RTC Summer Updates: Ohio Valley ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on August 9th, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Ohio Valley Conference correspondent, Catlin Bogard. You can read more of Bogard’s work at OVC Ball.
- Movin’ On Up: Two teams will feature former assistant coaches in new roles in 2011-12, although each school took a much different path to the same decision. In March, Steve Payne was named the new head coach at Tennessee Tech for the retiring Mike Sutton. The longtime Golden Eagles assistant had coached the team previously, as Sutton was sidelined with a horrible health condition that threatened his immune system. Over at Murray State, Steve Prohm will head the Racers after an offseason that saw former head coach Billy Kennedy’s name come up in at least three job searches before he eventually accepted the head coaching job at Texas A&M. The late-season coaching change didn’t leave Murray without options, as former Racer and current NBA assistant Popeye Jones’ name was one of many mentioned for the opening before the Racers eventually named Prohm as Kennedy’s successor.
- Ten-Man Class: Morehead State lost its biggest player when Kenneth Faried graduated and was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, but coach Donnie Tyndall is cashing in on the Eagles’ success last season by signing ten players for the 2011-12 season, including three juco transfers. The cupboard wasn’t exactly bare for the Eagles either, with ten players scheduled to return for Tyndall, so how he slices his rotation is something well worth monitoring for any Eagles fan.
- Transition Period: Quite possibly the biggest news of the offseason will not even affect the OVC until next season. Belmont will join the conference in the 2012-13 season, leaving the Atlantic Sun after ten years of dominance. Also in 2012-13, SIU Edwardsville will become a full member of the conference, making the OVC a 12-team league. This year, the Cougars will play a full OVC regular season, but will be ineligible for postseason play as they continue their transition into Division I. How long it will stay a 12-team conference is up in the air, though. Jacksonville State is openly searching for a FCS football conference to move to, and Tennessee State was recently offered a chance to rejoin the SWAC.
- Tennessee Tech: Late bloomers in 2010-11, the Golden Eagles are poised to make a run at their first NCAA tournament since 1967. Forward Kevin Murphy, the OVC’s second leading scorer last season behind Faried, and the OVC’s leader in assists and steals, as well as guard Zach Swansey, both return for the top scoring squad in the conference last season. The team’s top rebounder, rising junior Jud Dillard, will likely move into a permanent starting role, as will senior Zach Bailey. In all, the Golden Eagles will feature seven seniors, making them one of the most experienced teams in the OVC. Joining the experienced squad are newcomers Lanerryl Esters-Johnson and 6’9″ forward Ryon Riggins.
- Tennessee State: One of the things that make small conference basketball so great is that we get to watch a team mature and get more experienced over time. The Tigers are a perfect example of this. Every player from last year’s team that went 10-8 in the OVC is back, joined by three transfers with previous D-I experience. Leading those returning is junior Robert Covington, a 50% shooter (46% from three-point range) and last year’s team leader in rebounds, blocks, and steals. The Tigers also feature last year’s OVC Freshman of the Year, Patrick Miller, as well as Wil Peters and Kenny Moore, both of whom averaged double digits in scoring last season. They’ll be joined by the 6’11” Bawa Muniru, an Indiana transfer, Kellen Thornton, formerly of Illinois State, and former Utah guard Jordan Cyphers.
- SEMO: Head coach Dickey Nutt is entering his third season at SEMO, and things are continuing to look up for the Redhawks. Forward Leon Powell, a 63% shooter last season, is back to lead the Redhawks and will be joined by Tyler Stone, who sat out last season after transferring from Missouri. One knock on Powell is that he shot an anemic 52% from the charity stripe. In the frontcourt, Nick Niemczyk should be back after rehabbing from a knee injury last season, and will be joined by sophomore Lucas Nutt, a good passer who also finished sixth in the conference in three-point percentage. SEMO also brings in one of the top recruits in the conference, 6’8″ forward Niko Johnson, rated by ESPN as a three-star prospect.
- Murray State: We’ll be honest: The Racers could finish anywhere from first to about seventh in the conference this season, and we wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. Their coaching staff has been gutted, with new head coach Steve Prohm the only holdover from last year’s team, former head coach Billy Kennedy taking the head job at Texas A&M, and former assistant (and recruiting whiz) Isaac Chew heading to Missouri. On top of the coaching changes, the teams’ two most consistent ballhandlers last season are gone as well. It’s not all bad news for the two-time defending OVC champs: The team’s top scorer in Isaiah Canaan returns, as does much of the Racers frontcourt led by Ivan Aska, Donte Poole and Ed Daniel. Five new players will join the Racers in 2011-12, including guards Zay Jackson, Jaylan Brand, and forward Tyler Rambo.
- Austin Peay: It is generally worrisome when players are leaving programs, especially when one of those players was entering his senior season. The Governors only graduated one senior from last year’s program, but Tyrone Caldwell and Marcel Williams both left Clarksville as well. What veteran coach Dave Loos does have, though, is quite possibly the strongest frontcourt in the league, with Anthony Campbell back after an ACL tear sidelined him last season, and John Frailey returning for his senior season. In the backcourt, one of the league’s top scorer’s last season, TyShawn Edmondson, is back, and could be joined by juco transfer and former Southern Mississsippi recruit Jerome Clyburn.
