Clarksville, Ark.-A mere three-point loss in their final regular-season game ended the hopes of the University of Ozarks men's basketball team from making the American Southwest Conference playoffs last season, and now the Eagles are ready to turn the tables on their fortunes for the upcoming 2004-2005 season.
Ozarks 70-67 loss to UT-Dallas to put them out of post-season play still lingers in the mind of Ozarks’ seven returning players. That should be enough motivation for the Eagles, who will be among the favorites to earn a spot in the newly expanded playoff format. The top four teams in each division will now make the playoffs. "I think the loss to UT-Dallas is very much on the team’s mind," said O’Connor. "We have aspirations of getting to the playoffs and doing some damage and even competing for the title. We are thinking big this season, just as any good program should do." O’Connor, who enters his fourth year as head coach and led Ozarks to a 11-14 overall record and 8-6 mark in league play a year ago, expects solid play from the guard and wing positions. "I think when you talk about our team you start with our guard and our wing play," said O’Connor. "That’s our most experienced position and that’s where we have our most depth. And, we have shooters that can come off the bench." The Eagles return three starters, including guards Brent Johnson, Josh Joyner and Brad Johnson. Brent Johnson returns for his senior season after averaging a team-best 15.4 points per game and earning ASC All-East Division first team honors. The 6-2 Johnson led the squad with 48 three-pointers and steals (2.0) while pulling down 4.5 rebounds per game. Joyner returns after averaging 12.7 points per game in his sophomore campaign. He led the team in rebounding (6.4). Brad Johnson gives the Eagles a defensive presence at the point guard position. Veteran outside players Scott McCall, Caleb Hilton, and Jacob Sibley all saw significant action last season and will be counted on again in the Eagles up-tempo offensive style. Transfers Andy Brakebill and Chris Knowles give Ozarks additional outside shooting. "Both Josh and Brent bring toughness and versatility to our team," said O’Connor. "They have the ability to score, but they are also strong defenders. Brad provides us with such solid play defensively and Caleb is due to have a real good year. Jacob is a pure shooter while Scott gives us a defensive presence on the perimeter." Playoff redemption will likely be made possible if the Eagles’ inside game provides adequate offensive and defensive production. 6-6 junior David Hamilton is the Eagles most experienced inside player. Athletic 6-6 swingman Chris Clark, a transfer, gives the Eagles a talented inside-outside threat. Bully 6-5 freshman post Habeeb Kareem adds inside strength and size to the team. "I think our inside game is coming along well," said O’Connor. "I’m real encouraged by our post play. David is our most experienced inside player and he continues to get better. Our new post players are encouraging, too. Habeeb will be a nice power player for us. Chris is our most versatile player who has tremendous upside. He will play probably play both forward positions. He is a good athlete that can score." Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for the Eagles, who return five players that averaged at least 5 points per game. However, O’Connor would like to see the team focus more on the defensive end. "I think a lot of our players have the ability to score, but I’m looking for guys that are strong defenders," said O’Connor. "We will be up-tempo and spread the offense around again. We want to apply pressure defense and hope to create some scoring opportunities from that. Our goal this year starts on the defensive end. We gave up too many points and easy points last season. This year we want to make it tough on our opponents to score and make them earn their baskets every possession." The Eagles open the season against Hendrix College in Conway in the Hendrix Tip-Off on November 19 at 8 p.m.