Clarksville, Ark.-After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2006-2007, 11 lettermen return, including all five starters, giving the Eagles the experience needed for a return to post-season play.
The Eagles return 87 percent of their scoring and 93 percent of their rebounding production. In addition, nine of the 11 returners saw time as starters. The Eagles finished 8-17 overall and 7-13 in the American Southwest Conference, two wins away from grabbing the playoff-qualifying fourth seed. It was the first time the Eagles missed the playoffs since the 2003-2004 season.
“I think there is a good attitude and work ethic about this team,” said head coach Matt O’Connor, who enters his seventh season at the helm of the program. “I think everything has been very positive. The guys want to get back to work. They understand how important it is to play as a team. They are supporting each other so that we can be the best team we can be.”
“Going into last season we were very inexperienced, but now there is much more experience,” said O’Connor. “The players will be better prepared to respond to game situations. I hope that experience will become a real strength.”
6-foot-5 senior forward Habeeb Kareem leads the junior and senior laden 2007-2008 squad. Kareem was again one of the most productive players in the ASC last season, finishing fourteenth in scoring (14.7), tenth in rebounding (6.1) and eighth in blocks (.68). For the third straight season, Kareem earned post-season honors from the ASC. He scored in double figures in 19 games, and had four double-doubles. He has accumulated 1,193 career points, eighth-most in the program’s history.
“Habeeb is versatile,” said O’Connor. “He can score inside using both hands and he is decisive in making moves. He has a good feel in the paint and I think he has improved his game facing the basket. Bringing him out on the floor will make it more difficult for teams to match up with us. He is an effective offensive rebounder, too.”
Athletic swingman Chris Clark counters with an inside-outside game to help keep pressure off of Kareem. The 6-foot-6 senior was the top sixth man in the league last season, averaging 8.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in 25 contests. Clark earned All-ASC Honorable Mention honors a year ago. Senior forward Clint McHenry will patrol the paint for the third straight season. McHenry, 6-foot-5, averaged over five points per game and 5.0 rebounds in 24 starts last year. The durable McHenry claimed five double-digit scoring bursts last season.
“Chris continues to improve,” said O’Connor. “I hope this is the year it all comes together for him. He is a tremendous athlete and is versatile. He will be a big part of our success. Clint is an underrated player. He does a lot of the things that people don’t notice. He is a good offensive player who can score inside and hit a 15-foot jumper.”
The combination of Kareem, Clark and McHenry provided Ozarks with 40 percent of their offensive production last season. The trio also gave Ozarks 42 percent of their rebounds.
“I think the strength of the team will be our senior forwards,” said O’Connor. “They are versatile and experienced. They bring a lot to the table. They are very different types of players, but they are very effective for us.”
Tony Daniels and Chris Williams, both junior forwards, provide depth and starting experience for the Eagles. The unselfish Daniels usually draws a tough defensive assignment, according to O’Connor. Daniels, 6-foot-2, averaged 6.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in 2006-2007. He had six games with ten or more points. Williams came on strong in the second half of the season, averaging 13.3 points and 7.6 rebounds in the final three games. At 6-foot-4, he is a strong finisher around the basket. Keith Bowles appears ready to have a breakout season after playing in 22 games in 2006-2007. The smooth shooting junior will again push for minutes at both the forward and guard spots.
“Tony gives us energy, rebounding and physical play,” said O’Connor. “We hope he continues to play at that level. We need a lot out of him. Chris provides us with athleticism. He is a competitor and he is strong underneath for us. Keith is improving every day and will play a role for us.”
The backcourt gives the Eagles a quality guard rotation, and plenty of starting experience. Juniors Ted Beard, Jeremy Clark and Tony Brock, and sophomore Blake Belford will aim to take some of the scoring load off of Ozarks’ three seniors.
Beard had a breakout season in 2006-2007, averaging 12.1 points per game, second-best on the team. The explosive Beard, 6-foot-2, led the team in steals (1.5) and was second in assists (1.9). Beard has the ability to create an open shot or distribute the ball in the Eagles fast-paced offense. He hit a team-best 27 three-pointers, and scored 20-plus points on four occasions. Clark started in 18 games, averaging 7.9 points and a team-leading 2.3 assists per game. The left-handed Clark scored in double figures in ten games, and can disrupt the opposing team’s offense with his aggressive defensive play. The lightning-quick Brock, who started in seven games, thrives in the O’Connor’s up-tempo style as he displayed a knack for pressuring opponents into turnovers. Belford is expected to make a splash after coming off a solid rookie campaign. Belford was named to the All-ASC Freshman Team after hitting 44 percent of his three-point attempts. He started in four games and averaged nearly five points per game, including scoring a season-high 18 points against Louisiana College.
“Ted is a very talented player,” said O’Connor. “He is a solid defensive player on the perimeter. Tony got off to a strong start last season. He is very quick and brings a good energy level to the team. Jeremy carried a lot of the load last year at the point guard position, and I am hoping those two along with our younger players will bring stability there. We will count on Blake for his outside shooting ability. Our guards can create a fast-paced tempo with the way they push the ball.”
On paper, the Eagles appear ready for another playoff run, but the 2007-2008 team must improve their shooting (42.8%) in order to continue to play in March.
“I think our outside shooting wasn’t strong enough to compliment our inside play,” said O’Connor. “I think that will improve this season. Our guys understand how important that area is. We need do a better job of finishing inside after getting to the offensive boards. Our recruiting class has addressed some of those perimeter concerns, too.”
A rugged non-conference slate is highlighted by NCAA I opponents University of Arkansas-Little Rock and Northwestern State University (La.), assuring the Eagles a challenging November.
“This schedule is a big challenge,” said O’Connor. “What we really hope is that facing difficult opponents will force our team to respond and play at a higher level.”
Ozarks will travel to Little Rock to face UALR on November 9 in what will be the Trojans opening game of the season. It will be an exhibition game for the Eagles. The game starts at 7:00 p.m.