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Returning lineup, depth fuel Indians' hopes
After two straight down seasons, is this finally the year that Southeast Missouri State University's men's basketball team gets back into the Ohio Valley Conference championship hunt?
The answer during Southeast's media day at the Show Me Center Monday was a resounding yes.
"We're really excited about the season," said 6-foot-2 junior guard Derek Winans, the Indians' leading scorer the past two seasons. "It's going to be tough, but I think we have the talent to take the OVC title."
Said 6-3 junior guard Brett Hale, the Indians' second-leading scorer last year, "This is the most excited I've been about a season since I've been here. The last two seasons have not gone as well as anybody would have liked, but I think the tools are in place to compete for the conference championship."
After going 62-28 over a three-year period -- including the program's first OVC championship and NCAA Division I Tournament berth -- the Indians slumped big-time. They went 6-22 two years ago and improved to 11-19 last season while finishing toward the bottom of the OVC both years.
But with practice set to begin Saturday, optimism is fueled by the return of all five starters -- four of last year's top five scorers are back -- and perhaps more importantly the addition of five newcomers who all figure to either start or see significant action.
"We've had a couple of lean years, but I think we're back," said coach Gary Garner, 93-82 after six seasons at Southeast. "We're going to have a good basketball team. I think we'll have a chance to win the championship."
Garner looks for improved talent and depth to bolster the Indians -- he said there's no way he could name his starters right now -- but says how well Southeast ultimately fares could be determined by how well the team comes together.
"Chemistry will be so important for us," Garner said. "The last two years, we probably didn't have the talent. Now we have the talent. The key will be getting that chemistry."
Winans, Hale and 6-8 senior center Brandon Griffin lead the group of returning starters.
Winans averaged 15.3 points per game last season. Hale added 13.7 points, and over the final 17 games he was Southeast's top scorer at more than 16 a contest. Griffin, in his first year with the program, averaged 11.9 points and 10.5 rebounds and set a school single-season rebounding record.
"I'm so excited," said Griffin, who has added about 15 pounds and now weighs 240. "I think we have the talent to compete for the championship."
Damarcus Hence, a 6-6 forward who joins Griffin as the squad's lone seniors, added 10.5 points a game last year. Kevin Roberts, a 6-3 junior point guard, led the OVC in assists.
While Garner is excited about the five returning regulars, he knows that if the Indians are going to meet their lofty goals, the five newcomers -- particularly three who practiced with the team last season -- will need to play vital roles.
Dainmon Gonner, a powerful 6-6, 230-pound junior forward, and 6-7 junior forward Reggie Golson both starred at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College two years ago. Mike Nelke, a 6-foot junior point guard, transferred from Valparaiso after two seasons with the Crusaders, including a freshman campaign that saw him lead the squad in 3-point shooting.
The trio practiced with Southeast last year, and Golson played in one game before taking a medical redshirt because of a knee injury that has fully healed. Gonner was a mid-year transfer, while Nelke was ineligible under NCAA transfer rules.
"Reggie is a very talented basketball player, very athletic," Garner said. "Dainmon is a complete basketball player, probably as complete a four man as there is in the league, and he's really a tenacious player. I think he'll give some teams fits.
"Mike is a point guard who can really shoot the basketball. With him, Derek and Brett on the perimeter, I don't think we'll have any trouble playing against a zone."
The other first-year players are 6-3 junior guard/forward Norman Prather, who starred at Mineral Area College and Caruthersville High School; and 6-4 freshman guard/forward Terrick Willoughby, who was considered one of the top 10 high school prospects in Mississippi.
"Norman is the best athlete on the team. He could be our stopper defensively, and we haven't had that," Garner said. "Terrick is a great athlete who can really shoot the basketball."
Adding even more depth are three other returning lettermen -- 6-11 junior center Adam Crader, 6-7 sophomore forward Cole Grapperhaus and 6-4 sophomore walk-on guard John Boggio -- who all saw limited action last season. Lance Sechrest, a 6-3 walk-on freshman guard, also returns after sitting out last year as a medical redshirt.
Southeast will play exhibition games Nov. 6 and 12 at the Show Me Center, then open the season at home Nov. 21 against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
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