The Otahkians, with just one starter back, are picked to finish fifth.
By Marty Mishow ~ Southeast Missourian
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Southeast Missouri State University women's basketball coach B.J. Smith can't argue with the Otahkians being picked fifth in the 11-team Ohio Valley Conference.
Smith just hopes his players are motivated enough to prove wrong the league's coaches and sports information directors who did the voting at Thursday's OVC media day.
"We hope to use this as motivation, very much so," Smith said. "Picks are really based on what you have returning. I like our returning players, but we've only got four, so fifth is probably what we deserved."
The Otahkians were the preseason favorites last year but never lived up to expectations as they went 16-13, including a fourth-place OVC finish of 10-6.
With only those four returning players -- that group includes just one starter from last year in senior center Chandra Brown, who made the preseason all-OVC second team -- Smith will rely heavily on 11 newcomers, led by junior-college All-American center Tatiana Conceicao.
"She has a chance to be a great player," Smith said.
Smith knows team chemistry will be a big factor for the Otahkians, who never seemed to quite mesh last year. But he definitely likes the talent of his third Southeast squad, which begins practice Saturday.
"I think this is the most talented group we've brought in here, and we feel we've had talented groups," he said. "Last year our team was never as good as our talent, and that's coaching. The kids worked hard, but we just could never figure out how to put the pieces together.
"I really like this group, but chemistry will be a big key."
Chemistry shouldn't be a problem for Tennessee Tech, the preseason favorite that returns all five starters from an OVC runner-up squad.
The Eaglettes received nine of 22 first-place votes and 180 points to edge out Jacksonville State, last year's third-place finisher that garnered six first-place votes and 176 points.
"It's fun to be picked No. 1. The girls will enjoy it," Tennessee Tech coach Bill Worrell said. "But it's where you finish. The old cliché, where we're going to be in March, that's what we're all working for."
Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State return the conference's top two scorers in junior forward Emily Christian and senior forward Shanika Freeman, who averaged 20.4 points 19.4 points per game, respectively, last year.
Austin Peay was picked third despite returning four starters from a team that won its second straight OVC regular-season title and fourth consecutive league tournament crown.
But the graduation loss for the Govs, who nabbed four first-place votes, was a big one -- OVC player of the year Gerlonda Hardin, the league's premier inside player.
"She was just a tremendous player. She dominated in the post," Austin Peay coach Andy Blackston said. "But we have four starters back who have all played in big games. We're going to rely on them."
Eastern Kentucky got the other three first-place votes and was picked fourth, followed by Southeast, Murray State, Tennessee-Martin, Morehead State, Eastern Illinois, Samford and Tennessee State.
"Tennessee Tech has a lot of returners, which sure favors them," Smith said. "But after that, I don't know if there's anybody that really stands out. It should be a very good race."