By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: The Ohio Valley Conference is a mid-major program that has belonged to Murray State the past three seasons. The Racers were one of the most impressive teams in all of college basketball with a 31-2 record last season, with only one loss in OVC action. However, a new addition to the league will provide Murray State with a formidable opponent.
Belmont brought its streak of three straight NCAA Tournament appearances with it as it joins the OVC this season. Although it is not impossible, it is unlikely either Murray State, Belmont, or any OVC program receives an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. This means either the Racers or Bruins are likely to duke it out for the right to advance to the Big Dance.
Although Murray State and Belmont are the top two candidates to win the conference, Tennessee State should not be completely overlooked after its second-place OVC finish in 2011-2012.
SE Missouri State, Tennessee Tech, and Morehead State are the next three in line. The Redhawks were in great position to finish last season with a winning record before losing five of their last six games to close out the year 15-16 overall. Tennessee Tech lost Kevin Murphy to the NBA, but the Golden Eagles still have a fighting chance with their other high-scoring swingman still in the fold. Morehead State will try to climb back into the top tier of the OVC under the program's new head coach, Sean Woods.
Austin Peay has some work to do as Dave Loos returns only one starter from an underachieving season. Jacksonville State would be in great position to make a big leap this year with all five starters back, but the Gamecocks are banned from postseason play this season because of the program's low Academic Progress Rate.
SIU Edwardsville is eligible for postseason play this season after not being able to compete for the OVC Championship in its first year in the league. The Cougars picked up five wins in their last eight games to close out 2011-2012 with some momentum.
Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky, and Tennessee Martin are lurking at the bottom of the OVC. EIU will have a new look as Jay Spoonhour begins his first season as the team's head coach with no returning starters. There is little doubt that the Colonels will miss their high-scoring tandem of Jaron Jones and Joshua Jones, who averaged a combined 27.9 ppg. EKU will struggle trying to replace the departed guards' firepower. UTM has nowhere to go but up after going 0-for-16 in OVC games and 4-27 overall in 2011-12.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Murray State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Murray State, 2. Belmont, 3. Tennessee State 4. SE Missouri State, 5. Tennessee Tech, 6. Morehead State, 7. Austin Peay, 8. Jacksonville State, 9. SIU Edwardsville, 10. Eastern Illinois, 11. Eastern Kentucky, 12. Tennessee Martin.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
MURRAY STATE Steve Prohm set the bar high in his first season as a head coach by leading MSU to a 31-2 overall record, the best start in school history, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. A repeat of that success is unlikely following the graduations of key contributors Donte Poole (14.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg), Ivan Aska (10.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg), and Jewuan Long (8.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg). The task became even more difficult when sophomore guard Zay Jackson was suspended for the season due to an off-court incident. The Racers still have a great chance to repeat as OVC Champions with First-Team All-American Isaiah Canaan running the show. The senior guard turned down the NBA to return for his senior season after netting a team-high 19 ppg. UAB transfer Dexter Fields is the leading candidate to start at the off guard position. Ed Daniel (6.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Brandon Garrett (6-9, 200) are projected to serve as MSU's primary post options. Canaan was the engine that made the Racers go last season. The senior guard is set to prove more doubters wrong in his final collegiate season.
BELMONT The Bruins' entry into the league led to the OVC's adoption of divisional play. Belmont is a heavy favorite to win the East Division after finishing last season with a 27-8 overall record which includes a one-point loss at Duke and notable wins over Middle Tennessee and Marshall. Coach Rick Byrd continued to have his name come up as more glamorous jobs became available during the offseason, but he elected to return to Belmont for his 27th year with the program. Belmont lost its two best interior scorers in Mick Hedgepath (9.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Scott Saunders (10.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), but its elite backcourt duo of Ian Clark (12.2 ppg) and Kerron Johnson (13.8 ppg) should be able to lead the Bruins on another impressive campaign.
TENNESSEE STATE The Tigers are under new management as Travis Williams was promotoed from within to head coach after John Cooper exited to take over at Miami-Ohio. Cooper left after Tennessee State went 20-13 and upset Murray State on the road. Williams inherits a very good OVC team even with the losses of Wil Peters (7.4 ppg) and Kenny Moore (7.2 ppg). The Tigers should continue to run their offense through NBA prospect Robert Covington, who could be named the OVC Player of the Year at the year's end. Covington averaged 17.8 points and 7.9 rebounds last season despite being the main focus of every opposing coaching staff. Junior guard Patrick Miller (11.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg) provides a scoring option from the perimeter for TSU, which begins its season with a six- game road trip.
