A year ago, the Gamecocks were ineligible to play in the OVC tournament as part of the sanctions for a poor Academic Progress Rate history, which wasn't of their doing.
That meant the teams in the league had to play them during the season, but didn’t have to worry about them spoiling their postseason dreams. The games impacted their position in the standings and potentially their tournament seed, but they could make up for any damage the Gamecocks caused them in the conference tournament.
Now free of those sanctions, coach James Green’s Gamecocks can play in the OVC tournament and contend for an NCAA berth as much as any of the league favorites and can’t be considered just another game on the schedule any more.
“We were glad they were ineligible last year for the tournament because I feel (Green) is an outstanding coach and he gets his guys to play as hard as anybody in the league,” said Dickie Nutt, coach of West Division co-favorite Southeast Missouri. “I thought they were very dangerous last year. I think they will be very dangerous this year.
“They just … ambush people. They just kind of lie low, take that very laid back, humble approach until you meet them on the floor and then it’s 40 minutes of just chaos. They’ll be in the mix of things again.”
The Gamecocks were hit with the sanctions because of multiple years of APR shortcomings created by the teams of the previous coaching staff. They also lost practice time and games off their schedule.
In spite of the circumstances, they went 17-11 and would have been formidable in postseason play. It was the second-best record of their Division I history. They beat perennial league powers Austin Peay and Murray State along the way.
On Tuesday, they were installed as the No. 4 pick in the OVC East by the league’s coaches and publicists, a pick Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer predicted would be “well below where they wind up finishing.”
“James Green did one of the best coaching jobs in the OVC last year,” Neubauer said. “It’s very hard at times to motivate guys if they’re not playing for postseason possibilities. They had none and still had a 17-win season, guarded the heck out of people and won games. I think they will be even better this year.”
The pick isn’t so much an indictment on the Gamecocks, who feature preseason All-OVC guard Brian Williams among three return starters and eight returning lettermen, as perhaps a testament to the strength of their division as a whole. EKU was picked to win the division, 12 points and 12 first-place votes ahead of Belmont. JSU was two points behind third-place Morehead State.
Green has never been one to concern himself with the preseason polls. In fact, he noted, the Gamecocks have become “accustomed to trying to play past where you’re picked.”
The Gamecocks made a case for themselves as a factor in the league a year before the sanctions hit when they made the tournament and beat Austin Peay in the opening round.
Because they weren’t eligible for postseason play, they weren’t included in last year’s predicted order of finish, but they were considered a middle-of-the-division team by most of the national publications.
A year ago the JSU players often spoke wistfully at the height of their success of what they believed the team could have done if they made the tournament. This year, they are motivated to get there.
“The one thing I really liked about who we’ve been since I’ve been here is not only have we had some guys who helped us correct what was wrong away from the court, they’ve gone and tried to be competitive and lay a foundation of who we can be on the court,” Green said. “I think we’ve had carryover every year even though sometimes our record didn’t indicate that carryover.
“As a coach I saw us be more competitive, our habits change and in the last two years I’ve seen that escalate, and I’m seeing that again this year. We have a number of guys who went through some pain not being able to play in a tournament. I think our guys want to be a part of it.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star. OVC MEN'S ORDER OF FINISH
(first place votes in parenthesis)
Eastern Kentucky (18), 128 points
Belmont (6), 116
Morehead State, 74
Jacksonville State, 72
Tennessee State, 60
Tennessee Tech, 42
Southeast Missouri (13), 117
Murray State (11), 117
Austin Peay, 90
UT Martin, 66
Eastern Illinois, 58
SIU Edwardsville, 44
OVC WOMENS ORDER OF FINISH
(first place votes in parenthesis)
Tennessee Tech (12), 119
Belmont (9), 115
Eastern Kentucky (3), 95
Morehead State, 66
Tennessee State, 65
Jacksonville State, 32
UT Martin (22), 132
SIU Edwardsville (2), 103
Eastern Illinois, 85
Murray State, 68
Southeast Missouri, 61
Austin Peay, 42