When Ray Harper abruptly resigned as Western Kentucky’s head coach after finishing his fifth season at the school last March, the odds that he would be coaching a team in the 2017 NCAA Tournament were so low as to be laughable. When he subsequently landed at Jacksonville State eight days later — a program that went 8-23 last season and had not finished in the top half of the Ohio Valley Conference in over a decade — his chances did not seem to improve. Never mind that the Gamecocks’ program in its two-decade history in Division I had also never been to the Big Dance.
Jacksonville State will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance next week.
But anyone who knows anything about Harper should not be surprised that he will be dancing in Dayton a week from now. Despite being picked by the media to finish dead last in its division, Jacksonville State completed a remarkable run on Saturday in Nashville with a 66-55 win over UT-Martin. The Gamecocks achieved the feat just one night after stunning prohibitive favorite Belmont, which had finished the regular season with a 15-1 OVC record that included two easy wins over them. In outlasting the Skyhawks in the championship game, the Gamecocks controlled the action throughout and were never really threatened. As usual, they were led by three outstanding guards: Erik Durham, Greg Tucker and Malcolm Drumright, who was named tournament MVP. Read the rest of this entry »
Bennet Hayes is an RTC correspondent. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. He filed this report from Saturday’s game in Jacksonville, Alabama between Murray State and Jacksonville State.
A year ago, I was one of the many that made the journey to tiny Murray, Kentucky, to catch a glimpse of the team that was capturing the imagination of the college basketball world. By the time I arrived in Murray, the Racers had suffered their first loss (after 23 consecutive victories to open the season), but the hype machine was still steadily churning. College basketball’s most notorious hype generator was even in town that weekend; Dick Vitale screamed his way through a fantastic promotion of the Murray State basketball program, but the Racers really needed no help. Isaiah Canaan boosted his All-American campaign by turning in an utterly brilliant display of marksmanship, the Racers improved to 26-1 by soundly defeating a battle-tested St. Mary’s team, and the 8,500 in attendance felt like it was closer to 20,000 strong that day. Murray had long been a town that loved college basketball and its Racers, but never had it been so articulately announced to the nation as that February afternoon.
Isaiah Canaan’s Presidential Campaign Had More Legs A Season Ago
Fast forward to today. The Racers were once again on my agenda, but this time a long ways from Murray. Jacksonville, Alabama – a small, sleepy town nestled in the Appalachian foothills – was where I had to drive to find Murray State. Steve Prohm’s team arrived with a 15-4 record but left 15-5 as Jacksonville State decided it was finally time to score its first victory over the school since joining the Ohio Valley Conference in 2003. The Gamecocks are no pushover (now 6-4 in a sneaky-good OVC), but Murray State losing conferences games is still a relative novelty. On this day, a Saturday loaded with scores all across the country, the 65-64 final that flashed across tickers went largely unnoticed. When you consider the shock waves a January 26 Murray State loss would have delivered a year ago, it begs the question – where did everyone go?
David Changas is the RTC correspondent for the OVC. You can follow him on Twitter @dchangas.
Can Murray State Repeat Its Success? Last year, the Racers took the college basketball world by storm by being the nation’s last remaining undefeated team after starting 23-0. They lose several key contributors, but another run to a second-round NCAA Tournament win is realistic, and coach Steve Prohm proved he can coach in his first season at the helm. Should Murray State win the league’s automatic bid, it likely will not come with a lofty five-seed as it did last year, but any team with potential All-American Isaiah Canaan leading it in March will be dangerous.
Isaiah Canaan Is The Early Favorite For OVC Player Of The Year And Has A Shot At Even Higher Accolades. (Getty Images)
Belmont Arrives: In an effort to raise its overall profile, Belmont left the Atlantic Sun and certainly will add cachet to a league coming off its best year in recent memory. The Bruins have been a dominant force in the A-Sun for the past dozen years, earning the conference’s automatic bid in five of the last seven. Their addition to an already formidable league raises its profile that much more, and though Murray State is the league favorite, Belmont will draw attention to the OVC in this and years to come.