MOREHEAD STATE The Eagles will be hard pressed to duplicate last year's success. The Eagles won the OVC Tournament and made a trip to the NCAA Tournament where they defeated Louisville in dramatic fashion in the first round. That was followed by a loss to Richmond, but nonetheless, it was a magical run for Morehead State. A repeat is not likely because there is a big piece of the puzzle missing with the departure of All-American Kenneth Faried. The big forward was a double-double machine at Morehead State and set numerous records before departing. Now coach Donnie Tyndall will need to figure out not only how to replace one of the best players in program history, but also find a replacement for Demonte Harper, who was second on the team in scoring last year. There is a trio of guards that could get the job done, beginning with Terrance Hill, who started all 35 games and finished with 10.7 ppg. Hill will need to improve his shot selection though if he intends on leading this team offensively. Ty Proffitt also started 35 games a year ago, but he only averaged 7.9 ppg and dished out 61 assists. That was third behind Harper's 120 and Lamont Austin's 63. Austin played more of a reserve role last year, but his minutes should increase in 2011-12.
SE MISSOURI STATE Dickie Nutt is pushing the Redhawks in the right direction as they finished 9-7 in OVC play and 15-16 overall in his third season with the program. SE Missouri State collapsed down the stretch, winning only one of six games in a season-ending plummet below the .500 mark. The Redhawks will miss forward Leon Powell (10.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and his physical interior play. They will also miss adept guard Marcus Brister (7.5 ppg). However, SEMO has an able leader in Tyler Stone (14.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), who has proven to be one of the best forwards in the entire OVC. The senior guard duo of Marland Smith (12.3 ppg) and Nick Niemczyk (9.2 ppg) will join Stone in the starting lineup. Lucas Nutt is a solid backup guard and Colin Ferguson (6-9, 250) could help SEMO inside right away.
TENNESSEE TECH While Murray State and Steve Prohm demanded all the attention, Steve Payne quietly coached TTU to a 19-14 record and took the Golden Eagles to the postseason in his first year at the school. Although they lost one of the premier scorers in the nation, the Golden Eagles retained the OVC's leading rebounder, Jud Dillard (8.7 rpg). Despite being just a 6-5 swingman, Dillard managed to lead the conference in boards and was third in scoring (17.7 ppg). Jay Johnson (6-7, 215) and Anthony Morse (6-8, 210) will add much needed depth up front for TTU as it attempts to reach the 20-win mark.
MOREHEAD STATE The Eagles are set to begin the Sean Woods era after Donnie Tyndall's departure for his alma mater, Southern Miss. Woods has some massive shoes to fill as he is replacing a coach who led Morehead State to the third round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Eagles' fans may be disappointed they lost the coach that led them to four straight winning records and three postseasons, but Woods comes in fresh off of leading Mississippi Valley State to the Big Dance. Morehead State has some rebuilding to do after losing its leading scorer Terrance Hill (13.3 ppg) and Ty Proffitt (9.9 ppg). The 2009 Mr. Basketball in Tennessee, Drew Kelly (10.2 ppg), and sophomore guard Angelo Warner (6.0 ppg) are the top two assets inherited by Woods. The Eagles also brought in several newcomers, including the explosive point guard Jeff Simmons, who transferred from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Morehead State could be the surprise team in the conference if Kelly thrives in a leadership role.
AUSTIN PEAY The Governors lost four starters from last season's team, but a change in personnel may be what a team that finished 12-20 needs. Dave Loos, who has held the head coaching position at APSU since 1990, has more wins than any other coach in OVC history. Loos will have to rebuild around senior guard Jerome Clyburn (6-1, 180), who is the team's leading scorer (6.3 ppg) among returners. Austin Peay will rely on the services of its incoming recruiting class which is highlighted by Cory Arentsen (6-5, 185), Chris Horton (6-8, 195), and A.J. Lynch (6-2, 170). Arentsen was considered one of the best shooters in the state of Illinois while playing for Mater Dei High School. Horton will make an impact as a shot blocker and rebounder right away. APSU is unlikely to be a competitor any time soon, but its future looks bright.
