Title appears ahead for Tech

Sunday, January 27, 2002

Roughly halfway through the Ohio Valley Conference men's basketball season, things are beginning to take shape -- and Tennessee Tech has clearly established itself as the league's dominant team.

In fact, there has even been talk about the Golden Eagles becoming the first OVC squad since Western Kentucky in 1969-70 to go through the conference schedule without a defeat.

Now, that might be a lot to ask -- it rarely happens in any league and the law of averages makes you think the Eagles will lose a game or two somewhere along the line; already they have had to survive a few tight finishes -- but it is hard to imagine them not winning the regular-season championship.

Tech, which has won its first seven league games, appears to have all the ingredients necessary to roll through the OVC, as fans at the Show Me Center witnessed Thursday night when the Eagles rallied past stubborn Southeast Missouri State University.

The Eagles have the league's dominant inside presence in 6-foot-8 South Carolina transfer Damien Kinloch, who gives Tech the type of force that other conference teams don't have this season and rarely ever have. Kinloch helps open things up for several guards who can burn the nets from long range, which makes for an impressive inside-outside combination.

While Tech should cruise to the regular-season crown, there figures to be quite a battle for the next four or five spots between the likes of Eastern Illinois, Morehead State, Austin Peay, Tennessee-Martin and Murray State, who all appear to be relatively equal, although Murray has hit the skids lately.

And even the three apparent bottom feeders -- in no particular order, Tennessee State, Eastern Kentucky and SEMO -- figure to at least make life tough for some of the favorites, if not threaten to break into that middle-of-the-pack mix. Witness Eastern Kentucky's sweep of UT-Martin and Murray this week, along with Tennessee State's narrow loss to Tech Saturday night.

For the Indians, even though they continue to play just about everybody tough, they are going to have a serious battle on their hands just to get into the OVC Tournament (eight of the nine league teams qualify). SEMO is in last place, although there are plenty of games left to be played and much can change between now and the end of the regular season.

But one thing that doesn't figure to change is Tech's stranglehold on first place. It will be something of a minor miracle if anybody is able to deny the Eagles their second straight conference title under coach Jeff Lebo, who has done quite an impressive job in transforming Tech from a mediocre squad into an OVC power.

Going undefeated in the league, however? While it's possible, I say the law of averages will prevail and hand the Eagles a loss or two.

But knowing my track record on predictions, don't but the house on that.

I know the bottom line in collegiate athletics is wins and losses and SEMO is having a miserable season in that regard as the Indians fell to 3-16 with Saturday's 68-67 heart-breaker against Austin Peay.

But you've still got to admire the way the Indians have refused to cave in to the situation. A lot of teams would have probably thrown in the towel by now, but SEMO continues to improve, play and practice hard and, for the most part, take games to the wire against more talented squads.

Those traits aren't paying off on the court so far this season, but they do say a lot about the character of the players and coaching staff.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian

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