Who is Robert Covington? With all of the hoopla surrounding Canaan and Murray State, plus the arrival of Belmont, the player who isn’t the subject of enough discussion is Tennessee State big man Robert Covington. The 6’9″ senior finished third in the league in scoring and second in rebounding last year, and is projected by some to be a second-round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. He scores, rebounds, and shoots the three proficiently, and has an NBA physique. A player of the year caliber season should be expected from Covington, and the presence of NBA scouts will be commonplace at Tiger games.
When news broke this week that 10 teams would receive postseason bans due to insufficient Academic Progress Reports, immediate reactions all centered around the one big name team on the list – Connecticut. Sadly, the National Champions of just two seasons ago won’t even have a chance to participate in March Madness next season. But there are nine other schools that also flunked the APR test and are therefore disallowed from the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Did any of these other teams have shots at the Big Dance next year? The answer: Three teams in particular lost out big time from the punishment, while the five others will find rebuilding that much more difficult.
Rian Pearson is a great player for Toledo, but he won’t get a chance at the Big Dance next season (The Blade/J. Wadsworth)
Toledo – The Rockets were just average in the MAC last season (7-9), but Toledo didn’t lose a single player to graduation. Rian Pearson, who averaged 16.4 points and 8.3 rebounds in his first year on campus last season, is a really good player who loses out on a shot at the Big Dance next year. The Rockets are not happy about the postseason ban, but it’s only a result of their own players’ inability to graduate or stay academically eligible at a strong enough rate over the past four years. Read the rest of this entry »
Catlin Bogard is the RTC correspondent for the Ohio Valley Conference. You can also find his musings online at OVC Ball or on Twitter @OVCBall.
The Week That Was
Rough Week For Big Men: Two of the top big men in the conference have already missed games this year due to injury. SEMO’s LeonPowell injured the same knee that caused him to miss an entire season two years ago in the Redhawks’ final exhibition game. Powell did not play in their opener against Missouri, but did return against Harris Stowe, shooting a perfect 8-8 from the field. Austin Peay’s John Fraley is out of the hospital after suffering a concussion in the Governors opening game against Middle Tennessee. Fraley was sorely missed on the Governors’ trip to California, and could miss a couple of weeks according to the Leaf-Chronicle.
It Hasn’t Even Been Close: The Ohio Valley Conference isn’t off to the best of starts, with only ten wins in its first 29 outings. But what’s surprising is how many haven’t even been close. Of the conference’s 19 losses, 14 have been by double digits. The exceptions? Tennessee Martin’s nine-point loss to Ohio, Austin Peay’s nine-point loss to Middle Tennessee, Eastern Illinois’ seven-point loss to Indiana State, Tennessee State‘s three-point loss to Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri State‘s one-point loss to Bradley.
The Flip Side: Not everything is bleak in the OVC. The Racers are off to a 3-0 start, after a big win on the road against the favorites to win the MEAC, Morgan State. Tennessee Tech held a late second half lead against Miami before things fell apart in the closing minutes. And while there haven’t been a lot of wins, there haven’t been any embarrassing upsets for the conference either.
Just A Week Into The Season, Steve Prohm's Racers Are The Only Remaining Undefeated Team In The OVC. (Ricky Martin/Ledger & Times)
Catlin Bogard of OVC Ball is the RTC correspondent for the Ohio Valley Conference. You can find him on Twitter @OVCBall.
Readers Take I
Here Come the Cougars: Although SIU Edwardsville is in its final year of transition to Division I, the Cougars will play a full Ohio Valley Conference slate. SIUE will be eligible to win the OVC regular season title, but cannot enter the conference tournament until they have completed their transition in 2012-13. The Cougars are unlikely, however, to make a major impact this season after going 0-9 against OVC teams a year ago.