- Morehead State: There are a few leagues where one player can make all the difference for his team, and the OVC is one of them. We saw it a few seasons ago when UT Martin went from winning the league with a future second round draft pick, only to fall to dead last the season after. First round pick Kenneth Faried was one of those players. So what keeps the Eagles from a similar dive, considering their top guard is also gone? First, head coach Donnie Tyndall is making the most of last year’s big NCAA Tournament win over Louisville, bringing in a recruiting class that rivals the size of some football teams. While size isn’t everything, the class is talented, including a Rivals three-star prospect, guard Angelo Warner. There is still some experience left on the roster, as seniors Ty Proffit and Terrance Hill will be expected to lead the team. As for an immediate impact, four juco transfers should be able to step in to help the Eagles as well.
- UT Martin: The Skyhawks seemed to turn a corner late in the season last year, battling back from an 0-7 conference start to make the OVC Tournament as the #7 seed, where they pulled off a first-round upset over Tennessee State. That momentum should carry into next season, as three of the team’s top five scorers from the past season are rising sophomores: guards Terence Smith and Mike Liabo both averaged over 11 points per game for Martin, with Troy King adding almost ten per game. Three juco transfers, including two teammates from Connor State, will join the young squad. In fact, there’s only one senior on this year’s squad, Dane Smith, who started 17 contests a year ago.
- Eastern Illinois: The bad news for the Panthers is that the NCAA has denied a fifth year of eligibility to Tyler Laser, who was injured and sat out much of his senior season. Added to that was the news that rising sophomore Shawn Pratl was transferring from EIU. The good news is that eight players return for Eastern Illinois, and will joined by 6’8″ forward Josh Piper, and four juco transfers hoping to make an immediate impact on a team that lost its last ten conference games last year, sliding their way out of the OVC Tournament. The offense will run through guard Jeremy Granger, the only returning double-digit scorer.
- Jacksonville State: The Gamecocks are a bit of an enigma: They have six seniors for the upcoming season, but instead of building for the future, they brought in four juco players and no freshmen. Two of those junior college players, 6’8″ center Rinaldo Mafra and 6’7″ forward Tarvin Gaines do bring much-needed size to the Gamecocks. The big question is who, if anyone, can fill the shoes of Nick Murphy, last year’s team leader in points, rebounds, steals, free throws attempted and made, and minutes played. Rising sophomore guard Brian Williams could be a great point man for the Gamecocks, but struggled as a shooter last year.
- Eastern Kentucky: Head coach Jeff Neubauer may find his way onto the hot seat this season in Richmond. There’s no obvious ballhandler, not enough shooters for Neubauer’s three-point-oriented offense, and no strong interior players. Senior guard Joshua Jones will likely run the offense for the Colonels, and only committed 54 turnovers in 900 minutes of play last season, but only dished out 56 assists. Wabash College transfer D’Mitri Riggs, a three-star prospect out of high school, could bring some help in the backcourt. Incoming freshmen Eric Stutz (6’8″) and Timmy Knipp (6’7″) will combine with 6’9″ rising sophomore Jeff Johnson to give the Colonels the best size of any OVC frontcourt, but even at his size, Johnson averaged only 3.4 rebounds a game last season, proving that size isn’t everything.
- SIU Edwardsville: The Cougars’ first full year in the OVC is off to a rough start, as their returning top scorer, Cornelius Chatt, has been ruled academically ineligible for his senior year. Last season, SIUE managed eight wins, but only one win was in the RPI top-300 (and barely, at that). Their success this year will likely rest on the play of rising senior Corey Wickware and freshman standout Michael Messer. They do bring in five players, including two juco players and a D-I transfer, guard Maurice Wiltz from Colorado State.
Last year, the OVC was wide open, and that could very well be the case this season too. Unbalanced schedules are back for the first time in four years, with the 11 teams playing a 16-game schedule, the shortest conference schedule in that same span. Two of the favorites had new coaches at the helm, and undoubtedly the best player in the OVC the past two seasons is gone. This will likely be a down season for the OVC, and it’s unlikely the conference will continue its streak of three straight years with a win in the NCAA Tournament.
Clutch players in college basketball are rare, but five of Tennessee Tech’s 18 wins last season came from a game-winning shot from guard Zac Swansey. Swansey is anything but a selfish player, though, finishing seventh in the NCAA last year in assists. Swansey is a great candidate for OVC Preseason POY honors with his superlative ability to find the open man in one of the nation’s fastest offenses (26th in the nation).
Mike Sutton has been one of the most inspirational stories in college basketball over his nine seasons with the Golden Eagles. A brilliant basketball mind, Sutton has been focused on leading his team despite a battle with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an affliction that affects the body’s immune system. Sutton’s sickness forced the coach to miss most of the 2005 season. After Steve Payne took over, he was asked in an interview with National Hoops Report if Sutton would still have a role with the team. He responded, “Honestly, I think he’ll do whatever we ask him to do.” Sutton will be missed on the bench this fall not only by his team, but the conference as a whole.