Clarksville, Ark.-University of the Ozarks head men's basketball coach Matt O'Connor faces the unenviable task of replacing four starters, but the sixth-year coach does return one of the league's most productive players and has the momentum of a playoff run last season.
<#IMAGE:1#>The Eagles graduated five seniors, four of which were starters, from last year’s team that ended the regular season in second place in the American Southwest Conference East Division, thus earning a spot in the playoffs for the second straight season. It was the third time Ozarks reached the playoffs under O’Connor. While the new look Eagles will lack experience, there is not a lack of talent, according to O’Connor. “I do think we’ve got some guys with talent and potential, they just lack experience,” said O’Connor, whose team went 14-12 overall and 14-8 in the ASC last season. “It’s one thing to be inexperienced and have players that can’t play at this level. But we have guys that can play at this level. And this year we might have a little more offensive firepower. There’ll just need to get ready in a hurry.” One certainty in the starting lineup will be 6-5 junior forward Habeeb Kareem. Kareem, a two-time All-Conference player, has established himself as one of the ASC’s premier players after averaging a team-best 17.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game last season. He is among the top field goal shooters in NCAA III, hitting nearly 57 percent of his career shots. Last season, he finished seventh in the conference in scoring, sixth in rebounding and tenth in both field goal percentage (53.9%) and free throw percentage (72.8%). He was the only player in the ASC to finish among the top ten in each of those four categories. An ASC All-East Division first team player a year ago, he muscled his way into scoring in double figures in 25 of their 26 games. “He’s an important building block for us,” said O’Connor. “He is a good one to have back because he is such a quality low post scorer and rebounder. We will really lean on him for his experience. He has already had a lot of success in his career.” Helping Kareem at the forward position will be two players who saw considerable action last season. Junior forward Chris Clark started in 12 games a year ago, averaging 5.9 points and 2.7 rebounds per contest. The 6-6 swingman is one of the most athletic players in the ASC, and can electrify a crowd with a dunk. Clark scored ten or more points in five games. Junior forward Clint McHenry started in two games last season, averaging 4.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. The 6-5 aggressive McHenry had a 10-point, 7-rebound effort against Sul Ross State. “Chris has improved tremendously over the last two years,” said O’Connor, whose team went 10-1 at home last season. “His athleticism and scoring ability really help us at times to break through in a tight game. He can certainly impact a game offensively. Clint, too, will help us this year. We will rely on him as a team leader. We want to take advantage of his low post skills. He is a guy that night in and night out is our hardest worker and as consistent as anybody we have.” Sophomores Chris Williams, Martel Broughton and Tony Daniels provide the Eagles with athleticism and additional experience at the forward position. O’Connor will need to find replacements for last season’s strong defensive backcourt. The Eagles’ stock of returning guards include shooting guard Ted Beard, and point guards Jeremy Clark and Tony Brock. Beard played in all 26 games and averaged 3.2 points per game, with outbursts of 11 points on two different occasions. Clark averaged over five minutes per game a year ago and Brock saw action in 12 games. “I think the guard position starts with Ted at off guard,” said O’Connor. “I believe he is poised to have a breakout year. He can catch and shoot and shoot it off the dribble. We’ll have Jeremy Clark, Tony Brock and Bo Martin at point guard. Where point guard is our biggest question mark now, I’m hoping by the end of the year we will have three guys that can put pressure on our opponents. We will be able to throw a quality player at our opponent with our depth.” The overall athleticism of the team is a strength, according to O’Connor, and something they can use to make another run at the playoffs. “This is the most athletic team I’ve had here,” said O’Connor. “We hope that means we can play some quality defense, and can create some offensive opportunities with our defensive pressure. We hope that we can get up and down at a quick pace and that our athleticism will have an impact on the boards. We’ll need to keep proper balance and push the ball more to get some of our athletes in space to make plays.” “We have fostered a tradition of going to the playoffs and we hope to continue to do that,” said O’Connor. “It is another year where the league is wide open. If we can work together to get through playing a tough opponent in a hostile environment, we can have a lot of success in the league. This team has to learn to roll with the punches and stay focused.”