Clarksville, Ark.-A combination of quality depth and the addition of an imposing power forward have the 2002-2003 U of O men's basketball squad aiming for their fifth consecutive trip to the American Southwest Conference playoffs and a chance at the ASC East Division title.
The Eagles, who finished 14-12 a year ago, return a number of talented players this season, but may have added the missing piece to the puzzle in Henderson State transfer Michael Bollman. "I think one of our overall strengths on the team will be our depth," said head coach Matt O’Connor, who begins his second year at the helm of the Eagles. "There is not much of a difference in our players from the top of the roster to the bottom. This will allow us to have several different starting lineups." With the addition of the 6-7, 235-pound Bollman, who led Clarksville High School to two state championships, O’Connor believes the Eagles have landed an enormous talent. "Michael will definitely make a big impact for us," said O’Connor. "He’s a very skilled player. He can step out and shoot it, make some moves off the dribble, plus he has a power low post game. At our level that’s difficult to find. He has all the qualities you want in a player." The Eagles return two starters, including 6-2 junior guard Mandrell Howell, an ASC All-East division second team pick last year and 6-1 senior guard Ricky Johnson, an honorable mention ASC All-East division pick a year ago. Howell led the team in scoring (14.9), rebounding (5.9) and steals (35) last season while Johnson led the team in three-pointers (50) and averaged 11.9 points per game. "Mandrell has taken a lot of steps in becoming a good leader for us," said O’Connor. "He’s brings a certain toughness and competitiveness that has allowed him to be a very effect leader and I’m really looking for Ricky to have a big year. He’s a battle-tested veteran who has made a lot of improvement with his injured knee." Bollman, along with Howell and Johnson, provide for a much more balanced inside-outside attack than a year ago. "I think we will have a better inside, outside balance," said O’Connor. "Looking at our roster, it’s obvious we’ve gotten a lot bigger inside. We’ve got more strength and power inside and I think our wings will be as strong as anybody in the conference. But I think we are still trying to find our identity as a team. We’ve got nine new players in key roles. They’re trying to figure out how to work together and how to get everyone on the same page." The Eagles will need to find a replacement for guard Brent Johnson, who is out for the season with torn cartilage in his knee. Returning lettermen V.J. Akers, Reggie Brasfield and Shane Norrid will be expected to take up some of Johnson’s scoring slack. Numerous freshmen are expected to fill key roles this season, with guards Brad Johnson (Ozark), Joshua Joyner (Little Rock), Scott McCall (Albuquerque, NM) and Jacob Sibley (Searcy) adding depth to an already solid guard rotation. Post players Richard Jordan (Little Rock) and Chris Popham (Cabot) will add strength and size to the Eagles’ inside game and forwards David Hamilton (Mulberry) and David Pridgin (Scranton) bring versatility to the wing position. The Eagles, who were picked to finish second in the coaches preseason poll, used a late surge to get into the playoffs last season and nearly pulled off an upset against host team McMurry University. The Eagles were defeated 93-87, but gained valuable momentum going into this season. "The conference playoffs left a positive taste in the mouths of our returning players," said O’Connor. "It made the team hungry." The Eagles will find out just how competitive they may be when they begin the season in the North Central College tournament in Naperville, Illinois. "Our schedule is a big step up from last year," said O’Connor. "We will know right away from that tournament and our game against University of Missouri-Rolla what kind of team we’ve got. Our schedule will be a real challenge for us. But that’s want we want. We want to be challenged and toughened up for conference play." The Eagles first home game will be on November 30 against Hardin-Simmons University.