OVC ShootAround: Hudson returns to take UTM to new heights

Updated: August 12, 2008

AP Photo/Reinhold Matay

Lester Hudson opted out of the NBA draft and will return to UTM for his senior season.

Skyhawks get their star back for one more year

For a split-second there, Tennessee-Martin fans worried that they'd be losing the best basketball player they've ever had, one year too soon.

"I'm going to the NBA," said Lester Hudson, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year at a June 16 press conference, called just a half-hour before the early-entry withdrawal deadline. "Next year."

Tennessee-Martin was among the OVC's biggest underachievers until the 6-foot-3 Memphis native showed up. Transferring in after two years at Southwest Tennessee Community College, the muscular guard helped transform a team that had earned just one winning record at the D-I level before last season.

Hudson, who led the conference in points (25.7 ppg) and steals (2.85 spg), emerged as one of the most explosive talents the league has ever seen. The first of his 11 double-doubles was against eventual national runner-up Memphis last Nov. 5, when he scored 35 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in his first Division I game. And it may have been against a Division II opponent, but Hudson registered the first quadruple-double in Division I history two games later. Against Central Baptist, he registered 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals.

His junior-year résumé was enough to draw interest from NBA teams, so he submitted his name for the June draft after the season. He worked out at the Pre-Draft Camp in Orlando, and privately for a number of teams including the Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets. When scouts and GM's projected him to go in the guaranteed contract-free zone of the second round, he pulled his name off the board and decided to return to school.

Hudson will come back as the nation's second leading scorer (behind Davidson's Stephen Curry), and will work to showcase his talents further before next summer's workout tour.

We belong now, and there's a belief that we finally do belong as one of the top teams in the OVC.

--UTM coach Bret Campbell

"The biggest thing is that whatever team does pick Lester, I hope that they realize what he is," said UTM head coach Bret Campbell. "He is a true combo scoring guard. A lot of people from the NBA want to pigeonhole him into being just a point guard, a lot of the people in Orlando wanted to see him run a team. But he can really score points in bunches, do anything it takes to win a ballgame. If you put him out on any floor, he'll produce."

He wasn't the only big-time producer for the Skyhawks last season. A national press corps blinded by Hudson's stellar numbers last season may have missed out on the 6-1 newcomer who punished opponents for double-teaming him. Marquis Weddle earned OVC Freshman of the Year honors after scoring 17.1 ppg, including a career high 39 in the conference quarterfinal (on 14-for-28 shooting) against Samford.

"He was definitely overshadowed by Lester, but a lot of people don't realize that Marquis was one of the top freshman scorers in the nation," said Campbell. "When you have two guys like Marquis and Lester in your backcourt, it gives you a chance every night."

The talent level of the 2007-08 UTM squad gave the program chances that it had never had before. The Skyhawks took their No. 4 seed (the school's best ever) into the OVC semis, where they traded leads with regular-season champs Austin Peay. Hudson scored 31 points and Weddle added 20, but the Governors' Drake Reed nailed a free throw to break a 77-77 tie with two seconds remaining in regulation.

"When we got into the locker room that night, you could see the disappointment on their faces," Campbell recalled. "We belong now, and there's a belief that we finally do belong as one of the top teams in the OVC.

"We knew how close we were to playing in the NCAA tournament. These guys are so hungry to come back."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Redhawks recovery
Southeast Missouri was the hottest team in the league when conference play began. With a physical, attacking style of ball, the Redhawks won their first six league games, outrebounding their opponents by an average of eight boards per contest. A team that plays in a building called the Show-Me Center looked poised to show fans its first OVC regular-season banner since 2000.

But things went horribly wrong in a hurry. After notching four double-doubles in six games, starting senior big man Brandon Foust suffered a knee injury in mid-January that ended his college career. SEMO won just a single game (a 121-116 3OT thriller against eventual champs Austin Peay on Jan. 29) after that. Fourteen losses in their final 15 contests meant that Scott Edgar's Redhawks missed the 11-team league's eight-team tournament, finishing three full games out of the No. 8 spot.

