference schedule with three road games at Centenary, Chicago State and Southern Utah.

4. Western Illinois Leathernecks
2004-05 Record: 11-17, 7-9 Mid-Con (t-5th)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Eze Samuel, So.
F Fred Oguns, Sr.
F Eliz Cepeda, Sr.
G Troy Okeson, Jr.
G David Jackson, So.
Schedule Highlights:
11/26 vs. Indiana
12/3 at Kansas
1/1 at Arkansas

One year removed from a 3-25 mark in coach Derek Thomas’ rookie year, the Leathernecks are poised to break the .500 mark in his third season. The team finished with 11 wins last year and will be raring to go for the conference schedule after hosting Indiana and playing at Kansas.

The Leathernecks lost their leading scorer and rebounder in Eulis Baez and are hoping that sophomore guard David Jackson and senior forward Fred Oguns can increase their production in his absence.

Running with Jackson in the backcourt is junior Troy Okeson, who provides the Leathernecks’ three-point threat. Okeson hit almost 40-percent of his three-pointers last season, tying for the team lead with 51 total. In the middle, the Leathernecks look to junior college transfer Eze Samuel to provide an inside scoring and rebounding threat.

The key to the Leathernecks is a team-oriented game, as they will rely on players with little experience to come off the bench. If team leaders like Jackson and Oguns can mesh well with their lesser experienced teammates, the Leathernecks have a chance to be the dark horse in the Mid-Continent Conference race.

5. Oakland Golden Grizzlies
2004-05 Record: 13-19, 7-9 Mid-Con (t-5th)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Shawn Hopes, Jr.
F Patrick McCloskey,So.
F Derick Nelson, Fr.
G Brandon Cassise, So.
G Calvin Wooten, Jr.
Schedule Highlights:v
11/30 at Bowling Green
12/19 at Marquette
12/30 at Missouri

The Golden Grizzlies shocked the basketball world last spring by upsetting No. 1-seeded Oral Roberts in the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament championship game and earning a place in the NCAA Tournament. After defeating Alabama A&M in the play-in game, Oakland earned national notoriety.

But looking back on Oakland’s regular season, they left much to be desired. And without the team’s top three scorers from a year ago, led by current Dallas Maverick Rawle Marshall, coach Greg Kampe leans on three untested players and the remaining two starters from last season.

Sophomore Patrick McCloskey proved himself as one of the league’s top freshmen last year and will be called on for an increased role this season. The Golden Grizzlies will rely on McCloskey to pick up the bulk of the rebounds lost when leading rebounder Cortney Scott graduated.

Kampe will also rely heavily on sophomore Brandon Cassise, who came up big for the Golden Grizzlies in the conference tournament and post-season play. Cassise is Oakland’s leading returning scorer. He will be joined in the backcourt by newcomer Calvin Wooten, a junior who transferred from Rutgers conveniently closer to his home in Detroit.

Freshman Derick Nelson looks to be the conference’s top freshman, as he will be relied on to pick up the bulk of the loss of scoring that came with Marshall’s departure.

The Golden Grizzlies might not be ready to compete for the regular-season title, but count on Kampe to have them primed for another ticket to the Dance come conference tournament time.

6. Chicago State Cougars
2004-05 Record: 9-19, 7-9 Mid-Con (t-5th)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Marin Mulic, Sr.
F Nate Carter, Sr.
F Kourtney Calvin, Jr.
G Royce Parran, Jr.
G Kevin Jones, Jr., Jr.
Schedule Highlights:
11/20 at Ohio State
12/6 at Purdue
12/13 at Louisville
12/31 at Michigan

Chicago State coach Kevin Jones has one of the conference’s toughest projects at his hands as he tries to rebuild a program that lost its top three players from last year. But Jones is confident that he can do the job. While the talent level might not be on par with that of last year’s team, but he believes that the team is more compatible and will have better chemistry on and off the court.

The Cougars will be led by Royce Parran, who scored 10 ppg and led the team in steals and assists. Parran’s backcourt mate will be Kevin Jones, Jr., who added just under 6 ppg. If the Cougars are able to develop a newfound chemistry with their new roster, it will begin with Parran’s ball-handling.

But beyond Parran and Jones, who played regular roles in the Cougar offense last season, the pressure also lies on center Marin Mulic as he aims to fill in for seven-footer Deji Akindele, who left Chicago State for the NBA draft.

It may be a while before the validity of Jones’s claims comes to fruition, but the team will be well-prepared for its conference battles after playing 12 consecutive road games at the beginning of the year, including stops at Ohio State, Purdue, Louisville and Michigan. By the time the team makes it through these grueling non-conference meetings, the Cougars will be prepared to run with the deepest league the Mid-Continent Conference has offered in recent years.

