Clarksville, Ark.-The 2008-2009 Eagles find themselves facing the challenge of replacing the program's third all-time leading scorer, but head coach Matt O'Connor believes it opens up the opportunity for a group of four seniors and a talented freshmen class to step up and fill the void.
O’Connor enters his eighth season at Ozarks searching for answers to replace four-time All-Conference performer Habeeb Kareem, who produced nearly 25 percent of the team’s offensive scoring output and averaged 7.1 rebounds in 2007-2008. The replacement will likely come from a number of returners, rather than just a single player.
“In a sense, we are trying to replace him by committee,” said O’Connor. “I just can’t point to one player and say he will average 18 points a game for us. That’s the big question. One person coming in and replacing him is not going to happen. I hope that some of our returning players will go from averaging 5-8 points per game to maybe 8-11. What I like about this group is that they are a little more flexible. There are groups we can go big with and groups we can go smaller with.”
Three starters return for O’Connor – senior point guard Tony Brock, sophomore guard Andre Williams and sophomore forward Tyler Mitchell – in addition to veterans Tony Daniels, Chris Williams and Jeremy Clark. All six are among the players expected to pick up the scoring slack and bolster the team’s chances to rebound from an 8-17 season.
The 5-foot-9 Brock brings tremendous ball-hawking skills to the court and no doubt is one of the quickest players in the league. He led the team in assists (4.1) and steals (1.8) while averaging 6.5 points per game. The 6-foot-4 smooth-shooting Williams was named to the American Southwest Conference East Division All-Freshman Team after scoring 8.2 points per game and hitting 35 percent from the three-point line. Mitchell, at 6-foot-5, gives Ozarks another shooter with size on the perimeter. He started in 24 games and averaged 6.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
“Tony (Brock) brings the energy to really fuel our transition game,” said O’Connor. “He continues to improve in all areas of his game. He hit some critical perimeter jumpers for us last season. He can hit the three and has improved a lot in his leadership, too.”
Both (Andre) Williams and Mitchell received valuable experience a year ago as true freshmen in the rugged ASC, according to O’Connor.
“Andre is our most proven three-point shooter in regards to his stroke and his mentality,” said O’Connor. “He does have a shooter’s mentality and we are confident he can knock them down. I think a lot of our other guys have some versatility, but he has proven to be our most consistent three-point shooter. He is battle-tested in that area. Tyler received valuable experience last season also. He was productive with his minutes. He did a lot of good things that often didn’t show up in the stats.”
Clark and Daniels, both seniors, each saw action in 24 games last season and will be expected to step into starting roles this season. The 6-foot-1 Clark can score in bunches and will likely see time as the two guard. He averaged 5.8 points in 2007-2008. At 6-foot-3, Daniels provides Ozarks with an athletic wing player that can hit the three. He averaged 6.0 points per game.
“I think Jeremy can really blossom this year by playing some at the off guard,” said O’Connor. “He has the ability to get out and run, and he will have the opportunity to be more of a cutter and take advantage of screens. Tony brings good energy to the defensive end and in the rebounding department. He continues to improve his perimeter shooting. He is a player that has developed to the point where you can’t leave him open.”
With a lack of experience in the post, guard play becomes even more prominent in O’Connor’s fast-paced offensive style.
“I think our guards will be good at breaking people down on drives,” said O’Connor. “With that type of penetration, they can kick it out to the three-point line or dump it in to a big guy for a finish. I think our three-point shooting will be similar to last year. I think we are very capable from the three-point line, but I don’t think the number we take will change dramatically.”
The opportunity for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Chris Williams to develop into a go-to inside player is possible for the senior. Coming off the bench in 2007-2008, Williams finished second on the team in scoring (8.3) and third in rebounding (4.8). He scored in double figures in nine of the 19 games in which he played.
“Chris is a key player for us this season,” said O’Connor. “He brings some versatility with his ability to go inside and out. His physical toughness and strength are areas we will draw upon. His rebounding will be really important for us, too. He had a productive year last season, particularly in the second half of the year, because he took advantage of his opportunities when they came. He did not try to force things or overextend himself. If he will take what the defense gives him he can have a real strong year.”
Additional inside help will come from sophomore Matt Jackson and a group of freshmen, including a pair of 6-foot-8 players.
Defensively, O’Connor believes his team can be solid. Slowing down their opponents will be a crucial aspect of the team’s chances to improve upon last season’s disappointing 5-15 conference mark.
“I think we have a chance to be pretty good defensively,” said O’Connor. “Our four seniors are athletic and aggressive. I think they can be a good defensive group. We are looking to extend our defense a little bit this season. We hope to be able to control the tempo better.”
While the team can benefit from a handful of experienced players, O’Connor’s freshmen class will be expected to produce as the season progresses, a task not easy in the always-tough ASC.
“One weakness is our lack of experience,” said O’Connor. “Our seniors have some significant experience, but they take on different roles this season. I think when all is said and done, we will have four or five guys in our rotation that are freshman.”
“This freshmen class has the potential to be the best in several years,” said O’Connor. “We added some size, some athleticism and some shooters. I think from a strength standpoint they are a little further along. But we have never tipped it up with those guys yet, so there is still a lot to figure out.”
The tough-luck Eagles lost eight games by five points or less while ending the year on a nine-game losing streak. That bitter note has Ozarks no doubt hungry to turn their fortunes around.
“We keep steering our guys to get better every day,” said O’Connor. “I want us concerned about going out every game and competing. I think this team as a unit can far exceed where we are expected to finish. We have to see how it all comes together this year, but I feel like this team can be competitive.”
Ozarks will host Hendrix College this Saturday at 3:00 p.m. in their season opener.