"Eighty percent of what happened was due to losing Brandon," said Edgar. "He was our best player, a real point forward. He commanded double teams, and was able to unselfishly find guys open. At that point, he was building himself a résumé as a player of the year candidate."

Adding penalty to injury, the Cape Girardeau, Mo. school was hit with NCAA sanctions in June. The women's team, one of the OVC's powers, was forced to forfeit 44 victories from 2004 through 2006. The men's team was placed on two years' probation for secondary violations, as former head coach Gary Garner's staff was found to have provided benefits and travel expenses to three ineligible transfer students.

Glass slipper?
Austin Peay's 74-54 loss to Texas was the latest in a long series of NCAA first round exits for Ohio Valley teams. This season will mark the 20th anniversary of the conference's most recent tournament win, Middle Tennessee State's shocking 97-83 victory over Florida State in a No. 4-vs.-No. 13 game back in 1989. Nineteen straight pumpkins at the Big Dance gives the OVC the nation's longest active NCAA losing streak. Could this be the year when the conference's two decades of misery end?

Granted, conference tourney champions have drawn some of the nation's top teams during that stretch, with an average seed number of 14. But winning this league has proven to be a good way to capture the attention of the higher levels. Among the coaches who have won OVC championships and gone on to power-conference jobs are current Oklahoma State bench boss Travis Ford (Eastern Kentucky 2005), Mick Cronin of Cincinnati (Murray State 2006) and Alabama's Mark Gottfried (Murray State 1997 and 1998).

And it remains a real coach's league. Seven current OVC head coaches have led teams to the NCAA tournament.

"That's 70 percent of our conference," said Southeast Missouri's Edgar, who won league titles in 1992 and 1995 at Murray. "It may not have been in the OVC, but it might have been elsewhere. I don't think that a lot of leagues classified as 'mid-major' can say that. We simply have coaches in this league who know how to run winning programs."

On the rise
Tennessee State took a No. 6 seed into the 2008 OVC tournament with a 10-10 conference record, and had to visit No. 3 Morehead State in the campus-site first round. Not only did the Tigers leave town with a 68-61 upset victory, they went on to shock the league's No. 2 team as well. An 83-75 win in the semifinals over Murray State put TSU in the nationally-televised conference championship game, which the upstart Tigers lost to Austin Peay by 22.

The run to the title game took the school, out on spring break at the time, by complete surprise. Tennessee State is several blocks away from the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, site of the tournament's final two rounds. But TSU could only manage to scrape together an 11-man subsection of its famous "Aristocrats" marching band for the final two rounds, as well as just two cheerleaders.

"It sent a message to our school that this program is on a positive upswing," said sixth-year TSU head coach Cy Alexander, who previously led South Carolina State to five NCAA tournaments. "We're looking to take the next step this year."

Donnie Tyndall took over his alma mater, Morehead State, and its broken program in the summer of 2006, one that had finished just 4-23 the previous season. Morehead tripled its win total to 12 in Tyndall's first year, and continued a steady upswing in 2007-08. A 15-15 finish last year meant Morehead was one of only four league teams with an overall record of .500 or better. The Eagles opened 10-0 at home, then claimed a No. 3 seed in the OVC tourney with a 12-8 conference mark before Tennessee State outsted them from the playoffs.

Tyndall was an Eagle letterman in the early 1990's, and met his wife Christi at Morehead State. A former assistant at LSU, his two-year record represents the best start for an OVC head coach since the 1970's. If he can keep the momentum going and bring an NCAA bid back to Morehead, Ky. (pop. 5800), he'll be a hometown hero for a lifetime.

