OVC women’s basketball conference preview

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Grace Lennox cuts into the lane in a game last season against Bradley during her senior season. Lennox got hurt and redshirted, and will return to the Panthers for a fifth year as the team’s top player.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

Belmont women’s basketball was picked once again to finish first in the Ohio Valley Conferene preseason coaches’ poll, coming as little surprise to anyone. After an 18-0 finish last season and a conference tournament victory, Belmont received 20 first-place votes to once again win the OVC.

But with that said, Belmont head coach Bart Brooks, now in his second season with the program, recognizes that nothing in the OVC is a given, and that his team is going to have to work hard to keep their spot at the top of the conference.

Underneath his squad, teams like Jacksonville State and Morehead State feel they have a real chance to make noise in the conference. Other team like Tennessee Tech, Tennessee State and Eastern are returning troves of young talent to the court in programs many coaches around the conference feel are quickly ascending the conference ladder.

Preseason all-conference player selections:

G Darby Maggard, Belmont

G Miranda Crockett, Morehead State

G Tesia Thompson, Southeast Missouri

G Jenny Roy, Belmont

G Grace Lennox, Eastern

F Tia Wooten, Tennessee State

F Mackenzie Coleman, Tennessee Tech

F Chelsey Perry, Tennessee-Martin

 

Preseason coaches’ poll results: team-by-team breakdown:

1.      Belmont (31-4, 18-0 OVC in 2017-2018)

Every team in the OVC is chasing this Belmont team which won a conference record 31 games last season, and rightfully so.  

The Bruins return this season with the conference’s preseason player of the year in guard Darby Maggard, who averaged 16.6 points per game last season, alongside fellow all-conference selection Jenny Roy. Roy, a forward for the Bruins, averaged 7.8 points per game last year and led the team with 8.2 rebounds per game. The Bruins are returning eight total players.  

Brooks recognizes his team in a spot that every other team in the conference envies to be in, but Brooks also tries to not live to much through his team’s past accomplishments  

“We don’t approach anything we do like we have done anything,” Brooks said. “Because this year we have to start from ground zero and everyday we come to practice we have to try our best to get better in whatever we’re working on. Our focus is really in the daily process.” 

Maggard’s selection as the preseason player of the year, like her team’s selection, came as no surprise to anyone. But both her selection and her team’s are still things she realizes need to be proven on the court now. 

“We really take to heart that we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Maggard said. “We have a clean slate and every single day we have to show up and work like we want to accomplish something and so that’s our mindset and its just a day by day process.” 

Maggard views her selection as preseason conference player of the year the same way; a day by day process.  

“I just want to go out there and compete and do the very best that I can do to help my team win and whatever that looks like is what I am going to do,” Maggard said. “Im excited, I think we have a really good team and my teammates are working really hard and I am excited to get out there and play.”

 

2.      Tennessee-Martin (19-15, 13-5 OVC in 2017-2018) 

The Skyhawks are returning just two starters from last season’s highly successful squad, and one of those starters is not guard Kendall Spray, who led the team with 16.7 ppg last season, after she chose to transfer out of the program.  

So why are the Skyhawks ranked so high by the OVC coaches? Tennessee-Martin head coach Kevin McMillan felt a lot of it has to do with the team’s success in recent season, more so than the team he is bringing to the court this year. Even McMillan himself questioned the poll.

“You have two starters back out of your top five, you return 40 percent of your offense, you return five total players, you’ve got seven years of college experience. You think you ought to be second in any league?” McMillan said. 

The Skyhawks do return Chelsey Perry and Emanye Robertson, both players who averaged over 10 ppg last season.  

“We have always been very fortunate that there has always been someone that has filled that role (of leaving players),” McMillan said. “I don’t who its going to be. It may be by committee, there may be some kids that rise up and can do it. We’ll just have to watch the preseason and see how they do it.”

 

3.      Jacksonville State (19-12, 12-6 OVC)

The number one ranked defensive team for four years in a row in the OVC got some love from its peers in the coaches’ poll as the Gamecocks, led by head coach Rick Pietri, were selected third in the preseason coaches’ poll. 