JACKSONVILLE STATE The Gamecocks were the most improved team in the conference last season, moving from five wins to 15 under the guidance of coach James Green. Unfortunetely, Jacksonville State will be unable to make the next step and compete for the OVC crown due to the school's poor Academic Progress Rate, which solicited a postseason ban from the NCAA. The Gamecocks may not be eligible to play in the conference tourney, but they will be a fierce competitor during the regular season. All five starters, including talented scoring guard Brian Williams (13.2 ppg) are back for 2012-2013. Ronnie Boggs (7.4 ppg) and Mason Leggett (5.3 ppg) will rejoin Williams in the backcourt, while Tarvin Gaines (10.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Nick Cook (6.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg) man the forward positions.
SIU EDWARDSVILLE The Cougars made the jump from Division II to the OVC last season and finished with a 10-17 overall record in their inaugural campaign. Coach Lennox Forrester was awarded a contract extension for his work and SIUE has potential with four returning starters, including leading scorer and rebounder Mark Yelovich (15.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) back in the fold. Yelovich has decent size (6-6, 223) and consistently exhibits his fundamentally sound approach to the game. Fellow senior Jerome James (6-6, 215) averaged 12.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game starting in the other forward slot last season. Forrester managed to add some much needed size to the roster by recruiting Grant Fiorentinos (6-10, 230). SIUE will miss Corey Wickware's scoring ability in its backcourt, but Michael Messner may be ready for a breakout year after a decent sophomore campaign (7.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg) off the bench in 2011-2012. The senior-led Cougars could really make some noise in the OVC if Yelovich and Jones stay healthy.
EASTERN ILLINOIS The Panthers are back at square one with a brand new coach and no impact players returning from last season. Jay Spoonhour, son of the late Charlie Spoonhour, has only 10 games of head coaching experience at the Division I level under his belt as he served as UNLV's interim coach in 2004 and went 6-4 during that time. EIU lost three double-digit scorers and the only Panthers back who played meaningful minutes are Josh Piper (4.3 ppg) and Austin Akers (1.3 ppg, 2.1 apg). Piper had a few impressive performances during his freshman season, including a 17-point outing, and could be the go- to-guy. After he declined offers from Nebraska and Hofstra, Bronx native Dennis Green (6-3, 190) became the marquee player of EIU's recruiting class. The Panthers will add impact transfers Taran Buie (Penn State) and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (Connecticut) to the rotation when they become eligible in the winter. EIU is not expected to be a competitor right away under Spoonhour, but the new look program appears to be headed in the right direction.
EASTERN KENTUCKY The Colonels have few big voids left in their lineup after the graduations of Jaron Jones (17.0 ppg) and Joshua Jones (10.9 ppg), who led the program to a 16-16 finish in 2011-2012. Coach Jeff Neubauer needs to figure out a way to get his squad to succeed on the road, as it won just four games away from home all last season. EKU's biggest flaw was its rebounding, as opponents averaged 4.1 more boards per game. With both Joneses gone, the team will look to Northern Illinois transfer Mike DiNunno (9.5 ppg) to step into a leadership role while running the point. EKU's backcourt could be just as potent with the addition of its two talented transfers, Tarius Johnson (Miami-Ohio) and Corey Walden (Stetson). Johnson is not eligible until the fall semester ends, but he showed the ability to light it up while earning junior college All-America honors in 2011-2012. Walden started 24 games and was a unanimous selection to the 2011 Atlantic Sun Conference All-Freshman Team after a strong rookie campaign (12 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.3 spg) at Stetson. While its backcourt may be sound, EKU is still lacking in the paint. Sophomore forward Eric Stutz will have to be a warrior inside until another EKU forward shows he can be effective. The weak interior and lack of overall depth will make it tough for the Colonels to reach the .500 mark again.
TENNESSEE MARTIN The Skyhawks have a tall mountain to climb after going winless in OVC action last season. Coach Jason James saw his career winning percentage plummet to new lows as his squad managed just a 4-27 overall record. UTM only produced two wins over Division I programs and went on a tenuous 14-game losing streak during the heart of its schedule. The good news for James is that he returns four starters from that team, including its leading scorer, Mike Liabo (15.2 ppg). The junior swingman showed he can score from anywhere on the floor by netting 27 points in the team's regular season finale. Also back is OVC Freshman of the Year, Myles Taylor (13.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg), who uses his wide frame to score inside. Freshman guard Dee Oldman (6-4, 180) will provide an immediate scoring punch and open things up for Liabo and Taylor. Junior college transfer Bobby Jones (6-3, 185) is another promising addition to the squad. The Skyhawks struggled last season without their point guard, but Terence Jones (11.3 ppg, 3.1 apg) will solve that issue as he returns from his medical redshirt. UTM can only improve after hitting rock bottom last season, but may not venture far from the conference basement.