Belmont pegged as preseason favorite

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

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Winning four of the past five OVC regular season championships will have you picked as the favorite to do it again.

The Bruins, despite having won the regular season championship in four of the last five years, it has not won the tournament since 2015.

Even after losing the OVC’s Player of the Year, Evan Bradds, who graduated as the program’s Division I scoring leader, they were still the near unanimous favorite to take the crown.

Belmont was 15-1 last season.

While Belmont knows what it has and have little to rebuild upon, a team like Austin Peay has a new coach for the first time since 1989-1990.  The winningest coach in OVC history, Dave Loos, retired after last season.

Matt Figgers is taking the reigns of Austin Peay basketball for his first year in the league. He spent last season at South Carolina, which made the NCAA Final Four last season.

Figgers has a lot to figure out with his new-look team, including himself. He said they basically have 13 new players on this year’s team.

“We lack a lot of things as far as playing together, philosophy and everything, those type of things we have to learn on the fly,” Figger said. “But I’m really excited about the opportunities that we have as a team.”

The challenge is there four Austin Peay to contend in the OVC. The Governors have three seniors, including one graduate student. Despite the lack of experience of everyone playing together, every one is staring on the same page, which may be a plus for Austin Peay in Figgers’ eyes, he said.

“Nobody has any preconceived notions of what to expect,” Figger said. “So every day, everyone has equal footing. Whether it is a senior, freshman, there is equal opportunity.”

On the flip side Tennessee-Martin brings back a squad that has won at least 20 games in the last three seasons. It loses Jacolby Mobley, its leading scorer from 2016-2017, but has four seniors back for this year and two graduate transfers.

The Skyhawks do have nine new players, though. Coach Anthony Stewart plans to lean on senior Matt Butler.

“Matt had an incredible junior season for us last year.,” he said. “He’s really dedicated himself to even having the best season that Matt can have. If he can do that, that is going to be great for Skyhawk basketball and our team. He’s taken pride into his body. He’s added some muscle, some lean, muscle weight.”

The Skyhawks have been picked in the middle of the pack in recent years for the preseason polls even with the 20-win seasons.

“It’ll take a little luck, a little luck doesn’t hurt,” Stewart said. “But in all seriousness, I was on a part of the last three staffs that did it. We just roll up our sleeves and do what we do. We know what we do, we have a formula, we got out and identify kids and players that fit our culture. I think there’s no reason that we can’t contend to win 20 plus this year.”

Besides Butler, Tennessee-Martin also brings back key players in senior Kahari Beaufort and sophomore Mike Fofana, who was injured last year and Fatad Lewis, a junior.

Stewart said he looks tremendous.

As for the nine new guys, Stewart said they are buying into the Tennessee-Martin Culture.

“I think that is why they came here,” Stewart said. “They want to be apart of what we’re building, they’ve seen what we’ve done in the past and they want to be apart of the future. Hats off to those guys that paved the way for that to happen.”

A team like Eastern Kentucky will be looking to rebuild this year and get back to the OVC Tournament after missing last year’s.

Coach Dan McHale said he does know that a complete turnaround takes some time.

“We ran into some adversity last year and I think that really threw us for a loop, but we got stronger as the year went on and everyone really gelled toward the end of the year when we really started to play our best basketball, we just ran out of time,” McHale said. “I return that whole core, plus a slew of freshmen and a junior transfer.”

McHale is confident in this year’s team with All-OVC preseason picks Nick Mayo and Asante Gist leading the way.

“He’s been through the wars,” McHale said of Mayo. “He’s been through two rebuilding years and now we’re ready to go. This team is complete and he’s been one of the most dominant players in the league the past couple years. For him to come in now, he’s got less burden on his shoulders because now he has more guys around him that can really help.”

Also new for the OVC this year is that the tournament is no longer in Nashville, but in Evansville, Ind. and most coaches liked the switch. There are also no more divisions for the OVC.

Sean Hastings can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]