The SIUE Cougars started a journey in 2007 to become a NCAA Division 1 program. The transition has been rough for the team as well as the fans. Last year, the fruits of the hard labor were reaped last year as the Cougars qualified for the OVC basketball tournament. While I believe there is hope for another strong season, the media feels otherwise by voting SIUE to finish 5th in the OVC West division.
The start of the 2014-2015 basketball season lends more hope for the Cougars to take another step forward and continue the progress from last season. Coach Lennox Forrester returns a solid lineup of core players as well as five newcomers to the lineup. SIUE will be led by junior Donivine Stewart who averaged a team high 12.2 PPG last season. Stewart should be one of the most exciting players in the Valley this year. Senior guard Kris Davis returns after averaging 9.5 PPG last season. The back court will be solidified this season if senior guard Michael Messer can stay healthy. If this is the case, the Cougars will have solid guard play all season. Down low, the Cougars return both centers from last season. Seniors Keaton Jackson and Grant Fiorentinos will bear the load in the block. Freshman Jalen Henry should see quality minutes at the forward position as well.
The schedule this season is a good balance that should lead to opportunities for success. SIUE starts the season with a home cupcake non Division 1 opponent in Harris Stowe. The rest of the non-conference home schedule includes IPFW, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Milwaukee, Chicago St. and another non Division 1 opponent in Robert Morris of Springfield, IL. The non-conference road slate features the only money game on the schedule at the St. Louis University Billikens. The Billikens of the Atlantic 10 conference finished last season with an RPI of 24 and represent the toughest opponent on the schedule for this season. The road slate also includes a trip to Portland, OR for games against Portland and Portland St. There are also games at Central Michigan and Campbell.
From there, the Cougars will face a tough and balanced OVC conference schedule. They start with back to back home games against Jacksonville St. and Tennessee Tech. They then will face a stiff road challenge at Belmont in a game that will be featured on the CBS Sports Network. Midway through the conference slate, the Cougars will face a challenging stretch of consecutive road games against Southeast Missouri, Eastern Illinois, Tennessee Martin and Murray St. This stretch could define their season and their chances to make a return trip to Nashville. They finish the season with home games against Eastern Illinois, Southeast Missouri and Tennessee Martin before going to Austin Peay to finish the 2014-15 basketball campaign.
Overall, the SIUE Cougars should be a competitive team that is fun to watch. They should be in most games they play this year. That leads to exciting basketball for the fans and hopefully a successful season. The Cougars should expect to make a return trip to Nashville. The senior leadership in the backcourt should give them an advantage because of the importance of ball handling. This team should continue with the steam it picked up last year and continue to make strides as it tries to become an OVC contender instead of bottom feeder.