This week's two-game Ohio Valley Conference road trip for the Southeast Missouri State's men's basketball team originally looked like it might not be very imposing.
Southeast's recent struggles and the resurgence of the Redhawks' two opponents have changed that outlook.
The Redhawks (11-10, 3-4) visit OVC West Division rivals SIU Edwardsville (6-10, 2-4) at 7 p.m. today and Eastern Illinois (4-16, 1-6) at 6 p.m. Saturday. Both squads play at the Show Me Center later in the season.
Southeast is second in the six-team West Division, behind 5-1 Murray State. SIUE is third, just a half-game behind Southeast. EIU is tied for fifth with Tennessee-Martin.
In the overall standings spanning the 12-team OVC, Southeast is just seventh. That's important for conference tournament seeding purposes because the division winners automatically earn the top two seeds while all other seedings are based on a squad's league winning percentage.
"Conference play is so tough. There are no guarantees," Southeast coach Dickey Nutt said. "Every conference game is big and it's always difficult to win on the road."
The Redhawks at least hit the road with some renewed vigor after ending a season-long four-game losing streak Saturday by beating visiting Tennessee Tech 74-62.
"Now we should have our confidence back," Nutt said. "It was a big win for us."
SIUE and EIU have both showed signs of life after struggling much of the season.
SIUE has won two of its last three games, including 66-53 at Austin Peay. The Cougars are coming off Saturday's 70-61 loss at three-time defending OVC champion Murray State after they led by 11 points at halftime and by 14 points early in the second half.
"They've been playing well. They're a good team," Nutt said. "They'll come into the game thinking they can win. It's going to be a big challenge for us."
The Cougars, eligible for the OVC tournament for the first time this year, are led by 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior forward Jerome Jones, a member of last season's all-OVC newcomer team.
Jones is averaging 15.5 points per game, tied for seventh-best in the OVC, and is tied for sixth in the league by hitting 42.5 percent of his 3-point field goals (37 of 87). SIUE is the league's third-most accurate squad from beyond the arc at 37 percent.
"They're dangerous. They'll pose some problems for us," Nutt said. "They've got some guys who can shoot the ball."
EIU is in total rebuilding mode under first-year coach Jay Spoonhour, who welcomed back only a handful of players and no primary scorers from last season's team.
But the Panthers should be riding high after Saturday's 77-67 win at Austin Peay that snapped a 12-game losing streak.
"They'll be feeling good about themselves after beating Austin Peay," Nutt said. "They're improving."
The Panthers have struggled offensively, averaging an OVC-worst 57.3 points per game. They rank fourth in the league in scoring defense at 64.7 points per contest but are last in field-goal percentage defense at 48.2.
EIU is led by 6-8, 225-pound sophomore forward Josh Piper (10.6 ppg) and 6-6, 215-pound junior forward Sherman Blanford (10.2 ppg). Piper is fifth in the OVC at 43.4 percent from beyond the arc (36 of 83).
SIUE and EIU finished ninth and 10th, respectively, in what was an 11-team conference last year. The Cougars went 10-17 overall and 6-10 in league play. The Panthers went 12-17 and 5-11.
Southeast swept all four matchups against SIUE and EIU last season. The Redhawks beat the Cougars 85-68 at home and 85-72 on the road. Southeast defeated the Panthers 80-73 at home and 74-53 on the road.