"Our attendance has gone up the last two years," said Tyndall. "There's a real buzz about the program now. I really believe there's a renewed pride in the program, and I think part of it is because I'm so excited and proud to be back here. In a small community like Morehead, people want to see that you're grateful for the opportunity you've been given, and the staff and I certainly are."

Moving pieces
Samford declared its intention to leave the Ohio Valley for the higher profile Southern Conference last spring. On July 1 of this year, the Bulldogs' move was made official.

The league didn't wait for Samford to exit before naming a replacement school. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville was granted the OVC's 11th spot on June 10, but SIUE (not to be confused with the SIU Salukis of the Missouri Valley) has to wait for a while to join its new leaguemates on the hardcourt. The school is in its second year of a transition from Division II to Division I, and even though the Cougars will play a full D-I schedule this season, they won't play a home-and-home OVC schedule until 2011-12. SIUE won't be eligible for the OVC or the NCAA tournaments until the following year.

In the meantime, the OVC will have an even set of 10 members for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.


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2008-09 Team Capsules

Ohio Valley
Austin PeayAustin Peay
The OVC champions are all about 3's, ball control and forced turnovers, but they lost three key backcourt contributors to the cap and gown. This year's version will feature a young and retooled guard group, highlighted by Justin Blake, a 6-2 local product who should contribute right away at the two. Also watch for burgeoning point guards Tyrone Caldwell and James Harris, who should both see significant playing time for the new Gov generation.

EIUEastern Illinois
Charleston winters have been extra-cold for Panther fans lately -- no winning seasons since the 2000-01 squad that made the NCAA's, and nary an appearance in the OVC's eight-team tourney since 2005. And with the loss of three seniors and over 20 points of production, an improvement over last year's 7-22 (6-14 OVC) season would seem unlikely. But Mike Miller is putting a lot of faith in newcomer Will Hamilton, a 6-3 shooting guard from Indiana who can shoot well off the dribble.

EKUEastern Kentucky
Seven has turned into a very unlucky number for Jeff Neubauer's team. A seven-game drop to 14-16 followed the seven-game improvement that enabled a 2007 OVC title. EKU also lost seven home games, most since the 2000-01 season. Then starting point guard Adam Leonard (11.9 ppg) transferred to Missouri State after his sophomore season. The Colonels hope late juco transfer Dayvon Ellis will be able to handle running Neubauer's West Virginia-style spread offense.

JSUJacksonville State
A 7-22 (5-15 OVC) season led to a farewell handshake for head coach Mike LaPlante, and turnaround artist James Green takes over. Green led Mississippi Valley State to the SWAC championship in March two years after a 9-19 finish, and Gamecock fans hope he can work similar magic in the shadow of Alabama's Choccolocco Mountain. There's some young talent to work with, like returning leading scorer Nick Murphy (13 ppg, 5.7 rpg), a 6-4 sophomore, and raw 6-10 junior giant Amadou Mbodji (team-high 5.9 rpg).

MSUMorehead State
In their attempt to move higher on the OVC ladder, the Eagles are importing 6-8 Devon Carter from Georgia. The freshman PF, rated by Scouts Inc. as the top big-man prospect of any incoming OVC class, leads a seven-man influx of newcomers. Carter will mix with key frontcourt returnees such as 6-5 senior Leon Buchanan (13.2 ppg) and 6-8 sophomore Kenneth Faried (10.5 ppg, team-leading 8.0 rpg) to form the league's best forward corps.

MSUMurray State
Last year's Racers took a step towards reasserting themselves as the power that's won seven league titles in 12 years, turning the Regional Special Event Center back into a not-so-special place for visitors. But the 14-2 home record was offset by a road mark of 4-9, Murray's worst in a decade. With the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Bruce Carter (14.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg), the two returning double-figure guards (Danero Thomas and Tyler Holloway) will jump into leadership roles as newly-minted upperclassmen.