The Gamecocks return three starters to the team that set the program record for wins in a season.  

Pietri felt that with Belmont graduating what he believed to be two of the conference’s top five players last season in Sally McCabe and Kylee Smith, it is now time for either Belmont to fall to the rest of the league’s level or for the rest of the league to rise to them.  

“For the rest of us to have a chance to win a title, we have to unseat them,” Pietri said. 

To have a shot at taking down Belmont, Pietri knows his team has to be as good defensively as they were a year ago but also “have better results offensively.’ 

To help with the offensive development, the Gamecocks will look to sophomore Taylor Hawks, who averaged 8.3 ppg as a freshman, to develop. 

“If we can have an uptick in who we were as an offensive team, yet maintain who we are defensively, then I think that that gives us a chance to compete for a title, but that is yet to be determined,” Pietri said.

 

4.      Morehead State (21-11, 12-6 OVC) 

The Eagles are losing and returning exactly seven players from last season’s team that lost in the first round of the OVC tournament.  

Preseason all-conference selection Miranda Crockett returns for Morehead State along with head coach Greg Todd in his fifth season in control of the Eagles.  

Morehead State is as well of a respected program as there is right now in the OVC, as evidenced by its fourth-place selection in the coaches’ poll and third place selection in the media poll.

 

5.      Southeast Missouri (14-17, 9-9 OVC) 

Redhawks head coach Rekha Patterson felt that her team’s fifth place selection was about right in this season’s OVC, but was also excited to see where her team could climb with the return of all-conference guard Tesia Thompson alongside teammate Adrianna Murphy.  

Thompson led her team in scoring last season, averaging 12.8 ppg as a freshman and Murphy was not far behind with 9.8 ppg. Thompson however made major strides in the offseason through work in the weight room and could be one of the most dangerous sophomores in the league this season.  

“The biggest jump I feel like (Thompson) has made has been in her leadership,” Patterson said. “She has got a voice in that locker room, she’s got a voice on the court and she understands that with being the leading scorer there comes a certain responsibility added.” 

Patterson knows, like many of the conference’s coaches, that preseason ranking have “no bearings” on how the season will turn out.  

Patterson recognizes that Belmont is where it is at because of the talent of their roster, but also feels like the competition in the OVC is getting tighter, giving teams like hers an extra chance at making noise in the tournament.  

“I do think our conference will be even better this year,” Patterson said. “Every game is going to be tough. I think that the teams that were in the bottom of the league last year have gotten better and so those preseason rankings, throw them out.” 

 

6.      Southern Illinois Edwardsville (17-15, 13-5) 

The Cougars and head coach Paula Buscher will have to replace all three of the programs leading three scorer from last season. Lauren White (13.7 ppg), Donshel Beck (13 ppg) and Gwen Adams (7.2 ppg) are all gone from the program.

“Every time someone moves on, another door opens up for others,” Buscher said. “That’s where I feel like we’re at, the door has opened for others. We’ve got several young ladies that are ready to step into those roles, but they’re unproven so what happens is as the games progress that’s what will prove where we’re going to be.” 

Buscher added that players returning like point guard Jay’nee Alston (7 ppg) and Sydney Bauman (6.1 ppg) could be players the Cougars lean on to fill the void left by White, Beck and Adams.  

“We have got Sydney Bauman in the post and Sydney did a great job defensively for us last year, rebounding, blocked shots. We’re going to look for her to score a lot more,” Buscher said. “We’ve got a senior point guard back in Jay’nee Alston who is has just really stepped up in her leadership and her voice and things like that.”

 

 

 

 

7.      Tennessee Tech (7-22, 4-14 OVC)

The Golden Eagles struggled last season thanks to having seven freshmen on the roster, which brought growing pains to the team throughout the season. But this year, all of those freshmen are now sophomores, which is one of the reasons so many people are excited about this Golden Eagles team.  