Out of Balance: As a result of the Cougars entrance to the conference, the now 11-team league will play an uneven schedule of 16 games, much shorter than the 20 and 22-game schedules seen since the last OVC expansion. But the current structure won’t stay in place for long. After it was announced that Belmont will join the conference next season, OVC commissioner Beth DeBauchetold the voice of the Racers, Neal Bradley, that “it appears that it would make sense to have divisions, most notably for our men’s and women’s basketball teams.” But the OVC might not remain a 12-team league long enough to matter. Jacksonville State is exploring a move to a FBS conference according to a release from the school, and the Huntsville Times reports that Tennessee State has been invited to join the SWAC.
What Was Old is New Again: Two teams on opposite ends of last year’s final standings have one thing in common: inexperience. Both Morehead State and Jacksonville State will feature teams with more new faces than old this year. Last season’s last place Gamecocks have seven transfers and four new players, with Stephen Hall being the only Gamecock with more than one year of experience. Meanwhile, MSU has eight new faces, including six freshmen joining the defending OVC Tournament champions.
New Sideline Patrolmen: Two of the top teams last year, Murray State and Tennessee Tech, will feature new coaches this season. Steve Payne replaces Mike Sutton, who retired after eight seasons with the Golden Eagles. Steve Prohm will take over the Racers after Billy Kennedy left to take the head coaching job at Texas A&M.
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, StevePayne 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.
Faried Will Be Missed in the OVC (But Not By His Opponents)
After what appeared to be the beginning of a long coaching search Maryland is set to announce that Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon will be its next head coach. This Friday’s announcement that Terrapin legend Gary Williams was retiring shocked the college basketball world and put the program in a tough position of having to fill an opening in one of the premier coaching positions in America after many of the top potential replacements had signed extensions with their schools in the month and a half since the Final Four.
Turgeon has some big shoes to fill
The Terrapins initially went after Sean Miller, Brad Stevens, and Mike Brey, but all three turned them down with Miller and Brey getting contract extensions as a result of Maryland’s pursuit. At that point it appeared like Maryland might be headed for a coaching search that would mirror NC State‘s albeit without the theatrics of a Debbie Yow-like character. In the end, they turned to the state of Texas where they were able to land a solid coach in Mark Turgeon, who might lack the “wow” factor of some other candidates (particularly Stevens), but has managed to compile an impressive resume at Wichita State and Texas A&M. After serving his time as an assistant coach at Kansas and Oregon followed by a short NBA stint, Turgeon’s head coaching career began with an unimpressive start at Jacksonville State, but he quickly recovered to turn Wichita State into one of the best mid-major teams in the country culminating in a Sweet 16 appearance in 2006. Although Turgeon was unable to get the Aggies to a Sweet 16, he did manage to maintain the program at the level that Billy Gillispie brought it to before his ill-fated move to Kentucky and keep it as one of the best in the Big 12.
Greg Waddell is the RTC correspondent or the Ohio Valley Conference. [ed note: this post was written prior to the weekend games of Nov. 26-28]
A Look Back
Kenneth Faried proved why he’s the Number 1 player in the OVC and probably an NBA lottery pick over a two-game Morehead State road trip. Facing off against two Top 10 teams in Florida and Ohio State, Faried put on a clinic as the 6’8 forward notched 20 points and pulled down 18 rebounds against the Gators and recorded 15 points and 12 rebounds against the Buckeyes on 5-7 shooting from the field. Faried is the real deal and OVC fans should enjoy him while he’s here.
Murray State has stumbled out of the gates, struggling to find an identity while trying to mesh a talented backcourt with an inexperienced frontcourt. The lack of production in the post has put a burden on the Racer guards thus far as teams have been able to pressure the perimeter and force Murray State to shoot the three. If the Racers hope to have success this season, Ivan Aska and Jeffrey McClain must step up their game in the post and high flying wing Ed Daniel must begin to assert himself in the scorebooks. All in all the Racers have the talent to repeat their success of a season ago but continue to be their own worst enemy. The game against Morehead State will get a whole lot juicier if Billy Kennedy can’t find a way to right the ship before December 4.
