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Nine Days. Nine days from today, we’ll be tipping off another season of college basketball. And as we get ever closer to the season, we’re counting down with our 2016-17 season previews: the three reasons every team in the conference could win an Ohio Valley Conference Title.

…and after Austin Peay’s tournament run a year ago, we really mean it: any team could really win this league.

Southeast Missouri was picked to finish last again in the West Division this year by the coaches and SID’s, which isn’t entirely surprising giving the Redhawks are coming off their worst finish in conference play since their 0-18 season in 2008-09. But if you’re solely basing your pick off of last year’s performances, you’re missing the bigger picture: there’s some great talent ready to play right now in Cape Girardeau.

 

1. Southeast Missouri has one of the best players in the league

That was even recognized by those same coaches and SID’s, who named Antonius Cleveland as a preseason all-OVC selection. Cleveland has been making a splash since his freshman year, even if his contributions last season were largely overlooked by the Redhawks struggles. Cleveland averaged 15.2 points, and 6.6 rebounds per game, one of four players (and one of two returning this year) to rank in the top-10 in both categories. (Evan Bradds is the other returnee. Chris Horton and Twymond Howard were the others.)

there’s some great talent ready to play right now in Cape Girardeau.

Cleveland’s shooting percentage took a notable dip last season — but he also had 100 more attempts than either of his previous years, as he was required to take on a much larger role in the Redhawks offense.

If there’s one area Redhawks fans can hope to see Cleveland improve, it’s at the free-throw line. He hit 61% from the free-throw line last year, which is his best season at the charity stripe so far, but it’s far below where you want a player so skilled in driving to the basket to shoot.

 

rick-ray

Southeast Missouri head coach Rick Ray is now 42-84 (.333) over four seasons as a NCAA head coach. Ray’s head coach career started at Mississippi State, where he failed to get the Bulldogs above .500 in any of his three seasons with the program.

2. Year No. 2 under Rick Ray can’t possibly be any more tumultuous than year one…right?

As the losses on the court began piling up, the news coming out of Cape Girardeau was far from positive. Multiple suspensions and dismissals, including Marcus Wallace, Ladarius Coleman, and JT Jones, marred the start of Ray’s tenure with SEMO. That continued even into April, with one freshman, Tony Anderson, leaving for the NBA (only to not be drafted) Eric McGill being dismissed, and two other freshman choosing to transfer from the program.

In the end, just four players from last year’s program are back on the roster this season.

The good news: Rick Ray can’t say these aren’t ‘his guys.’

It is worth noting when reflecting on Ray’s first seasons: suspensions weren’t exactly uncommon under Dickey Nutt, especially in his final season. I don’t place the blame on Ray at all. But with the majority of the program being, already, Ray recruits, there’s good reason to think that things off the court should be much quieter this season.

While the Redhawks took an unexpected step backwards in head coach Rick Ray‘s first year, it can be viewed as a “cleaning out” year. First years for new coaches are often easily forgotten — if the team makes consistent improvement from the second year onward.

Of course, the lack of that “consistent improvement” is what led to the Redhawks making a change in the first place.

 

3. One year turnarounds aren’t uncommon

I’ve written on this subject in the past, but here are the highlights:

  • On average, teams finish +/- 5 wins (overall record) from a season ago, and that number appears to be slowly rising, closer to +/- 6 in the current decade.
  • But…six teams from 1980-2014 increased their wins by 10+.
    • The biggest one-season increase: 1992-93 Tennessee State, which went from 2-23 to 19-9.

Since I’ve written that article, there was another huge one-year jump, and again it’s Tennessee State. The Tigers went from 5-25 in head coach Dana Ford‘s first season to 20-11 the next, a 15-win increase. While they haven’t won the league yet, they’ve proven to be one of the conference’s top teams over the past two seasons.

The good news: Rick Ray can’t say these aren’t ‘his guys.’

SEMO is already set up for some early season success: their non-conference schedule ranks among the easiest in the OVC, based on last season’s RPI, and it doesn’t hurt that they play in the perceived* weaker division, the OVC West.

*A reminder: Every coach and SID in the league picked the East Division champion to win the conference.

 

One reason they might not: The offense has a loooonnnggg way to go

Even with Cleveland, there are still a few questions about the Redhawks offense, which ranked as one of the 15-worst in the nation a season ago. Namely — does the team have a true three-point threat? Isiah Jones was the team’s best three-point threat a season ago, and he graduates. The second-best three-point threat? McGill, who as we mentioned earlier, was dismissed from the program in April.

Ray told the Southeast Missourian this summer that he focused on improving his team’s shooting, with NBA shooting drills for his returnees, and recruiting better shooters. If he’s successful, this is obviously a non-issue: the fact is we just don’t know yet.

Shooting was just one issue on offense: the team struggled with turnovers as well. Both Cleveland and Joel Angus III struggled with turnovers, which is something they’ll be key on reversing this season.


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OVC Ball
Predicting the OVC race…in mid-December

2016-17 Basketball Standings

OVCOverall

EAST

Belmont8-014-4
Morehead State6-310-12
Tennessee Tech5-39-14
Jacksonville State5-413-11
Tennessee State4-413-8
Eastern Kentucky2-69-14

WEST

UT Martin5-315-8
Murray State5-311-11
SEMO5-310-13
Austin Peay3-57-15
Eastern Illinois1-79-12
SIUE0-85-17
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