“It feels good to have 12 returnees back in that locker room and so to actually has some experience you feel like your at a point right now where you’re not just teaching an offense, teaching a defense, you can actually now work on mastering it, so it feels good to be at that point,” head coach Kim Rosamond said. 

Junior Akia Harris (8.6 ppg) is returning for the Golden Eagles along with sophomores Kesha Brady and Jordan Brock, who averaged 10.5 and 11.3 ppg last season as freshman for Tennessee Tech. Along with Eastern’s Taylor Steele and Karle Pace, Brock and Brady formed the conference most dynamic freshman pairing in the conference last season. 

Rosamond says she understands that the team’s 4-14 conference record last season was a result of having such a young team, where three of the top 5 scorers were underclassmen, but says that is too be expected when you take over a program.  

“You always know taking over a program that its going to be baby steps with the process involved,” Rosamond said. “I think our first year obviously you start over as a staff, but we had five seniors that walked across that graduation stage and then brought in nine new players.” 

“So last year I think we were talented, but our youth and inexperience won out,” Rosamond added.

 

8.      Tennessee State (6-21, 4-14)

Tennessee State finds itself in the same boat as both Tennessee Tech and Eastern, last season the Tigers were young and inexperienced with a first-year coach at the helm at it cost them some games.  

This season however, the Tigers are ranked eighth by opposing coaches (they were ranked last one year ago) and head coach Jessica Kern feels the team is moving in the right direction and is “motivated” by the eighth-place selection.

“We’ve made strides since last year and I think the coaches, who I respect tremendously, I think they have seen that, but there is quite a few players that were not on the court last year that you will see this year,” Kern said. “So we’re motivated, I am pretty excited about it.” 

Tennessee State however, has a difference maker on its team that many of the teams picked around them do not have, in redshirt-senior forward Tia Wooten.  

Wooten averaged 21.2 ppg last season on 43 percent shooting from the field. It did not stop with just scoring for Wooten though, she used her six-foot frame to grab 8.9 rebounds per game as well. Wooten’s scoring average was second in the conference by .1 points per game and her rebounding led the league.

“(Wooten brings) leadership number one. Experience number two,” Kern said. “I think she is a chameleon on both ends of the floor. Tia plays 1-4 for us and with a six-foot frame it’s a pro frame. We’re getting her ready for the next level and she knows to whom much is given, much is required. I think she has taken that role very well.” 

Playing the role of one of the best players in the OVC is one that Wooten has still not gotten entirely used to.

“I am still trying to wrap my head around it,” Wooten said. “I try not to think about it, I just try to focus on me and what’s best for my team. So, I try to not let all of that get to me and just continue to play my game, what got me in that position.”

 

9.      Austin Peay (16-14, 9-9 OVC)

A tournament team from a year ago, Austin Peay took a tumble in the coaches’ poll after losing three starters from a year ago, and two of its top three scorers. But, head coach David Midlick’s confidence is unwavering in sight of that.

“Yeah we finished sixth last year and we lost three senior that started so you can say that (ninth place is right for us),” Midlick said. “But from coach (Brooks) at Belmont that has won, down to probably ten, eleven, twelve can say the same thing. You have got to get better each day, you get a chance to prove it, that you’re better or not during the 18-game conference schedule.”

The two big scorers Austin Peay lost from last season are Brianne Alexander (11.7 ppg) and Falon Baker (9.8 ppg). Midlick will rely on senior guard Keisha Gregory to pick up a lot of the production left behind by Alexander and Baker. Gregory averaged 10.1 ppg and six rebound for the Governors last season.

“She is kind of a jack of all trades,” Midlick said. “She shot the ball from over 40 percent from three and 90 percent from free-throw shooting. She can drive a little bit. I obviously for her, and with the injury she has had over her first three years, I want it for her to have a senior year that can remember.”

The Governors have reached the conference tournament every year with Midlick as coach and the expectation this year is no different. Midlick wants to not just make the tournament, but win it.