Murray State (3-1): Things haven’t gone quite as Billy Kennedy expected this early in the season but that’s okay with the Racers’ head man as his team heads west for the 76 Classic. Yet, they were able to notch a 55-52 win against Stanford in a semi-road environment. Still reigning as the class of the conference, things are looking up in Murray, Kentucky, as guard play has been the backbone of the team again this season. One cause for concern, though, is the lack of inside presence the Racers have shown thus far. The inability of the big men to establish themselves has hampered the backcourt slightly. There’s too much talent waiting in the wings though to dent their momentum too much though as sophomore sensation Isaiah Canaan leads the charge for the team this season, notching 11.7 points per game while senior Isacc Miles has been on the mend with a bum knee.
Morehead State (2-3): The boys in blue put on a show for OVC fans in their last two games provided a chance for Morehead golden boy Kenneth Faried to put on a show against perennial powers Ohio State and Florida is back to back contests. The Eagles has a little more success against the No. 10 Gators, pushing Billy Donovan’s squad to the wire before falling 61-55 as Faried notched 20 points and 18 boards. Faried found a fan in Donovan who gushed about the forward’s potential. “That’s Dennis Rodman all over again,” Donovan said. “If I was an NBA general manager I’d be taking him with my pick. That’s what a next-level guy looks like.” Faried is averaging 17.2 points per game on the season and adding 12.8 boards per game.
Austin Peay (2-3): Although their record is not quite as good as No. 4 Eastern Kentucky, the Govs have played a tougher schedule to this point, knocking off quality opponents in St. Louis and Chattanooga and narrowly falling to Lipscomb and Southern Illinois. The only glaring blight comes from a 87-65 beatdown at the hands of Purdue, but the Boilermakers are the No. 8 team in the country so that can’t be held too much against Austin Peay. Transfer Tyshawn Edmonson from St. Johns has been a bright spot, averaging 17. 4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game for his hometown team while John Terry and Anthony Campbell average 12.8 and 12 points, respectively.
Eastern Kentucky (3-3): Despite sporting a .500 record, the Colonels could have fallen further in the power rankings as they have yet to play anyone worth mentioning. They do however have some depth to brag about as four players average more than 10 points a game with Preseason All –OVC player Justin Stommes just behind at nine a contest. Had Stommes been available in all the team’s games (he did not play in the first three) EKU could be 5-1. Spencer Perrin averages 11.3 points per game with Willie Cruz closely behind at 10. 8
Tennessee Tech (0-2): The Golden Eagles could have ranked higher with their two losses coming against potential tournament teams in NC State and East Tennessee State, but with no wins it’s hard to know how good Tennessee Tech can be at this point. Alfred Jones leads the way with 10.5 points and five boards per game with Kevin Murphy chipping in 10 and 6.5. UGA transfer Zac Swansey has been a pleasant surprise, averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 assists per game, including a 13 point performance against the Wolfpack in the season opener.
Eastern Illinois (1-3): The Panthers pose the same problem as most of their OVC contemporaries as little competitive basketball has been played to this point. With three bad losses, it’s hard to rank Eastern Illinois any higher but the talent to go deep in the conference still remains. Tyler Laser is the bright spot for EIU again tossing in 13 points per game while Jeremy Granger adds 12.6 points and 3.6 assists per game.
Jacksonville State (1-3): Same story, different team. Plagued by a lack of star power, the Gamecocks continue to toil at the bottom of the OVC standings with little hope of climbing out of the cellar as little help looms on the horizon. One bright spot has been Nick Murphy whose 18 points and seven boards a game pace JSU. The Gamecock’s lone win of the year comes against West Alabama. Enough said.
UT-Martin (2-3): A surprising start to the season has helped the Skyhawks as they rank in the top half of the league at this point in wins, but a lack of talent keeps them muddled in the cellar of the conference. Reuben Clayton has been a big time player for Martin this season, averaging 19.8 points and nearly seven rebounds a game. Mike Liabo is adding 12.2 points and 3.2 boards a game for team whose biggest claims to fame come in losses against LSU and No. 15 Memphis.
