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Redhawks face difficult road swing
The Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team fell just short of beating the Ohio Valley Conference's top squad.
Now the Redhawks are on the road to face two teams that just might be nearly on par with three-time defending OVC champion Murray State, which rallied for a 74-66 win at Southeast Saturday after trailing by 12 points early in the second half.
Southeast (10-7, 2-1) is in Nashville, Tenn., for 7 p.m. games with first-year OVC member Belmont (11-4, 2-0) today and Tennessee State (9-7, 3-0) Saturday.
Tennessee State leads the OVC East Division, just ahead of Belmont. Southeast is second in the West Division, right behind Murray State.
"We're getting ready to play two really good teams on the road," said Southeast coach Dickey Nutt, whose squad had a four-game winning streak snapped by Murray State. "It's a tough stretch for us."
Belmont, the East Division preseason favorite ahead of No. 2 Tennessee State, has so far lived up to that billing during its inaugural year in the OVC.
The Bruins thrived the previous 11 seasons as a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, earning NCAA tournament berths five of the past seven years, including the last two.
Coach Rick Byrd has compiled a 556-288 record in his 27th season at Belmont, which returned three starters from last year's squad that went 27-8.
"They've been a great addition to our league. They've made our league better, which as a coach is what you want," Nutt said. "I think we're better this year but everybody else is better. I think the conference is as good as it's been."
Belmont, which owns a win at Stanford, is led by its senior backcourt of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, both preseason all-OVC selections without every playing a game in the conference.
The pair has combined for 2,246 career points, the fifth-highest total among returning backcourts in Division I basketball this season.
"Their guards are very good," Nutt said.
Clark leads four Belmont players scoring in double figures with a 17.1 average, fourth-best in the conference. He ranks fourth in the league in 3-point shooting at 46.2 percent and has made a league-high 49 baskets from beyond the arc.
Johnson is averaging 13.3 points and leads the Bruins with 78 assists to rank second in the OVC.
The Bruins also have two solid players up front in 6-foot-7, 240-pound senior Trevor Noack and 6-7, 210-pound junior Blake Jenkins.
Noack is averaging 12 points and a team-high 5.7 rebounds.
Jenkins contributes 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting an OVC-leading 58.3 percent.
Belmont is second in the OVC in both scoring offense (74 points per game) and scoring defense (61.9 ppg). The Bruins lead the league with a plus 12.1 scoring margin per contest.
The Bruins also lead the OVC with 47.3-percent field-goal shooting and they are second from beyond the arc at 38.3 percent.
Belmont is second in the conference in field-goal percentage defense at 38.4 -- just behind Southeast's league-leading 38.0 mark.
"They're just an outstanding team. They really shoot the ball well," Nutt said. "They go to Tennessee Tech and win by 30 [83-52], that tells you how good they are. I don't know that anybody has ever done that."
The big story for Tennessee State is that the Tigers have gone 4-0 without leading scorer and rebounder Robert Covington, a potential NBA draft pick.
The 6-9 Covington, averaging 17.4 points and 7.7 rebounds -- third and fourth in the OVC, respectively -- is expected to be out at least a couple more weeks after suffering a knee injury.
"He's a great player but they've played very well without him," said Nutt, whose squad lost to TSU 75-72 at home in last year's lone meeting between the teams. "They're as good as anybody in the league."
TSU was the only OVC team to beat Murray State last year, when the Tigers posted their first 20-win season since the 1978-79 campaign. They lost to Murray State by two points in the OVC tournament championship game.
First-year TSU coach Travis Williams, an assistant to John Cooper who took over the program after Cooper left for Miami of Ohio, returned four starters.
TSU, 3-0 in the OVC for the first time since 1994-95 season, has three players besides Covington scoring in double figures.
Kellen Thornton, a 6-8, 243-pound senior forward, is averaging 13.8 points and 7.4 rebounds. Junior guard Patrick Miller is averaging 12.8 points and leads the OVC with 87 assists.