Men's race is mad scramble coming down the stretch

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Ohio Valley Conference men's basketball race is in the final two weeks of the regular season -- and if this was election night, the experts would say it's too close to call.

That pretty well sums up what has so far been one of the wildest OVC seasons in quite some time -- and perhaps ever.

"It is absolutely nuts," Austin Peay coach Dave Loos said. "I have never seen anything like this in my 15 years in the league."

And it doesn't appear likely to change much between now and when the regular season's final games are played on Feb. 26.

"Even though there's only four regular season games left, it seems like there's still a long season left to go," Eastern Kentucky coach Travis Ford said. "It's anybody's game at this point. It's as crazy as I've ever seen any conference. It's up for grabs."

For four teams who played Tuesday night, there are actually only three regular season games left, but Ford's point is clear as the top six squads are within two games of each other.

Samford, by far the surprise of the 11-team league after being picked 10th in the preseason poll, leads the way with a 9-3 record.

Murray State (9-4) moved into sole possession of second place after beating Tennessee-Martin Tuesday night. The preseason favorite Racers sit just one-half game behind the Bulldogs.

"We can finish first, or tied for sixth or seventh," Murray State coach Mick Cronin said. "I think it says a lot about the parity in our league"

One game behind Samford are Southeast Missouri and Tennessee Tech, who are in a third-place tie at 8-4. Southeast Missouri is the OVC's other big surprise after tying for seventh in the preseason poll, and the Redhawks are by far the league's hottest team with a seven-game winning streak.

Austin Peay (8-5) moved into sole possession of fifth place after defeating Jacksonville State Tuesday night, while Eastern Kentucky (7-5) is in sixth place -- but just two games out of first.

Even Tennessee State (6-6), while in seventh place, is only three games removed from the top spot and cannot be discounted since the Tigers play their final four games at home.

"I've been around for a while, and I've never seen or known a conference where this many teams still have a chance to win the championship this late," said Southeast Missouri's Gary Garner, who has been a college head coach for more than 20 years. "It makes it really exciting for the fans."

Garner, whose squad was 1-4 in the OVC after three narrow losses, said his players have gone from shooting for a first-round conference tournament home game -- awarded to the top four finishers -- to setting their sights on the title.

"When we got off to that really rocky start we started talking to our team about making the top four," said Garner, whose squad's seven straight victories ties it for the nation's ninth-longest current winning streak. "Now we've kind of had to reset our goal a little bit, because we do have an opportunity to win the conference championship. The players think they're going to win the title."

But, added a laughing Garner, "It's so close, by the end of the weekend you can go from second to sixth or seventh. You can go from the castle to the outhouse pretty quick."

And that doesn't figure to change.

Three-team women's race

While the OVC men's race is a mad scramble between as many as seven squads, the women's competition is a three-team affair.

Southeast Missouri (17-6, 11-1) and Eastern Kentucky (16-7, 11-1) share the top spot, with Tennessee Tech (17-6, 10-2) just a game behind. No other squad has less than five losses.

The regular-season champion could very well be determined Thursday when Southeast Missouri visits Eastern Kentucky in the only meeting between the teams. The winner could still stumble in its three remaining contests, but will be heavily favored in all three.

"Whoever wins this will still have to take care of business the rest of the way," said Southeast Missouri coach B.J. Smith, whose team has already clinched a home game for the first round of the OVC tournament. "But there's no question this is a pivotal game. It's huge."

Southeast, which has never won an OVC regular-season or tournament title since joining the league in 1991-92, has also never won a game at Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels own a commanding 23-4 lead in the all-time series, including 13-0 at home.

But virtually all of those defeats at Eastern Kentucky were before Smith took over the program. Under Smith, Southeast has played in Richmond just once, during Smith's first season in 2002-03. The Redhawks are 1-2 against the Colonels under Smith, winning last year at the Show Me Center.

"Our players weren't around for all those losses at Eastern Kentucky," said Smith, whose squad has won 10 straight games to tie for the nation's eighth-longest current winning streak. "It's a tough place to play, but I think our players are confident they can win anywhere."

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