A year ago, the OVC coaches and media picked Murray to win the league, and the choice was based largely on reputation. This year, call coach Mick Cronin’s team the favorite again, and he believes it’ll be “a little more deserving.” The Racers return all five starters and four other lettermen. Their roster runs so deep, in fact, second-leading scorer Darnell Hopkins started only half of their games. Of course, it’s hard to break into the starting lineup when the two regulars are a couple big-school transfers — Trey Pearson (Ole Miss) and Keith Jenifer ( Virginia). Pearson, a Player of the Year candidate, averaged 14.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and nearly four assists in his first OVC season last year. Jenifer, a senior, averaged 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists. Add the other returning starters — Shawn Witherspoon, Justin Orr and Pearson Griffith — along with Hopkins, and the Racers return 49.6 points and 19.8 rebounds per game from their top six players.
2. Eastern Kentucky (22–9, 11–5)
The Colonels return four starters and five of their top seven from a team that set a school-record for wins, won the OVC Tournament and made its first NCAA appearance in 26 years. Among those back are leading scorer Matt Witt (14.4 ppg, 194 assists) and Alonzo Hird, the league’s second-leading rebounder. But they must find an inside presence to replace forward Michael Haney and learn the ways of new coach Jeff Neubauer, a former West Virginia assistant who took over after Travis Ford moved on to UMass.
3. Samford (15–13, 10–6)
The Bulldogs return first-team All-OVC forward J. Robert Merritt (16.5 ppg, .440 from 3-point range), two starting guards and eight lettermen. Their unique offensive style continues to give teams fits, and now they’re accompanying it with a full-time zone defense to further frustrate their foes. The Bulldogs led the OVC in shooting percentage (.503) and had the best scoring defense (62.1 ppg) in the league, though they did allow opponents to shoot 48.2 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from 3-point range.
4. Tennessee Tech (18–11, 12–4)
Tech must replace OVC Player of the Year Willie Jenkins but returns most of last year’s regular-season championship team. The Golden Eagles’ biggest question mark is the status of coach Mike Sutton, who suddenly fell seriously ill in April and remained hospitalized through mid-August. Continuity won’t be a factor, however, as the assistants are running the team while Sutton slowly recovers.
5. Austin Peay (13–19, 9–7)
The Governors always find a way to play their way into the hunt. They may have had their second losing season in four years and worst since 1992-93 — one year removed from going through the league undefeated — but they have played in the OVC Tournament title game each of the last three years and four of the last five. They play the best halfcourt man defense in the league. Zac Schlader (6.8 rpg, 42 blocks) gives the Govs a good anchor in the middle, and the loss of leading scorer Anthony Davis will thrust Maurice Hampton (14.7 ppg) into a bigger leadership role.
6. Jacksonville State (7–22, 2–14)
With a full bank of players, the Gamecocks stand to improve on last year’s record, only two years removed from a 20-win season. By the second half of the year they were down to six scholarship players, but they still beat the top two teams in the league and had Arkansas on the ropes. Walker Russell (14.5 ppg), the OVC’s top assist man (7.3 apg), leads a veteran backcourt, a good thing to have in the grind of a 20-game round-robin league schedule. Forwards Dorien Brown (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Brandon Davis (7.6, 4.7) are two promising young talents.
7. Tennessee State (14–17, 9–7)
The Tigers rivaled Murray State in terms of talent from top to bottom, but TSU produced a rather mediocre 9–7 league record. They were picked second but finished tied for fifth. Still, the Tigers are making tremendous progress under highly respected coach Cy Alexander, who enters his third season in Nashville. The Tigers return 2003-04 Freshman of the Year Bruce Price (13.7 ppg, 3.4 apg) and had a good recruiting year. Their key is finding a way to win on the road, where they were 2–15 a year ago.
8. Tennessee-Martin (6–21, 3–13)
The Skyhawks have the best athlete in the league in Jared Newson, the league’s seventh-leading scorer (15.4) and sixth-leading rebounder (6.8) last year. They also return guard Jeremy Kelly, who averaged 13.8 points and 4.1 boards in 2003-04 but missed all of last season. Two areas that need to be addressed are rebounding and turnover margin — the Skyhawks finished ninth in the league in both categories last season.
9. Morehead State (11–16, 5–11)
The Eagles were among the three teams that didn’t make the postseason tournament last year, and they must now go forward without their best player from a year ago. If they can find a way to replace Chad McKnight (16.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg) inside, there is enough talent remaining to put them in position for a spot in the eight-team OVC Tournament.
10. Eastern Illinois (12–16, 7–9)
New boss Mike Miller, a former Southland Conference Coach of the Year at Southwest Texas State and most recently the associate head coach at Kansas State, may need a year to get things going. The Panthers will rely on 6'8" center George Tandy (5.1 rpg), last year’s OVC Freshman of the Year, and senior guard Josh Gomes (16.8 ppg).
11. SE Missouri (15–14, 9–7)
The Redhawks have some big holes to fill. They must replace their top three scorers, including the OVC’s No. 1 and No. 4 scorers, and the league’s No. 1 and No. 5 rebounders. Veteran coach Gary Garner is hoping to make up the difference with five junior college signees, but SEMO appears destined to take a significant dive in the league standings.