Southeast took step in right direction with two wins last week

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Not even Saturday night's loss at Murray State could detract from what was a very good week for the Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team.

When the week began, the Redhawks knew if they didn't start getting their act together somewhat, they might find themselves buried in the Ohio Valley Conference race before the midway point of the season.

Now, even though they're not exactly thriving, the Redhawks have righted the ship enough to at least offer their fans hope for a respectable campaign -- when a short time ago that appeared questionable.

Beating defending OVC tournament champion Eastern Kentucky on Monday and posting their first OVC road win Thursday at Eastern Illinois lifted the spirits of the Redhawks, although they were brought back down to earth a bit by Murray State's 81-68 victory that was competitive until the final 8 or 9 minutes.

A 6-8 overall record and a 3-5 OVC mark is no cause for celebration. But the fact five of Southeast's first eight conference games were on the road makes the latter figure look not as bad.

The Redhawks will play seven of their initial 11 OVC contests away from home, meaning they'll have six of their final nine league games at the Show Me Center.

When the season began, I don't think even the most optimistic Southeast supporters expected big things from the Redhawks. Realistically, this figured to be something of a transitional, rebuilding year until reinforcements (namely transfers Brandon Foust and Mike Rembert) become eligible.

But I'm sure most fans anticipated the Redhawks looking considerably better than they had been for the early stages of the season.

Now, after playing three pretty solid games over the past week, if the Redhawks can continue improving and somehow keep their head above water until the schedule becomes favorable, maybe they'll make a run at putting together the type of season that, while maybe not special, at least won't be dismal.

Southeast's women matched the men with a 2-1 week, but that was certainly little cause for celebration among the Redhawks, who continue to be frustrated by their current mediocre season after they were so highly regarded.

The Redhawks (7-7, 4-3 OVC) have already suffered one more regular-season conference loss than they did all last year, when they went 14-2 in the league and 22-8 overall.

But the Redhawks probably looked better than they have all season in winning comfortably, 72-62, at Murray State Saturday night, so maybe that's the performance that finally gets them going.

One good thing for Southeast is that nobody is running away in the OVC right now, meaning the Redhawks could still challenge for the title if they can just string some wins together.

And, no matter where the Redhawks finish in the standings, you've still got to think they'll make a run at the OVC tournament championship and an automatic NCAA playoff berth.

Southeast simply has too much talent to not eventually get back on track.

Roderick Pearson, a 6-foot-2 point guard at Raytown South High School who signed with Southeast's men's basketball program in November, was recently named the MVP in the William Jewell Tournament.

That event, which features all of the best teams in the Kansas City area, is considered among the state's best regular-season tournaments.

I wrote recently that I thought Murray State and Tennessee Tech were head and shoulders above the rest of the OVC's men's basketball teams.

That still might prove to be the case, but through the early part of the conference schedule, the Racers and Eagles have looked far from invincible. They have a combined three league losses -- two coming at the hands of Samford.

Samford has had Murray State's number since the Bulldogs joined the OVC three year ago, so perhaps it was not so surprising that the Racers fell in Birmingham, Ala.

But Samford had never before beaten Tech -- yet the Bulldogs prevailed by the preposterous score of 68-43 in Cookeville, Tenn.

That Samford -- which befuddles most OVC squads with its unusual style -- defeated the Eagles is maybe not all that stunning. But the margin of victory certainly was.

Tech is loaded with athletes, and the Eagles average about 75 points per game. For Tech to lose by 25 points at home to Samford might be one of the most shocking OVC scores I've ever heard.

And the Bulldogs must have really put the Eagles in a funk, because they lost 93-75 at Eastern Kentucky their next time out.

I don't want to get into a weekly shouting match via Fan Speak, but I stand by what I wrote last week about believing that Southeast's best Division II basketball teams from the mid- to late 1980s would have been able to compete well in the OVC.

As I wrote, Ronny Rankin and Riley Ellis -- the stars of the squad that finished second in the nation in 1986 -- both were recruited seriously by several Southeastern Conference schools but did not qualify academically for Division I play.

That would seem like a pretty good resume for being able to compete in the OVC.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking the OVC at all. It's a quality league, with many exceptional athletes. I love following mid-major or low-major programs that don't receive the notoriety of the teams from power conferences.

And, unlike some people who long for all the success Southeast had in Division II, I am really glad the university moved up to Division I.

But, while the talent level between the two divisions might be vast overall, in many years the top Division II teams could have competed with a lot of the Division I squads who make up the mid-major and low-major conferences.

Here's one more example, from a guy whose opinion I respect a lot -- Southeast coach Gary Garner.

Garner led Fort Hays State to the Division II national title in 1996, going 34-0. Fort Hays was 63-2 over a two-year period under Garner, including a 49-game winning streak.

Garner once told me his best Fort Hays teams were so good, they would have definitely been able to compete well in the OVC -- and probably even challenge for some titles.

I rest my case.

After being so impressive in winning the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament -- including a semifinal romp past perennial state power Charleston -- the Notre Dame boys basketball team showed the title was no fluke by beating the Bluejays in Tuesday's rematch.

But how in the heck were the Bulldogs not ranked during the most recent Class 4 state poll? That's hard to believe, especially since Jackson -- which Notre Dame beat in the tournament final -- made the list in Class 5, as did Charleston in Class 3.

If the Bulldogs keep winning, however, they're sure to hit the state rankings soon.

And at least the local media is giving Notre Dame plenty of respect. The Bulldogs are No. 2 in the Southeast Missouri poll, behind only undefeated Doniphan.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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