Rebuilt Racers picked to top men

Friday, October 15, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's a testament to Murray State's perceived talent that the Racers return just one starter from last year -- yet they are overwhelming Ohio Valley Conference preseason favorites.

"I hope they're right," a smiling Murray State coach Mick Cronin said during Thursday's OVC media day. "I'd rather be picked first than last."

The Racers received 19 of the 22 first-place votes from the league's coaches and sports information directors. They had a total of 199 points, well ahead of Tennessee State, which received one first-place vote and 166 points.

Murray State returns starting guard Adam Chiles and two reserves; the other 12 Racers are newcomers, led by transfer guards Keith Jenifer (Virginia) and Trey Pearson (Mississippi), who sat out last season but practiced with the team. They both saw significant playing time at their previous schools.

"I've looked around for the nine guys who graduated, who helped us get to the NCAA tournament," quipped Cronin, who led the Racers to a 28-6 record and the OVC tournament title in his first season last year. "We have a lot of new faces, but we have a lot of athleticism."

Said Southeast Missouri State University coach Gary Garner, whose squad was tabbed for a seventh-place tie among 11 teams, "I haven't seen all those new guys play, but I've been told this might be Murray State's most talented team, which is saying something."

As for the Indians, they got off to a strong start last year but faltered in OVC play and finished 11-16 while tying for last in the conference. Garner hopes the experience of six returning players who all saw starting action can help Southeast win more close games. Seven of the Indians' 12 league losses were by four points or less.

"Last year was very disappointing for us. I thought we'd be better," Garner said. "I think the experience those six players have will hopefully turn our season around, and I like our new players."

Southeast senior guard Derek Winans, who will miss the first few weeks of practice with a stress fracture in his leg, made the preseason all-OVC second team. Practice begins Saturday.

Tennessee State is expected to continue the improvement it made last season, its first under coach Cy Alexander. After winning just two games the year before and going winless in OVC play, the Tigers went 7-21 last season and placed eighth in the conference.

The Tigers return three starters and have added two high profile transfers in 6-foot-7 Eric King and 6-9 Rod Flowers, who practiced with the team last year. King started 35 games in two seasons at St. John's while Flowers saw some starting action at Cincinnati two years ago.

"We certainly hope we can live up to some of the expectations," Alexander said.

Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech were picked third and fourth, with each getting one first-place vote. The Colonels had their best season under fifth-year coach Travis Ford, placing fourth and making the semifinals of the OVC tournament, while the Eagles return the only first-team all-league performer from last year in forward Willie Jenkins.

Defending regular-season champion Austin Peay was picked fifth, with Tennessee-Martin sixth. Southeast and Jacksonville State tied for seventh, followed by Morehead State, Samford and Eastern Illinois.

Austin Peay went an unprecedented 16-0 in league play last year but lost four starters.

"We've got a different type team for sure," Governors coach Dave Loos said. "We've got some work to do."

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