- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Austin Peay motivated by disappointment AP Photo/Jack DempseyDave Loos had little to cheer about in the last two games against Eastern Kentucky and Air Force.
The very first thundercrack of heartbreak in Championship Week 2007 occurred on Saturday night at the Gaylord Arena in downtown Nashville. The Austin Peay Governors, in the shiny white home jerseys they had earned the right to wear by winning the Ohio Valley regular-season championship, crumpled to the court in crushed heaps, victims of a 63-62 title game upset to Eastern Kentucky.
The second-seeded Colonels -- a squad Austin Peay had swept in the regular season -- danced instead, thanks to a running layup by then-freshman Josh Taylor with 2.9 seconds remaining. As Eastern Kentucky cut down the nets, the 21-win Govs slouched up I-24 back to their Clarksville, Tenn. home, destined for a ferocious NIT pounding at Air Force.
"It was disappointing, more of a disappointment than anything," said Governors head coach Dave Loos. "We certainly have a lot of respect for Eastern Kentucky, but we were so focused on making it through that tournament and going to the NCAA. Our team came up a point short.
"But I think that once we got over that disappointment, then that was replaced with resolve to try to do something about this."
Recent history has shown that if you're a No. 1 seed from a one-bid league that's been denied an NCAA bid in dramatic fashion -- and you have a lot of players coming back -- you tend to return angry and finish the job: take Davidson in 2005 or Oral Roberts and Northwestern State in 2006.
So, will the rest of the OVC get any pardons from these Governors in 2007-08? Don't bet your top hat and monocle on it.
Austin Peay's top returnee is Drake Reed, a dynamic 6-foot-5 junior who's developed a high comfort level in the paint with deft footwork and a nifty soft hook. Last season saw the dramatic rise of Reed, who as a sophomore nearly doubled his scoring average to 15.8 ppg and emerged as the definitive go-to Gov.
"He's very intent on building on [last season]," said Loos of his star small forward. "Drake is a guy with great work habits. He stays at it every day, 365 days a year. He rarely takes any time off. He's very intent on continuing to improve and continuing to get better."
And this season might see a similar breakout from Wes Channels. The 6-3 guard tallied seven points per game in steadily increasing minutes as a freshman. He scored 14 points in that painful title-game loss and hit two icewater-veined free throws with 22 seconds left that capped a late Govs comeback and gave the team that temporary 62-61 lead.
"Wes is extremely aggressive and competitive," Loos said. "Couple that with his skills, [and] I think he's going to be a real impact guy in this league."
But there's room for improvement, especially in the middle. Loos has several raw big men in the program, but their failure to produce last season led to some ugly games outside the OVC's cozy confines, particularly versus Air Force and in the BracketBusters matchup with Akron.
"I think for us to do what we did last year and take the next step, we do have to have a bigger presence inside," Loos said. "We need some quality minutes per game from [6-8 sophomore] Duran Roberson and [7-foot Lithuanian senior] Tomas Janusauskas. We just need to be a little bigger."
One thing that will definitely be bigger at Peay is the dreams. The young Govs arrived ahead of schedule last season, and the only cure for their disappointment is to erase the memories of that single point, to represent the OVC in the NCAAs for the first time since 2003.
"We were picked sixth in the preseason poll last year, so I think they surprised a lot of people in winning the regular season," Loos said. "But quite honestly, they feel like they left a little undone. We can definitely use that as an incentive to try to get all of that done this year."
Sutton continues recovery
Tennessee Tech head coach Mike Sutton keeps racking up small but rewarding victories on his long road to recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. In March 2005, Sutton was suddenly and unexpectedly stricken with the powerful and paralyzing syndrome, which attacks the peripheral nervous system. He spent the next several months in hospitals completely immobile, losing weight rapidly and only able to blink his eyes to communicate.