Tennessee State (1-4): Notching only one win this season, against small Fisk University at that, the Tigers have little to celebrate at this point. The bright spot for TSU comes in the form of a trio of talented scorers in Kenny Moore, Patrick Miller, and Robert Covington. Moore is averaging 14.8 points a game while Miller and Covington check in right behind him at 13.4 and 12.8 respectively. The Tigers can lay claim to a loss to a quality teams in Mississippi State (75-65) but a slaughter at the hands of St. Louis (78-50) shows inconsistency in the early going.
Southeast Missouri State (0-4): You know things are bad when all you have to brag about are losses but the Redhawks did play SEC foe Arkansas tough when they pushed John Pelphrey’s squad to the wire in a 66-56 thriller. Leon Powell and Nick Niemczyk are the only bright spots for SEMO – Powell checks in averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds while Niemczyk has posted 13.8 points per game.
SIU-Edwardsville (1-3): The bad got worse for the Cougars when the team’s leading scorer from last season, Mark Yelovich, went down in the team’s opening game, and will miss the rest of the season. The team has rebounded somewhat though as two players in Corey Wickware and Nikola Bundalo are averaging 14. 8 and 14.4 points a game, respectively.
A Look Ahead
Holiday tournaments are underway and the OVC teams are getting their fair share, with participants in the 76 Classic, Chicago Invitational and Global Sports Roundball Classic. The biggest chances for some national attention come against the Big Ten. Friday, SIU-Edwardsville will face struggling Iowa, and on Sunday, Tennessee Tech squares off against Michigan State. The OVC gets to conference play in a hurry — Morehead State and UT-Martin meet in Morehead on December 2.
Isaiah Canaan appears on ESPN First Take after a half court shot from his knees against SEMO:
Isacc Miles, Murray State (9.7 PPG, 47% FG)
Zac Swansey, Tennessee Tech
What You Need to Know
This could be the first year in quite some time the OVC puts two teams in the NCAA Tournament. Though unlikely, it could happen if Murray State has the season everyone is expecting, and Morehead State can find a way to knock off the Racers in OVC Tournament play. Based on preseason hype including a #31 ranking by Lindy’s, Murray State could make a resume impressive enough for an at-large bid if it can knock some big-name teams and win the 76 Classic in Anaheim. The other MSU can make some noise also, as the Eagles possess a special player in Kenneth Faried. In basketball, that kind of player can make all the difference and Donnie Tyndall’s squad will get the chance to make waves early as they play three quality teams from last season’s NCAA Tournament in Ohio State, Florida and Northern Iowa. Morehead State will travel to Gainesville on November 11 to get a crack at Billy Donovan and the Gators before heading north to Columbus two days later. Northern Iowa is the final stop as the Eagles head west to Cedar Falls on the December 11. Also, SIU-Edwardsville continues to wait in the wings as it transition to full-fledged membership.
Kenneth Faried is ready to dethrone Murray State, but the Racers have other plans. (zimbio.com)
Murray State (NCAA Seed: #9): After a campaign in 2009-10 that will go down as one of the best in program history, the scary thing for OVC foes is that this year’s edition may be even better. Despite losing senior leaders Tony Easley and Danero Thomas to graduation, the Racers look to reload behind the strong play of a three-headed guard attack. Led by returning starters B.J. Jenkins and Isacc Miles, the deadly backcourt gets a little more frightening when last year’s sixth man, Isaiah Canaan, gets thrown in the mix. Canaan, who actually averaged the second-most points on the team last season at 10.4 PPG, should pick up right where he left off, shooting a ridiculous 50% from the field and 48% from behind the arc. After last season’s last-second buzzer-beater vanquished Vanderbilt, things are looking good for Billy Kennedy’s squad, as the Racers look to cash in plenty of wins at the newly renamed CFSB Center.