Friday, January 2, 2009

Let the (OVC) games begin

James Green figures his Jacksonville State basketball team got an early leg up on most of the Ohio Valley Conference when the Gamecocks won their OVC opener on the road at Tennessee Tech last month.

But the new JSU coach knows in order to keep that edge from now on, it will be important the Gamecocks defend their home court.

The first chance comes Saturday as they get back in the OVC in earnest against Eastern Illinois at Pete Mathews Coliseum. The game starts an intense run of four games in seven days, the first two of which are at home and the first three are against teams that were picked immediately ahead of the Gamecocks in the preseason conference poll.

The Gamecocks (7-3, 1-0) won their first OVC game under Green last month when they went to Tennessee Tech and, even without leading scorer Brandon Crawford, took out the Golden Eagles, 82-66.

Not only was it a win, it was a win on the road.

“That helped, I think, because it gives us something to talk about,” Green said. “We won our first road game. Now, it’s (about) protecting our home court … And if we’re going to finish somewhere other than tenth, then we better figure out a way to defend our home court.”

When you’re picked last in the preseason poll like JSU was, you have to beat everybody in the league to prove the experts wrong. Not everybody expects the Gamecocks to finish last. At least one preseason magazine picked them to finish ahead of Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri.

But those are the three teams picked immediately ahead of the Gamecocks in the preseason poll and just happen to be three of the teams JSU plays on this four-game gauntlet - No. 9 EIU (Saturday), No. 8 SEMO (Monday), No. 7 EKU (Thursday).

“It’s so early in terms of having to win this particular game, and I don’t want to single a team out that we need to finish ahead of right now because we don’t know how it’s going to shake out,” Green said. “Obviously when you look at the standings, most of the time if you’re picked tenth, you’re going to kind of ignore those top three and you’re going to concentrate on those other seven and see how can I get into being in the top five out of the next seven.”

That’s where beating Tennessee Tech on the road helps them. They got a win on the road, and a win against a team picked ahead of them. Austin Peay got an even bigger jump, winning both its OVC December games on the road. No one else in the league did better than a split.

As the Gamecocks head into conference play, they will be looking for improvement in two specific areas -- offensive rebounding and changing ends of the floor.

They are currently second in the league in defensive rebounds, but only fifth when it comes to grabbing their own misses (12.5). They’re averaging only 13 second-chance points a game, 11 against their Division I opponents.

The improvement on changing ends relates to all five players getting up the floor at the same time. Once the Gamecocks get past what Green called “some nick-knack injuries”, they hope to play a rotation of eight or nine players in order to be fresher in the final five minutes of the game.

“We have a tendency to run when we think we’re going to get the ball and when we don’t, we kind of wait,“ Green said. “What happens is you eat up your shot clock. We want to put the pressure on (opponents) every time.“

Regarding the injuries, freshman forward Stephen Hall practiced Friday and Green said “chances are he will play some minutes.” Hall didn’t play in the Berry game because of a leg injury. He is averaging 7.2 points and 5.3 rebounds.

Junior forward Jacques Leeds didn’t practice Friday because of a left shoulder injury and his status for the EIU game, Green said, is “up in the air.” Leeds could show enough improvement in Saturday’s game-day practice to play.

“He has another opportunity to see what he can do,“ Green said. “If he can’t, it gets a little bit slimmer he won’t play. And if we can play without him we will, too, simply because it gives him more time to recover.”

Leeds is averaging 3.0 points and 1.8 rebounds, but had nine points and five rebounds in 16 minutes against Berry in the absence of Hall and Amadou Mbodji’s foul trouble.

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