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OVC poll pegs young Indians for 7th place
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Gary Garner coached Fort Hays State to a NCAA Division II national championship in 1996 on the floor of the Kentucky International Convention Center.
Garner hopes to return to Louisville and the KICC this season. But the rest of the Ohio Valley Conference doesn't think he and his Southeast Missouri State University basketball team are going to make it.
Southeast, just two years removed from the school's first OVC championship and NCAA Division I Tournament berth, was relegated to the No. 7 spot out of nine teams in the league's preseason poll announced Tuesday as the OVC held its annual media day at the KICC.
For one season only, the OVC postseason tournament semifinals and finals will be played at the KICC because of a conflict with dates at Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center, where the event has been held the past several years.
"I hope we can get back here," said Garner. "If we do, I'll have some confidence."
Garner isn't ruling out a trip to Louisville in early March. But he knows the young, inexperienced Indians -- who return just one full-time starter and lost their top four scorers from last year's 18-12 squad that finished a fifth-place 8-8 in the OVC -- face a major uphill climb.
"With this young team, it will be quite a challenge. I hope we can keep our head above water," he said. "I'm not trying to paint a bleak picture. I think we can have a competitive basketball team. I really like the foundation of this team, but we have to win now."
As an indication of just how little the rest of the OVC thinks of the Indians, Southeast is the only team in the league with no player on either the first, second or honorable mention all-conference preseasons teams that were announced Tuesday. Voting for the preseason poll and all-OVC squads were done by the league's head coaches and sports information directors.
"We're probably picked about where we should be picked," acknowledged Garner. "I hope some of the teams overlook us."
Added Garner with a smile, "With a team like this, you really don't know, Some days I come home and don't think we'll win a game. Some days I think we'll be all right. But that's a young team. There are so many unanswered questions."
Not so for preseason favorite Tennessee Tech, which returns four starters and has added South Carolina transfer Damien Kinloch from a squad that went 20-9 last year and won the OVC regular-season title with a 13-3 mark.
The Eagles, who are led by guards Leigh Gayden and Brent Jolly -- the team's second- and third-leading scorers last season -- received 13 first-place votes.
"It's a new situation for us," said Tech coach Jeff Lebo of being the preseason favorite. "We'll have to handle the expectations, but I'd rather have it that way than the other way."
Murray State, which has won or shared seven of the past eight regular-season league titles and last season failed to make the OVC Tournament championship game for the first time in 11 years, received four first-place votes and was picked to finish second.
The Racers of coach Tevester Anderson lost standout Isaac Spencer but return the other four starters -- including second-leading scorer Justin Burdine -- from a squad that went 17-12 and tied for second in the OVC at 11-5.
Eastern Illinois, which won the OVC Tournament last year to earn its first NCAA berth since 1992, received the remaining first-place vote and was picked third.
The Panthers, 21-10 and a second-place 11-5 in the league last year, lost the nation's No. 2 scorer in Kyle Hill. But they return Henry Domercant, the nation's fourth-leading scorer last year at 22.8 points per game who was selected as the OVC preseason Player of the Year.
"Finding a replacement for Kyle Hill will be difficult, but we've got a good nucleus of kids back," said Eastern Illinois coach Rick Samuels.
Morehead State, 12-16 overall and a seventh-place 6-10 in the OVC last year, was picked fourth. Coach Kyle Macy's Eagles, led by 2000-2001 OVC Freshman of the Year and leading scorer Ricky Minard, return four starters.
Austin Peay, 22-10 and fourth-place 10-6 last year, was picked fifth. Coach Dave Loos' Governors must replace the brilliant Trenton Hassell, who is now with the Chicago Bulls, but they return 18-point-per-game scorer Nick Stapleton. However, Stapleton is the Govs' only returning full-time starter.
Tennessee-Martin, 10-18 and an eighth-place 5-11 last year, was tabbed for sixth. The Skyhawks return four starters, including leading scorer Brian Foster, last season's OVC Newcomer of the Year.
Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State were selected eighth and ninth, respectively. The Colonels of coach Travis Ford went a last-place 1-15 and 7-19 overall last year. The Tigers of coach Nolan Richardson III were a sixth-place 7-9 and 10-18 overall a year ago.