The sky's not falling, it's just a down year

Sunday, December 16, 2001

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that Southeast Missouri State University's basketball Indians are a bit short on strong Division I talent this year, especially in some key areas.

After coach Gary Garner was hailed as something of a savior for leading the Indians to a 62-28 record over the last three years -- including the program's first NCAA Tournament berth on the Division I level -- the major question I get from fans these days is why has SEMO's recruiting slipped so much?

Well, the answer is it has and it hasn't.

On the one hand, the Indians have certainly been outclassed in most games so far this season, albeit against a fairly strong schedule. They admittedly have not had the physical talent to match up with the majority of their opponents, so even in the games where they do play well, it has been very hard to win. That's obvious by their 1-6 record.

On the other hand, the squad Garner had planned to put on the court this season would have certainly not been all that short on talent.

Now, except for a quick response when questioned at SEMO's media day back in October, Garner has said he never wants to bring up the saga of Bobby Smith and Terry Rogers again. He never wants to use their absence as an excuse.

But the fact of the matter is, Smith and Rogers were supposed to be two of the keys to the Indians' 2001-02 season.

Smith, a point guard who started at Villanova two years ago before transferring, was expected to be one of the Ohio Valley Conference's best players. Rogers, a 6-foot-10, 280-pounder who showed flashes in his rookie season at SEMO last season, was expected to be a major rebounding and defensive presence inside -- areas the Indians have been sorely lacking in this year.

Garner has said in the past that, with Smith and Rogers -- along with the current group of players that would have provided a solid supporting cast -- he expected this team to seriously challenge for the OVC title despite losing its top four scorers from last year.

Realizing that in basketball it only takes one or two key players to turn a mediocre team into a strong one, and after seeing Smith in practice last year and having had Rogers in the system for a year after playing at a junior college that totally did not fit his style, I have no reason to doubt Garner.

But all SEMO fans know by now what happened to Smith and Rogers. They were dismissed from the program last year after running into problems with the law.

The ripple effect of that, along with point guard Kenny Johnson being ineligible the first semester, has been obvious. Several players have either been performing out of position or been asked to fill major roles instead of complementary ones. Not to personally belittle any of the Indians -- the program is full of nothing but quality young men right now -- but the truth is many of them don't have the talent to be stars on this level.

The bottom line is that 1-6 record. And the reality is, things may not get a whole lot better this year, although it's still way to early to put that in the books because there is the entire OVC schedule left to be played.

But SEMO fans should at least be encouraged by the overall play of the Indians' many youngsters. And those fans should be optimistic that, if the coaching staff can land two solid junior-college frontline players with their two remaining available scholarships for next season -- which is their objective -- then it's not too far-fetched to believe that the Indians can be back 'up' the next couple of years.

  • One more note on what's going on with SEMO basketball these days.

    It's ridiculous that anybody should be on Garner's case after what he's done with the Indians the past few years. Even many of the nation's better programs -- with the exception of the very elite ones -- experience a down season every now and then.

    To Garner's credit, he's handling the situation with plenty of class and dignity, always keeping his composure and never losing his cool, which can't be all that easy under the circumstances.

    It's often said that the true test of character is not how people handle the good times, but how they carry themselves in the tough times -- and times are certainly tough for SEMO these days.

    I had no doubt when the Indians were having all that success the last few years that Garner was the right man to lead SEMO's program for a long time to come.

    Now, if the Indians keep struggling over the next few seasons, I naturally might have to reconsider the above statement.

    But for now, my opinion about Garner hasn't changed.

    Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian

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