Sutton slowly began to retrain every muscle in his body with hours of physical therapy and returned home that November. He made it back to a spot near the sidelines a month later with the help of a motorized wheelchair (with a tiny plastic basketball for a joystick handle). During 2006-07, Sutton was able to reclaim his regular seat at the head of the bench by utilizing a steel-frame walker -- which helped him, among other things, stand up and scream at the officials. Just like in the old days.
"Just standing with the walker is good, as I continue to progress," Sutton said recently. "I'm still going to physical therapy three times a week, trying not to use the wheelchair when I can. When I was down in Disney World recently, I didn't bring the wheelchair and just used the walker. I'm continuing to improve, I'm continuing to get stronger."
The upcoming season will be the next phase of Sutton's recovery, and his goal is to run his team practices using the walker instead of in the wheelchair.
Sure, there may be some adjusted uniform designs and everybody will be a year older, but the rosters in the upcoming Ohio Valley season will look very similar to last season's. Only 29 seniors finished their eligibility across the 11-team league this past spring, and 11 of those come off the rosters of Tennessee-Martin and Tennessee Tech.
"Some people thought the league was down last year. I just thought the league was young," said Austin Peay coach Dave Loos. "Many of the teams' best players were young players. I think that with a year under their belts, these guys are going to be better."
Four squads -- Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, Samford and Southeast Missouri -- lost only a pair of seniors, and Austin Peay and Eastern Illinois return with no eligibility expirations and a minimum of roster turnover.
Close, but no cigar
Eighteen seasons have come and gone since the OVC last scored at the Big Dance -- that's 18 league champions and 18 NCAA losses. Since 1989, when Middle Tennessee State (which has since graduated to the Sun Belt) beat Florida State in a convincing 97-83 upset win at the Nashville subregional, the league has compiled the longest-running streak of first-round futility in Division I.
But despite the conference having received only one single-digit seed in that time (Murray State earned a No. 9 seed in 1998), only a handful of the losses have been true thrashings. A mere six of those 18 OVC first-round losses, including last season's 86-65 dismantling of Eastern Kentucky by North Carolina, have seen margins of 18 points or more. Instead, a fair number of those games have been tantalizing, low-hanging fruit.
Murray State forced Michigan State into overtime in 1990 -- behind Popeye Jones' 37 points -- before losing 75-71, just short of the first-ever 16-over-1 upset. Seven years later, Murray State nearly pulled a 15-over-2 on Duke, falling 71-68. In Southeast Missouri's lone NCAA appearance in 2000, No. 4 LSU had to be rescued with a Brian Beshara 3-pointer with 17 seconds left; the Tigers won 64-61. More recently, Murray fell by just four to UNC in 2006, just two days before George Mason finished the job on the Tar Heels.
* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant
Peay's 24-point NIT elimination at the Air Force Academy wasn't a complete disaster. Dynamic 6-5 swingman Fernandez Lockett tallied 17 points and 10 rebounds in the loss. He notched nine other double-doubles in his junior season -- including three against preseason favorite Samford -- and collected more rebounds (261) than any Gov player in the last decade. The Alabama native made the all-OVC second team for his efforts, and should emerge as a candidate for first-team status in his senior year.
Bad shooting and even worse defense doomed the Panthers to their sixth straight losing season and second straight 20-loss campaign. But coach Mike Miller may have a decent little backcourt brewing. Romain Martin, a 6-3 sophomore, scored 14.8 points per game in his first year, and 5-11 junior Mike Robinson showed the ability to get him the ball in the right place, scoring 10 a contest on his own as well.
Preseason predictions are wrong a lot, but the consensus pick of the eventual OVC champs as eighth-place finishers was a particularly pronounced state of general myopia. Few foresaw that the West Virginia-style system would take hold the way it did in Jeff Neubauer's second season, or the breakout seasons by guard combo Adam Leonard and Mike Rose, who combined for 27.5 points as underclassmen. While the Colonels have to replace sure-handed point guard Julian Mascoll and leading rebounder Michael Brock, Neubauer may already have that production available in-house with Leonard (2.6 apg in 2006-07) and 6-8 senior Darnell Dialls.