SEMSUSE Missouri State
SEMO will try to put last season's stunning late collapse behind it, but two double-figure point producers are in the rearview mirror too: Roderick Pearson and Brandon Foust (combined 21.8 ppg). Jaycen Herring (13.1 ppg), a 6-5 former Chattanooga transfer, shot 50.6 percent from the floor in 2007-08 and will return for a senior season. An intriguing Redhawk prospect with instant-impact potential is Stuart Pirri, a 6-8, 175-lb. small forward who hails from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

TSUTennessee State
Former Tiger Bruce Price always had his sights set high, that's for sure. The playmaker "tested the waters" last summer despite not having played for a year and a half, due to a torn ACL and injured knee. As a junior in 2007-08, he was TSU's top scorer at 17.6 ppg and led his team to the doorstep of the NCAA tournament. But with a year of eligibility remaining, he declared he was leaving school to turn pro. Price was not selected in June's NBA Draft.

TTUTennessee Tech
Despite a 10-10 record in the OVC, the Golden Eagles were the best rebounding team in the league with 34.4 per game. And while they lose the highly productive inside-outside duo of Anthony Fisher and Amadi McKenzie (combined 31.6 ppg), 6-9 glass-cleaner Daniel Northern (12.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg) will be returning as a senior. Coach Mike Sutton hopes to build a new backcourt with freshmen Zach Bailey and Kevin Murphy, imported from the deep South.

The Skyhawks struck juco gold when they acquired all-everything Lester Hudson, and they hope they've done so again with Dominique Mpondo, a Cameroonian by way of France and Eastern Oklahoma State College. Already a minor YouTube star for his shot-blocking prowess, he stands 6-10, weighs 240 lbs., and will have two years of eligibility remaining.

If I were OVC commish …

By Andy Katz

The Ohio Valley Conference is proposing that beginning in 2009-10, its teams can play only two guaranteed road games in the nonconference. If the conference can pull that off, it will do wonders for the league.

Playing more home-and-home series with similar conferences will ultimately help create more of a competitive balance for the league. The Ohio Valley isn't going to get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament field. This is more about improving the conference's RPI and ensuring the best teams have the better records come March.

2007-08 Ohio Valley Standings

Overall record Ohio Valley record
Austin Peay* 24-11 16-4
Murray State 18-13 13-7
Morehead State 15-15 12-8
Tennessee-Martin 17-16 11-9
Tennessee State 15-17 10-10
Tennessee Tech 13-19 10-10
Eastern Kentucky 14-16 10-10
Southeast Missouri State 12-19 7-13
Eastern Illinois 7-22 6-14
Jacksonville State 7-22 5-15
*NCAA tournament

For all the Ohio Valley news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Lester Hudson, UT-Martin, Sr. 25.7
Marquis Weddle, UT-Martin, Soph. 17.1
Mike Rose, Eastern Kentucky, Sr. 15.3
Gerald Robinson, Tennessee State, Soph. 15.2
Drake Reed, Austin Peay, Sr. 14.4

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Daniel Northern, Tennessee Tech, Sr. 9.3
Kenneth Faried, Morehead State, Soph. 8.0
Lester Hudson, UT-Martin, Sr. 7.8
Jerrell Houston, Tennessee State, Sr. 6.1
Leon Buchanan, Morehead State, Sr. 6.1

Top Returning Assist Leaders

Player RPG
DeAndre Bray, Jacksonville State, Sr. 6.4
Kevin Thomas, Murray State, Sr. 4.5
Lester Hudson, UT-Martin, Sr. 4.5
Carlos Wright, UT-Martin, Sr. 3.4
Jonathan Toles, Jacksonville State, Sr. 3.2

Final Shots

The Ohio Valley may not be known as a basketball powerhouse, but Murray State's consistency over the years earned the Racers a No. 30 ranking in ESPN.com's Prestige Rankings of all Division I programs since the 1984-85 season. Prestige Rankings

Can the Ohio Valley representative in the NCAA tournament avoid a No. 1 seed in the first round? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.