Ron Harris is the RTC correspondent for the Ohio Valley Conference.
Predicted Order of Finish:
- Murray State (16-2)
- Austin Peay (13-5)
- Tennessee-Martin (12-6)
- Morehead State (11-5)
- Tennessee Tech (8-8)
- Tennessee State (6-10)
- Eastern Kentucky (6-10)
- Eastern Illinois (5-11)
- Southeast Missouri State (3-13)
- Jacksonville State (1-15)
What You Need to Know (WYN2K): Murray State and Austin Peay are the traditional powers in the OVC, winning six of the last nine championships. In the 90s MSU won the title nine times. This year the league’s marquee player will be Tennessee-Martin’s Lester Hudson, who dropped 35/10 on national runner-up Memphis last year and became the first D1 player ever to record a quadruple-double (25/12/10 assts/10 stls). Hudson initially declared himself eligible for the draft but pulled his name from consideration when it became obvious he would not be selected in the first round (see video below).
Predicted Champion. Murray State (#15 NCAA) returns four starters from last year’s team and adds combo guard Isacc Miles to the mix. Miles played as a freshman at Creighton two years ago and was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team. The Racers also added the Florida 4A-5A-6A Player of the Year in 6’7 Ivan Aska. While MSU might not be as strong as they were in the late 90s, head coach Billy Kennedy is starting to get the kind of players that made the Racers the class of the league back then.
Others Considered. You can never overlook Austin Peay. Head coach Dave Loos always has them ready to play and they have a former OVC Player of the Year in Drake Reed. On the other hand they lost three starters in Todd Babbington, Fernandez Lockett and Derek Wright. Tennessee-Martin has the league’s best player in Hudson but last year was their first winning season (17-16) in what seems like a century. Marquis Weddle knocks down 3s when opponents double-team Hudson and the Skyhawks have a couple of big bruisers inside who sat out last season. But even head coach Brett Campbell says they lack offensive skills. Morehead State is solid inside with Leon Buchanan and Kenneth Faried. But they lose point guard Nikoila Stojakovic who finished fifth in the nation in assists last year. Head coach Donnie Tyndal says they will replace him with a point guard by committee scheme. But the lead candidate for the job seems to be JUCO transfer Robert Murry who is a shoot-first lead guard. The bottom line is: Murray State has the fewest question marks.
Important Games / Key Games / RPI-Booster Games. The OVC has not had many marquee wins against non-conference opponents in recent years although Tennessee St. did win at Illinois last season. The best chance for a marquee win this year comes on December 13 when Murray State visits Missouri. The first league games are on December 4 and 6 when Murray State plays at Eastern Kentucky and Morehead. If they can sweep those two games it will validate their status as the favorite.
Neat-O Stat. Did you know that former Murray State alum Joe Fulks was named the best player of the first 50 years of the 20th century and was called The Babe Ruth of Basketball? Fulks is credited by some with inventing the jump shot.
65 Team Era. The era hasn’t been good to the OVC, as it currently stands at 19 first-round losses in a row. But the league isn’t stuck in #16-seed land (only twice in the last 24 years) so the opportunities have been there. The most recent upset attempts were in 2006 (#14 Murray St. pushed #3 UNC to the wire, losing 69-65) and 2005 (#15 Eastern Kentucky took in-state rival #2 Kentucky deep before succumbing 72-64).
Final Thoughts. If Murray State stumbles you have to like Austin Peay’s chances to win the championship. They have one of the league’s best coaches in Loos and they have tradition on their side. The Racers are the last current OVC team to win a game in the NCAA Tournament, having beaten North Carolina State in the first round in 1988. Look to their game against Missouri and their games in the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico against South Florida, Oral Roberts and Wright State as barometers of their ability to repeat that feat this year.