Tennessee State might not be ready to stake its claim as one of the Ohio Valley Conference's top women's basketball teams.
But the Tigers, winless in league play last year, have already made a major statement through the early part of this OVC season -- and that has Southeast Missouri State University on alert entering today's 5:30 p.m. tipoff in Nashville, Tenn.
"There are no easy games any more," junior center Tatiana Conceicao said. "Everybody will be tough in the conference."
Southeast (8-6, 2-1) figures to be a solid favorite over TSU (4-9, 1-1), but the Tigers' 77-74 upset victory at Jacksonville State in their OVC opener last week has coach B.J. Smith wary. Jacksonville State finished third in the OVC last year and is the preseason No. 2 pick this year.
TSU also put a score into Samford before losing 61-57.
"They worry me," Smith said. "Beating Jacksonville State and taking Samford to overtime, both on the road, shows that they've really improved and they're playing a lot better."
Under first-year coach Tracee Jones, TSU does appear to be vastly improved over last season's team that went 1-25 overall and 0-16 in OVC play.
The Tigers, who snapped a 22-game OVC losing streak against Jacksonville State, have won just eight games in the past three seasons combined and have finished last in the conference three straight times.
What has Smith particularly concerned is that the Tigers force an OVC-best 25 turnovers per game and lead the league in turnover margin at nearly plus-five per contest. TSU is also first in steals with an 11.5 average.
Southeast turns the ball over an average of more than 18 times, but the squad also forces more than 22 turnovers --including 32 during Tuesday's 87-70 home win over Eastern Illinois -- and is second in the conference in steals per game with 11.
"They force a lot of turnovers, and we've had a ton," Smith said. "They'll get after us, and we have to be ready for that."
Said Southeast senior center Chandra Brown: "We know it's conference time now, and we can't take any game lightly. We have to take care of our business."
If Southeast can take care of business today, then it knows it will be in good shape entering a stretch of four consecutive OVC home games.
That's why Smith emphasizes that his squad cannot afford to take the Tigers lightly.
"If we can get this one, then it can really set us up for the homestand, which will be big," Smith said.