Clarksville, Ark.-The University of the Ozarks men's basketball team enters the 2005-2006 season with four returning starters and the momentum of an American Southwest Conference playoff appearance last season.
The Eagles made the ASC post-season tournament during the 2004-2005 season, the second time in the past four years Ozarks has earned a spot in the playoffs. Hardin-Simmons, however, handed the Eagles an 80-76 loss in the first round. "It’s definitely a good experience that we got a taste of the playoffs," said head coach Matt O’Connor. "I think the playoff experience really spurs on the upperclassman. But we left some unfinished business last season." In addition to four returning starters, the 2005-2006 team has improved its overall athleticism and depth, a combination that could propel the Eagles into more post-season play. "There is an upgrade in our athleticism this year," said O’Connor, who is entering his fifth year as head coach. "We can pressure people and we can keep that pace up full court for the entire game. In terms of depth, most of our guys are back and have significant experience, but I think some of our younger guys will challenge them, too." Senior starters Brad Johnson and Josh Joyner lead a skilled group of players at the guard position. Johnson, a 5-10 point guard, started all 26 games last season and finished second in the league in steals (2.6) and fourth in assists (4.3). The Ozark native needs just 49 steals to break the school’s all-time career record. He owned a conference-best 1.7 assist to turnover ratio. Joyner, a 6-2 guard/forward from Little Rock, has accumulated 872 points and collected 417 rebounds in his career. The versatile Joyner earned ASC All-East division honorable mention last season after leading the team in rebounds (6.4) and finishing second in points per game (14.4). "Brad and Josh have logged a lot of minutes and have played in a lot of hostile environments in pressure situations," said O’Connor, whose team finished with an 12-14 overall record and a 10-13 league mark. "Leadership starts with Brad at the point. He gets us into the proper offense and defense and he also has a settling effect. Josh provides a lot of intangibles for us. He gives us offensive rebounding, runs in transition and has the ability to hit a shot as we need it." The Eagles most dominating player will likely be sophomore forward Habeeb Kareem. Kareem, a bullish 6-5, 250-pounder, ranked 31st in NCAA III in field goal percentage (60.3%). A native of Richmond, Texas, Kareem was named to the ASC All-East division freshman team and was an honorable mention All-Conference pick after averaging 14.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in 25 starts. "Habeeb will be a focus for us," said O’Connor. "He shoots a high percentage and is effective inside. He is one of our real low post threats. He brings a presence with his size, touch and his aggressiveness. He is critical to our season." David Hamilton, a 6-6 forward from Mulberry, is expected to relieve pressure off of Kareem on the inside. Hamilton, who started in 22 games a year ago, returns for his senior season and has averaged 5.5 points and 4.4 rebounds per game over his career. O’Connor’s fast-paced offensive style will be aided by a host of capable players. Seniors Jacob Sibley and Scott McCall will be among those called upon to provide Ozarks with production at the guard position. The 6-0 sharp-shooting Sibley, from Searcy, connected on 34 percent of his three-pointers, and averaged 5.7 points per game. McCall, a 6-2 native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, sparks a defensive attack that helped the Eagles rank third in the league in steals per game (9.8). McCall has played in 74 games in his career. The play of Chris Clark from Dallas, Texas, gives Ozarks an athletic 6-6 wing player. He averaged 5.8 points per game. The high-scoring Eagles finished sixth in the league in points per game (79.6), a trend O’Connor would like to continue, but with improved efficiency. "We want a veteran performance offensively every night," said O’Connor. "We want to take good shots, get good ball movement and avoid turnovers. We’ll continue to push the ball. I just want us to be more efficient offensively. There were times last season when we rushed our offense. I hope we are more poised and consistent. We can play well on the road at times and play well at home at times, but we need to play with the expectation to win. It’s important to peak at the end of the year and believe in your opportunity to be successful." O’Connor expects several new players to make immediate contributions to the team. "I expect our newcomers to bring a lot to the table," said O’Connor. "I expect them to bring energy, scoring, offensive rebounding and be aggressive on the defensive end. We are in the process of solidifying our rotations, but I can see a number of the younger guys being a factor this season. They will help us this year." Ozarks will again find itself in a tight race in the competitive ASC. Road wins are particularly difficult to come by. "It’s a tough league," said O’Connor. "Nobody just throws in the towel. Everybody wants in the playoffs. But I think the team is very excited about the season. I think there has been a willingness to fill roles. They have been enthusiastic." Ozarks opens the season against Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on November 21.