OVC basketball races tight at the halfway mark

Monday, January 24, 2011

While the Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team has hit another major speed bump, an exciting Ohio Valley Conference race is heating up.

Exactly halfway through the 18-game conference schedule for all the contenders, six of the league's 10 squads are within two games of first place.

Defending regular-season and tournament champion Murray State, the heavy preseason favorite to repeat, is within striking distance of another title but not nearly as dominant as during last year's record-setting campaign that featured a 17-1 league record.

Austin Peay and Tennessee State are at the top of the standings at 7-2.

Although Austin Peay is a perennial OVC contender, the Govs were picked fourth in the preseason poll. And Tennessee State has been a major surprise after the Tigers were tabbed for a seventh-place finish.

While Murray State isn't running away from the pack as some might have anticipated, the 6-3 Racers are just one game out of first place and in prime position to repeat.

After that there is a three-way tie for fourth place at 5-4 between Morehead State -- picked second in the preseason poll and expected to be the Racers' primary threat for the crown -- Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech.

Southeast, which started the season 0-10 before winning five of six -- including posting four straight conference wins -- is saddled with a four-game losing streak.

That has dropped the Redhawks (5-15, 4-6) into eighth place after they were tied for second just a few weeks ago.

And Southeast leads ninth-place Tennessee-Martin by just one game as those squads battle to get into the eight-team conference tournament.

There is plenty of time left for the Redhawks, picked ninth in the preseason poll, to make their way back toward the middle of the pack with another hot streak. And it might take just that to hold off surging UT-Martin.

Southeast's most recent defeat was Saturday's 96-58 destruction at Murray State. It was one of the most lopsided OVC losses in program history.

I might not have expected that, but I did expect the Redhawks to get beat pretty thoroughly because you just knew the Racers would be steaming mad after losing two straight home games.

The Racers previously held the nation's fourth-longest home-court winning streak of 25 straight. Three consecutive home defeats was not likely, and the Racers took out their frustrations on undermanned Southeast.

There is also a tight race brewing on the women's side. Three teams are within a game of first place and a fourth squad is just another game back.

Tennessee Tech, picked fourth in the preseason poll, leads at 8-1. Morehead State and UT-Martin are both 7-2 after they were tabbed second and fifth, respectively.

Defending OVC tournament champion Austin Peay is within striking distance at 6-3 while defending regular-season champion and preseason favorite Eastern Illinois is just 5-4.

Southeast's women (7-12, 3-6) have moved into sole possession of seventh place after their first road win of the season, 48-44 on Saturday at Murray State.

Southeast's women have put themselves in a decent position to make the OVC tournament, which would be a significant improvement over their last-place conference finish from a year ago and their last-place prediction in the preseason poll.

Both Southeast basketball teams will try to get on a roll during this week's two-game OVC homestand, Thursday against Jacksonville State and Saturday against Tennessee Tech.

Saturday's doubleheader will feature Southeast's second annual promotion to sell out the Show Me Center.

As part of the event, Southeast's 2010 OVC champion football team will be honored during a ceremony at halftime of the men's game. Members of the squad will sign autographs between the men's and women's contests.

Thursday's game against Jacksonville State will mark the return of former Southeast assistant Tom Schuberth, who played a major role in the program's only successful period since moving to Division I.

Schuberth, in his first year as an assistant at Jacksonville State, was Gary Garner's chief recruiter during Garner's first four seasons at Southeast (1997-98 through 2000-01).

Southeast went 76-41 during that stretch, including a 24-7 mark in 1999-2000 that featured the program's only OVC title and NCAA Division I tournament berth.

Schuberth was a fan favorite in Cape Girardeau, and I'm sure Southeast supporters are looking forward to seeing him back at the Show Me Center.

The most recent issue of Sports Illustrated included an interesting feature on Morehead State senior forward Kenneth Faried, the nation's top rebounder who is projected as a possible first-round NBA draft pick.

According to the article, Faried was recruited seriously by only two schools -- Morehead State and Marist -- while attending high school in Newark, N.J., and he came to Morehead State as a 6-foot-7, 185-pounder.

Faried is now a sculpted 6-8, 228-pounder who has been compared to former rebounding great Dennis Rodman and figures to be playing in the NBA next season.

Jess Bolen's big day is just about here.

Bolen, the longtime Plaza Tire Capahas manager, will enter the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday. He will be enshrined as part of the 2011 class in Springfield, Mo.

Bolen, who completed his 44th season as manager of one of the nation's oldest amateur baseball teams last summer, was selected for induction in October.

The Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted its first member in 1951, features the state's legendary sports figures. That includes numerous people also enshrined in major professional sports halls of fame.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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