Notebook: Gamecocks assert themselves in OVC men’s basketball


File Photo

Josiah Wallace looks for an open pass during Eastern’s 68-66 overtime victory over Western Illinois in Lantz Arena Nov. 17. Wallace is Eastern’s leading scorer and the seventh-highest scorer in the OVC, averaging 15 points per game.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

Jacksonville State found itself put in third place in two preseason men’s basketball polls, behind last year’s champion Murray State and this year’s favorite Belmont.

But the Gamecocks opened their conference season with a bang and defeated Belmont on the road to upset the preseason favorite.

Though the win appears to be an upset on paper, the Gamecocks are set up to be just as good as Belmont and Murray State.

Jacksonville State head coach Ray Harper had six returning players, five of whom are seniors, and one of whom is a junior.

Three of the returning seniors have been and will be key players for the Gamecock squad.

Jason Burnell returns as the team’s leading scorer in OVC play last year with a 12.3 point per game average, with an 11.2 overall scoring average that was good for second-highest on the team for the season.

Marlon Hunter was the third-highest scorer on the team in both aspects last year, and Christian Cunningham was the third-leading rebounder on the team last season with 6.3 rebounds per game.

Burnell and Cunningham are both Preseason All-OVC picks as well. Cunningham also came into the season on the heels of two program records, for rebounding and blocking, and he has passed both with ease.

He has 103 rebounds this year, and he only needed 60 to tie the previous career rebounding record (679). Cunningham also has 24 blocks this season, and he needed just one to tie the previous career blocks record (162).

Burnell is leading the Gamecocks with 14.1 points per game and 8.7 rebounds per game. Hunter is second in scoring with 12.3 points per game, and Cunningham averages 9.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Also helping the offense are two players who were at Jacksonville State last year, but had to sit the season out due to NCAA transfer rules: Ty Hudson and Detrick Mostella. Hudson averages 10 points per game, and Mostella averages 10.9.

The Gamecocks are also one of the better defensive teams in the OVC, holding opponents to 67.2 points per game, good for second-best in the conference behind Murray State.

Jacksonville State also has the second-best field goal percentage defense in the conference, again behind Murray State.

Jacksonville State is also the fourth-best rebounding team in the OVC, averaging 38.4 rebounds per game.

After opening the conference season with the victory over Belmont, Jacksonville State also went on to defeat Tennessee State on the road.

With the 2-0 start, the Gamecocks are one of four teams (Murray State, Austin Peay and Eastern too) with spotless OVC records so far.

Murray State is right where it has been expected to be, with a high-octane offense led by the second-leading scorer in the conference (Ja Morant-23.3 points per game), and Austin Peay has the fourth-highest scorer in the conference (Terry Taylor-17.1 points per game).

Belmont finds themselves tied with three other teams in the middle of the OVC standings with 1-1 records, bouncing back after the loss to Jacksonville State with a win over Tennessee Tech. The Bruins are led by Dylan Windler, who is the Preseason OVC Player of the Year.

Windler is averaging 18.8 points per game (third in the conference) and 9.2 rebounds per game, the best in the conference.

Four teams are 0-2 to start conference play. The one surprise thus far is Eastern Kentucky, who was projected to finish in the top half of the conference (sixth place) but is one of the four winless teams.

Dillan Schorfheide can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]