Clarksville, Ark.-The U of O men's basketball team has apparently gained a great respect from opposing American Southwest Conference coaches.
Ozarks lost four starters to graduation and are under the reign of a new coaching staff but were still voted to finish third in the conference’s coaches’ preseason poll. “That was a curious ranking for us since we lost four starters and a new coach is on hand,” said head coach Matt O’Connor, who coached at NCAA II Colorado School of the Mines before coming to Ozarks. “We are going to work hard and see where we fall. We feel like we can be competitive night in and night out and that other teams will have to outwork us to beat us.” O’Connor inherits a bevy of talented guards from a team that finished 17-8 a year ago. Honorable mention all-conference 6-5 post player Brent Gibbs also returns. Gibbs has been one of the top field goal leaders in the conference for two seasons. With the return of guard Rickey Johnson, who was named 1998-99 ASC East Division Freshman of the Year but sat out last season due to a knee injury, a third straight appearance to the conference post-season tournament is certainly not out of the question. Gibbs, who averaged 12.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season, along with senior Brian Henderson make up a formidable front line for the Eagles, but the team strength lies at the guard position. Mandrell Howell, Geoffrey Owens and Brent Johnson were all freshmen last season and came on strong in the latter part of the year to propel the Eagles to post-season action. Howell, 6-2, averaged 6.6 points per game and was named to the conference all-tournament team last season while the 6-3 Owens netted a 4.0 point per game average. Johnson averaged 3.1 points per game from his point guard position. Newcomers Ullysses Ruley, a sharp shooting transfer, and freshman V.J. Akers give the Eagles even more strength at the guard position. “Our inside game is a concern since we lack height and this could provide potential matchup problems for us,” said O’Connor. “We are not particularly deep at this position. But part of our style will be to play an uptempo game and not get into a grind it out game.” With a deep guard rotation, the Eagles should be able to apply plenty of defensive pressure. “We’ll be able to pressure teams and extend the floor quite a bit,” said O’Connor. “We have a chance to be a good defensive team and I hope that’s an area that we will hang our hats on. I’m encouraged by the progress we’ve made and if we can continue to improve, we’ve got a chance to be a pretty good team.”