 

10.  Eastern Kentucky (8-19, 5-13 OVC)

Last season was not a kind one to the Colonels and this season, the OVC coaches did not predict to be any kinder, slotting Eastern Kentucky in at 10th in the poll.

Eastern Kentucky is returning four starters from last season, but is losing eight total players, losing that many contributors left head coach Chrissy Roberts feeling her team’s 10th place selection may have been too high.

“That’s too high,” Roberts said of her team placement. “I think that’s being generous. I think we have a talented group coming back, I am excited about the group, 10th is good for us. I don’t get caught up in numbers too much, but we have nowhere to go but up and so we’re just focusing on getting better everyday.”

Eastern Kentucky will not be helped by the fact that the team’s best player from one year ago, A’Queen Hayes (14.8 ppg) is gone. But, the Colonels do have four very intriguing freshman and one transfer stepping onto the roster this season.

“I am very excited,” Roberts said of the group. “Of course the pace is different, you know the physicality is different, the learning curve is different, but I tell you what the group that we have, they’re very focused. They’re attitudes have been great and they’re working hard for each other, so I  am extremely curious to see. We scrimmage Nov. 2, I am curious to see what that is going to look like.”

 

11.  Eastern (3-26, 2-16)

 

For being ranked 11 out of 12 teams in the poll, no team may have generated as much buzz at media day as Eastern did. The ranking comes from the team’s lack of success last year and the youth of the roster, the buzz however whirls around the “what can be” of the team, the return of all-conference guard Grace Lennox from injury, and the coaching ability of head coach Matt Bollant.

“I don’t know if the players get wrapped up (in the poll) too much. Obviously we are going to be better, we’re hoping a lot better. Time will tell,” Bollant said. “We are certainly going to have a better product. We’re a lot deeper and all the returners are back are better basketball players for sure.”

The returners include a long list of players, some veterans, but many still developing young talents.

Redshirt-senior Grace Lennox is returning after missing most of last season with an injury. Tennessee-Martin head coach McMillan said she is a top five player in the conference when healthy.

Now sophomores, guards Taylor Steele (10.1 ppg) and Karle Pace (8.6 ppg) are returning one year more mature after seeing tons of playing time as freshman.

Juniors Danielle Berry and Jennifer Nehls will both be back also, Berry filled in a lot for Lennox while she was hurt gaining valuable experience and Nehls, Bollant said, has improved her rebounding a lot in the offseason.

The returners, along with a list of exciting newcomers, are what have so many coaches wary of playing Eastern next season, despite its 11th place ranking.

Freshman Kira Arthofer will make an immediate impact to the team according to Bollant. She will be the first player to come off the bench in rotation. Fellow freshman Jordyn Hughes and Abby Wahl have flashed potential also early in camp this year. Wahl is said to already be bench pressing the most weight on the team.

 

12.  Murray State (11-19, 7-11 OVC)

Murray State lost a lot of talent from the team one year ago that made the conference tournament. The Racers return just two starters and lost nine overall players, including the team’s top four scorers. All that roster depletion is why the Racers were selected to finish last in the OVC.

Head coach Rechelle Turner said the last place ranking comes as no surprise to her.

“If I am ranking our team on paper I’d put us last as well,” Turner said. “We have eight new players, only five returning, two players that played any minutes that played any minutes whatsoever, we only have one senior. So, basically just a turnover in roster. So I think we are exactly where I expected us to be. But it just gives us the ultimate bulletin board material.”

The lone returning starters are Brianna Crane (7.2 ppg, 5.7 rebounds) and Janika Griffith-Wallace (5 ppg). Turner will lean on those two to help replace the production left behind by the quartet of Ke’Shunan James, Bria Bethea, Abria Gulledge and Jasmine Boarders.

James led the conference with 21.3 ppg last season and Bethea added 15.6.

“I think we have to continue to grow and learn together and just continue to understand the expectations of our program and where we want to be,” Turner said. “We have a very talented roster, if we can put it together and the effort is there, I think we’ll be able to move up those charts.

 

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]