If you’re a regular reader of the OVCBall Blog (or follow me @OVCBall…shameless plug there) then you know that I have stated constantly that Martin’s Jason James was my vote for OVC coach of the year. Jason James and his young staff turned around a 1-17 OVC campaign for the Skyhawks a year ago to a 6-12 team that knocked off Tennessee State in the first round of the OVC Tournament. The Skyhawks weren’t supposed to compete, and they did, overcoming an 0-7 start in the conference, going 6-5 down the stretch. This was the most improved team this season in the OVC from January to March, hands down.
Even better news for the Skyhawks; 3 of the teams 5 top scorers from this season are rising freshman. Guards Terrence Smith and Mike Liabo both averaged over 11 points a game Martin, with Troy King adding almost 10 a game.
The bad news in Martin: An undersized team is about to get smaller. The Skyhawks graduate 3 forwards, all 3 of which played substantial minutes in their late season turn around. King will lead the frontcourt…who will join him is a complete mystery. The only other returning forward, rising freshman Pierce Mopo played just 68 minutes in the 2010-11 season. Even worse…Tennessee-Martin did not secure a single commitment during the November early signing period. Clearly, Martin will run a 3-guard lineup next season; with 4 guards playing in short spells. This is a team I expect much of the OVC to try and exploit in the paint.
Much like the frontcourt, the backcourt has strong starters, and a lot of questions behind them. The team’s only senior next season, Dane Smith, started 17 games last season, but was pulled from his starting job late in the season and replaced by the freshman Liabo. While Smith proved to be a capable rebounder, he only averaged 4 points a game. Omari Minor played in 28 games for the Skyhawks, started 10 of them, and doesn’t have any stats worth talking about. (1.1 ppg, 0.8 rpg, 26 ast, 30 to)
If you watched almost any UT Martin game last season, their weakness was abundantly clear; their defense was atrocious, and a lack of size was the reason why. Worst scoring defense in the OVC, worst FG% defense. 9th in rebounding margin, and 8th in blocked shots. Their defense hemorrhaged points at times, allowing 13 teams to hit 80 points against them. They improved their shooting late in the year, but still finished finished 9th in FG%.
This team is a young team that could be a force 2 years from now. Right now, there are a lot of questions surrounding the Skyhawks next season, and their youth next season leaves questions about their consistency over a 30 game season. Jason James has the Skyhawks heading in the right direction, but it’s still probably a few years away for one of the youngest coaching staffs in Division I.