Ohio Valley Conference Preview
Heading into last season, Austin Peay was expected to be the clear-cut favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference – and the season turned out exactly that way. The race for the regular-season title was a two-team race for the majority of the year between APU and Murray State, but the latter lost four of its last eight conference games to finish in second-place, three games back of the Governors. Austin Peay did not disappoint once the conference tournament began, running the table to win its second straight conference title by defeating Tennessee State in the title game. The Govs came back to Earth in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Texas in the first-round after garnering a No. 15 seed. Will Austin Peay win its third straight trip to the Big Dance, or will someone else step up to take the Govs’ spot?
Favorites: Tennessee-Martin is a threat to win every night because of one player – Lester Hudson. One of the best pure scorers and shooters in the country, Hudson can carry the Skyhawks. Combine him with fellow scorer Marquis Weddle, and UTM has options. Djero Riedewald and Olajide Hay also return as starters for the Skyhawks. Murray State also returns four starters from last season, including an excellent perimeter trio of Danero Thomas, Tyler Holloway and Kevin Thomas. Thomas is one of the best players in the conference. Creighton transfer Isacc Miles and returning starter Tony Easley will also be factors this season.
Contenders: Morehead State’s success hinges on the performance of its outstanding frontcourt trio of Kenneth Faried, Leon Buchanan and Maze Stallworth. All three have all-conference aspirations, and could get it if MSU reaches its potential. In the backcourt, Demonte Harper and a group of newcomers need to step up. Austin Peay will have some work to do if it wants to return to the NCAA Tournament, as the Govs lose three starters. However, forward Drake Reed does return; he is one of the best players in the league. On the perimeter, Kyle Duncan and Wes Channels are the main options. Ernest Fields could be poised for a breakout year. Tennessee State will look to improve on its .500 OVC record last season. Leading the way is all-conference wing Gerald Robinson, Jr., who will have to become more of a go-to-guy with the departure of Bruce Price. Jerrell Houston and Darius Cox form a very solid forward tandem up front for the Tigers.
Sleepers: Recent history points to Eastern Kentucky having a successful season this year, but its personnel suggests to limit expectations. Mike Rose returns at forward; he is an all-conference performer and the main scorer for the Colonels. Justin Stommes and Josh Taylor also return to the frontcourt. Tennessee Tech loses its dynamic duo of Anthony Fisher and Amadi McKenzie, and will have to rely more on all-conference center Daniel Northern. He should be up for the task. In the backcourt, Will Barnes and Frank Davis will combine to form a solid guard tandem. Freshman Zach Bailey will look to make an impact.
Rounding out the Pack: Southeast Missouri State loses four starters from its 12-19 campaign of a year ago. However, a solid wing duo returns in Jaycen Herring and Kenard Moore. Both were double-figure scorers and will shoulder the load this year. Calvin Williams and Jajuan Maxwell lead the way up front. Eastern Illinois brings in a plethora of newcomers to fight for starting spots, but the Panthers’ success will rest on the returnees. Romain Martin is a big-time scorer when healthy, while Ousmane Cisse has talent and is a good rebounder. Tyler Laser is the third returnee looking to play a bigger role this year. Jacksonville State could be the most likely out of this group to reach the conference tournament (only the top eight teams reach the tourney). The Gamecocks return four starters from last season, including a solid nucleus of perimeter players in sophomores Nick Murphy and Jeremy Bynum, and seniors Jonathan Toles and De’Andre Bray. Amadou Mbodji is a very good rebounder and shot-blocker up front.
Prediction: It looks the Ohio Valley is poised for a close race at the top of the standings this season. Tennessee-Martin has an outstanding scoring duo in Lester Hudson and Marquis Weddle, while Murray State has good inside-outside balance. Furthermore, Morehead State is absolutely loaded in the frontcourt and Austin Peay will still be a factor. In the end, though, I think that the presence of Hudson for Tennessee-Martin will be the difference. He can single-handedly keep the Skyhawks in the game and carry them to victory. There is no one else in the league that compares to him – he will lead Tennessee-Martin to the NCAA Tournament.
Player of the Year: Lester Hudson, G, Tennessee-Martin
G- Lester Hudson, Tennessee-Martin
G- Marquis Weddle, Tennessee-Martin
G- Mike Rose, Eastern Kentucky
F- Drake Reed, Austin Peay
F- Daniel Northern, Tennessee Tech
G- Romain Martin, Eastern Illinois
G- Danero Thomas, Murray State
G- Gerald Robinson, Jr., Tennessee State
F- Leon Buchanan, Morehead State
C- Kenneth Faried, Morehead State