Southeast will get early challenges on OVC schedule

Sunday, January 2, 2005

The Southeast Missouri State University basketball teams both will carry two-game winning streaks and plenty of momentum into 2005.

The squads figure to need all of that forward push as Ohio Valley Conference play begins because they open their league schedules with tough stretches, including three of the first four games on the road for each team.

Both Southeast teams tip off their conference slates Thursday at Austin Peay. The Governors' men and women each have won two straight OVC titles, with the women capturing four straight OVC tournament crowns.

Austin Peay's teams both graduated some of their top players from last season but are still expected to be major factors in the conference race. The men were picked fifth in the preseason poll, and the women were tabbed for third.

Following Thursday's games in Clarksville, Tenn., Southeast continues on to Cookeville, Tenn., for Saturday contests with Tennessee Tech.

Tech's men, featuring preseason conference player of the year Willie Jenkins, is picked fourth in the league's preseason poll.

Tech's women, after finishing second in the standings last year, returned all of their starters -- including preseason player of the year Emily Christian -- and is the preseason favorite.

After the opening two road games, the Southeast teams host Eastern Illinois on Jan. 11 and visit Tennessee State on Jan. 13.

Southeast's teams -- the men are 5-6 while the women are 6-5 -- were not all that highly regarded in the preseason poll. The men were picked seventh out of 11 teams and the women were selected fifth.

But both Southeast squads have played well enough during their preconference schedules to give their fans hope that they have the potential to better those predictions -- and perhaps by several places.

It all begins Thursday and Saturday in tough surroundings.

While it's not imperative that Southeast's men and women get off to strong OVC starts -- which won't be easy -- it sure would help their hopes of being major players in what figures to be a pair of intriguing OVC races.

Southeast has a chance to make some early statements in the conference, and it will be interesting to see what happens.

* Sure, it's easy for people to say that since St. Louis University's men are struggling so much this year, what Southeast did to the Billikens Wednesday night wasn't that big of a deal.

But that wouldn't be doing coach Gary Garner or his squad justice.

Garner has endured plenty of criticism for three straight losing seasons, so he and his players deserve kudos for their dominating 65-49 victory against a program that paid Southeast $45,000 for an expected beating.

To simply defeat the Billikens would have been one thing. But to so thoroughly dominate -- Southeast led by 26 points in the second half and things weren't nearly as close as the final score -- was mighty impressive no matter how much SLU is struggling.

* As usual, the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament featured its share of great games and even better story lines.

Perhaps no story was more compelling than huge underdog Kelly advancing all the way to the championship game. No seed that low -- seventh -- had made the finals in recent memory.

But led by first-year coach Cory Johnson -- Southeast's former sharpshooting guard who must have felt mighty comfortable on the Show Me Center floor -- Kelly stunned perennial power Charleston in the quarterfinals and then upended third-seeded Scott City in the semifinals.

Kelly's magic ran out in the final against a big and talented Jackson squad, but it took the top-seeded Indians overtime before they were able to secure their second straight title with a thrilling 63-61 victory.

And speaking of good stories, how about first-year Jackson coach Darrin Scott -- who came over from Notre Dame -- getting the Indians to a 12-0 start, as they have rallied together following the offseason death of Jason Schafer, who would have been one of the team's top players.

Congratulations to all the teams in the tournament -- winners and losers -- who help make the annual event the great local sporting spectacle that it is.

Also kudos to everybody associated with the running of the tournament who always do such a fantastic job.

And a few more kudos to KGIR-1220 for once again broadcasting every tournament game. Erik Sean, Todd Bonacki and Jess Bolen all did yeomen's work in describing the action.

* Considering the way Jackson has started the season and the strong fan following the Indians always have, their gym figures to be packed to the rafters Friday night when defending Class 5 state champion Poplar Bluff and North Carolina signee Tyler Hansbrough come to town.

While Jackson is undefeated, the Indians have not beaten any large-school powerhouses yet. Friday's contest will be a golden opportunity to do just that.

* The final day of the NFL's regular season is upon us -- and the big question for local fans is will the Rams make the playoffs?

First of all, the Rams have to beat the visiting Jets today -- no small task, for sure -- and then they've got to have either the Seahawks or Vikings lose.

It doesn't seem like a real good chance that the Rams will sneak in, but they do have a chance. And, considering the kind of year they've had, that's probably more than they deserve.

* I can't decide who I like to win Tuesday's Orange Bowl game that will decide college football's national championship -- USC vs. Oklahoma looks almost too close to call -- but right now I'm kind of leaning toward the Sooners.

Sometimes anticipated matchups don't live up to the hype, but this one certainly has all the makings of a classic. We'll see if it turns out that way.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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