A year filled with disciplinary suspensions and bad losses came to a merciful end just shy of the eight-team league tourney because with a 7-13 record in the OVC, the Gamecocks didn't qualify. The team was without 6-7 No. 2 option Dorien Brown for ten games due to a team-rules violation. Then, leading scorer Courtney Bradley (17.0 ppg) ran out of eligibility at the season's close. Is there any hope for Jax State in 2007-08? The answer lies somewhere between Brown's return and a five-man recruiting class that includes three Alabama jucos.
Despite losing 11 of 12 during a six-week stretch and nearly missing out on the OVC field, Morehead State remains an inspiration to 20-loss teams everywhere. MSU grad Donnie Tyndall returned to lead a group of undersize Eagles to an eight-game improvement over a 4-23 disaster the year before. Though Tyndall has to deal with the losses of his top two leading scorers -- both frontcourt players -- he'll bulk up his front line with two newcomers in 6-5 Georgia juco All-American Leon Buchanan and wiry 6-8 New Jersey prep product Kenneth Faried.
Gone is Shawn Witherspoon, the tragic hero of the near-miss loss to North Carolina in the 2006 NCAA first round. However, senior Bruce Carter and junior Tyler Holloway emerged as solid backcourt producers for first-year coach Billy Kennedy. It was a season that was supposed to be all about rebuilding but ended with a solid 13-7 league record. The Racers hope to build on that guard play as well as their status as last season's OVC leaders in nearly every defensive category.
This will be the Bulldogs' final year in the conference, their swan song before joining the SoCon. They'll have to face the year without graduated guard Randall Gulina, who was a rare commodity in a slowdown system. On his way to all-OVC honors and the conference scoring championship, he took 400 shots and made enough of them to average 18 ppg. This campaign should feature a more traditional Princeton-like look centered around 6-10 Travis Peterson (11.3 ppg), with three sophomores being asked to step up in a system where freshmen typically watch and learn.
When OVC veteran Scott Edgar took the reins of last summer, he promised fast and furious, and that's exactly what Redhawks fans got in 2006-07. Southeast Missouri was 17th nationally in terms of speed (75 average possessions per ballgame) but turned the ball over almost a quarter of the time. With a trio of double-digit scorers that was led by senior Brandon Foust (11.7 ppg), it's mostly the same cast as last year. If the Redhawks can keep a better handle on the ball, a quick improvement over a 20-loss season might be on the way.
The Skyhawks have not managed a winning record in the OVC since a 9-7 mark in 1995-96 and have won just 24 road games in the past decade. So an 8-23 (5-15 OVC) season was somewhat of a letdown after UTM's thrilling conference football championship. There's a glimmer of hope, however, for a team that needs improvement in just about every area: The play of Gerald Robinson, a wiry 6-9 senior who can maneuver into the tightest of painted spaces, really stood out last season.
Every year, there are always players who test the NBA draft waters with the intention of gauging pro interest. All told, there were 58 college early-entry candidates. But few were as puzzling as TSU's Bruce Price, a silky 6-2 guard who averaged 15.5 points in his first two seasons. But Price hadn't played a game since Dec. 23, 2005 when he tore his left ACL against Ohio State. And he sat out all of 2006-07 after injuring the same knee in a pickup game. Not surprisingly, Price was one of the 27 college players who withdrew from the draft; now, if he can come back healthy, he's a player of the year candidate in the OVC.
Often overshadowed by the exploits of explosive guards Belton Rivers and Anthony Fisher last season, 2007-08 will be the 6-7 Amadi McKenzie's chance to shine. When the second-team all-OVC selection wasn't breaking backboards, he was leading the Golden Eagles in rebounding (7.8) and leading the entire conference in field-goal percentage (.608). With five graduation losses from last year's 19-win squad, the senior wide-body will have plenty of chances to pound it inside while the young backcourt finds its legs.
Did Austin Peay learn its lesson last year and will the Governors get their revenge?
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Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.