7. UMKC Kangaroos
2004-05 Record: 16-12, 12-4 Mid-Con (2nd)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Blake Crawford, Jr.
F Dee Ayuba, Jr.
F Brian Gettinger, Fr.
G Quinton Day, Jr.
G Tim Blackwell, So.
Schedule Highlights:
11/26 vs. Central Michigan
11/29 at Missouri
12/7 at Penn State

With their top three scorers gone, things don’t look good on paper for the Kangaroos. But one year ago it was tough to fathom how UMKC would deal with the loss of record-breaking guard Michael Watson, and coach Rich Zvosek came up with answer and the Kangaroos jumped into second place in the final league standings last season.

Junior Quinton Day will be counted on to be the onus of replacing three 14+ ppg scorers. Day was named to the All-Newcomer team after scoring 13.1 ppg and leading the league in steals. Day will be paired in the backcourt with sophomore Tim Blackwell, who provided a boost to the Kangaroos in the second half of last year after they struggled greatly in the first half.

The front court is where many of the questions regarding UMKC reside. Blake Crawford, Dee Ayuba and freshman Brian Gettinger will try to open up the outside shots for Day and Blackwell. The trio will likely receive help from the four 6-8 or taller freshman that Zvosec added.

If the Kangaroos can perform better in the non-conference schedule, look for them to jump from the lower echelons of the conference and into the race. But with so many new faces, a non-conference collapse reminiscent of last year may deplete the psyche of this Kangaroo team.

8. Southern Utah Thunderbirds
2004-05 Record: 13-15, 6-10 Mid-Con (8th)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Lubor Olsovsky, Sr.
F Junior Abrahao, Jr.
F Nate Janes, Sr.
G Rand Janes, Sr.
G Steve Barnes, Jr.
Schedule Highlights:
11/18 vs. Mississippi
11/23 at Arizona State
12/10 at Utah
12/31 at UNLV

The Thunderbirds found themselves near the bottom of the Mid-Continent Conference pile last year and after losing more than a third of its scoring offense, it will be tough for Southern Utah to move up the standings this season.

With top-two scorers Tim Gainey and DeAngelo Newsom gone, the Thunderbirds hope that seniors Rand Janes and Lubor Olsovsky can increase their scoring load. The pair averaged just over half the offense that Gainey and Newsom brought.

On the perimeter, junior guard Steve Barnes made more than half of his three-point attempts last year and will be the team’s third option this season.

Despite the fact that the Thunderbirds have one of the oldest lineups in the league, it will be tough for them to begin any kind of climb with the talent levels of higher teams. Coach Bill Evans can use this season as a chance to develop his four freshman recruits, the cornerstone of any rebuilding effort.

9. Centenary Gents
2004-05 Record: 3-24, 1-15 Mid-Con (9th)
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Jason Underwood,Jr.
F Ian Maxwell, Sr.
F Chris Watson, Jr.
G Tyrone Hamilton, So.
G Clarke Jackson, So.
Schedule Highlights:
11/26, at Mississippi
1/10, vs. Georgia Tech

Not only do the Gents have the toughest climb after being mired in the basement of the Mid-Continent Conference last year, they play with heavy hearts after leading scorer and rebounder Chad Maclies died suddenly on May 3rd. Maclies was the heart and soul of the Centenary team, and it will be difficult for anyone to replace his contributions.

The Gents boast a new face behind the bench in former Arkansas assistant Rob Flaska. Flaska’s greatest challenge is to try to bring the Gents out of the basement with only three returning players.

Sophomore Tyrone Hamilton is the leading returning scorer after being named to the league’s all newcomer team. As one of the team’s only experienced players, the Gents will count on Hamilton to work the ball to senior forward Ian Maxwell and his counterparts.

Maxwell is the only senior on the team, but doesn’t provide the same experience that Hamilton did as he started just 5 games last season. The Gents will rely on Maxwell improving his one point per game average to provide them with some semblance of an inside game. In the middle of the front court is junior Jason Underwood, a junior college transfer who the Gents hope can spark the team’s lackadaisical offense. The only other returning player is guard Clark Jackson, who averaged 4.4 ppg in eighteen contests last season.

With Flaska in place at the helm, the Gents have taken a step in the right direction, but with such little experience and heavy hearts, it will be tough for them to climb out of the Mid-Continent Conference cellar this season.

Outlook

With a high-percentage of experienced players and post-season tested coaches, the Mid-Continent conference battle is shaping up to be one of its best. While Oral Roberts appears to be a head above the rest, Valparaiso and IUPUI could give them a run for their money, and middle-of-the-pack teams Western Illinois, Oakland and UMKC are one “if” away from jumping into the thick of the race.

But if there is one thing to be learned by Oakland’s cinderella story last year and IUPUI’s win over Valparaiso the year before, it’s that you never quite know what to expect come tournament time. Perhaps even a then-gelled Chicago State team could vault itself into the Big Dance. With three talented teams at the top of the conference, if one of them can hold on in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the league will receive the attention it is long due.

     

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