JSU basketball set to play 20 league games this season

Cocky poses for a photo in the Pete Mathews Coliseum. The Ohio Valley Conference finalized a 20-game league slate last Thursday, Nov. 5. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)Cocky poses for a photo in the Pete Mathews Coliseum. The Ohio Valley Conference finalized a 20-game league slate last Thursday, Nov. 5. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)

Jamerious Borden, Correspondent

The Ohio Valley Conference finalized its basketball schedules on Thursday, Nov. 5, giving Jacksonville State 20 league games this season.

Ohio Valley Conference teams typically play 18 league games, but the conference decided to increase conference play to 20 games due to the pandemic. 

“Our athletic directors explored a number of scheduling options designed to address the scheduling challenges we may face due to the pandemic,” said OVC Commissioner Beth DeBauche.

DeBauche explained that the athletic directors made the decision to adopt the schedules and increase the number of conference games, but that the conference will stay true to “traditional conference scheduling structure.”

“Our intention is to play as close to a typical conference schedule as possible, but we stand ready to address scheduling challenges and modify the schedule during the course of the season should the facts warrant,” said DeBauche. “I am grateful to our OVC leaders for their dedication, foresight and commitment to our student-athletes.”

Furthermore, teams will play every OVC team once and nine schools twice. In order to give teams proper flexibility to complete their non-conference schedules, schools were given absolute discretion to schedule their two games with their “travel partner” separate from the remainder of the conference schedule, according to the OVC’s press release. One of those two games must be scheduled before the holiday break and the other can be scheduled any time during the season, OVC officials said.

The 2021 OVC men’s and women’s basketball tournament is scheduled for March 3 to March 6 at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind. It marks the fourth year in a row that the event will be held at the venue.

Jacksonville State’s men basketball head coach Ray Harper and senior guard/forward Kayne Henry fielded questions from the media via Zoom on Monday to preview the upcoming season. The Gamecocks open their season Wednesday, Nov. 25 in Tuscaloosa against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

“I am sure everyone is looking forward to getting started,” said Harper. “Obviously, with no scrimmages or exhibitions this year we will get started on Nov. 25, at Alabama.” 

Harper said that his team is working each day to improve and that it was disappointing to see the season cut short with no tournament, emphasizing that the team is looking forward to playing.

“We have almost a whole new team, and we look at all of them daily and it changes from week-to-week” said Harper. “I don’t think I could name a starting lineup with just over a few weeks before we play.”

Competition exists for every position, Harper said, and he hopes that players will begin to separate themselves in the “next couple of weeks.”

“Kayne Henry is a leader, and the guy that has probably been the most vocal guy has been Brandon Huffman,” he said. “He is that kind of guy that brings energy to practice and continues to get better each day. We just have so many new guys that it is about developing chemistry.”

Huffman is a senior from the University of North Carolina who recently transferred to Jacksonville State University. 

“We knew he was a really good player when we saw him in high school and watched some clips of him when he was at North Carolina,” said Harper. “He gets better every day.” 

Since the beginning of his coaching career at JSU, Harper said that he has not had a player like Huffman and that he’s a mixture of many of the players the team has had. 

“He is a quick leaper and runs the floor at 6’11, 260 [pounds],”said Harper. “He has a chance to be a really good player in this league. I know his numbers at North Carolina do not jump out at you, but I do not think you will see those types of numbers here. We are going to get him the ball and he has the ability to score it.”

Harper explained that the schedule is going to be difficult, especially “when you play Austin Peay twice, Murray State and Belmont twice along with Eastern Kentucky twice.”

“I think 10 of the 20 games are against the teams that are picked ahead of us, but it is what it is,” he said. “Anytime you don’t play everyone twice, there is going to be someone with an advantage with the schedule. We just have to go take care of business.” 

“It has been a while since we have played against outside competition, and we have been practicing a lot, so we are looking forward to the season opening,” said Henry. 

Henry said that he’s been working on his ball handling since he could be playing more spots on the floor and that he’s “improving every day.”

“I think the one thing that excites Coach Harper is the energy on the team,” said Henry. “He wants us to work hard every night and it is a great atmosphere when you can bring the energy every day.”

The learning curve at the beginning of the season was difficult for his team without summer workouts, Harper said, but that it’s been “pretty smooth.”

“We did not get started until September with the four hours a week,” he said. “We see progress and I think we will see progress throughout the season. We are not going to have a lot of time to adjust once we start playing. We will have to be ready to go from day one.”

The JSU’s women program was tabbed sixth in the preseason prognostication from league coaches and information directors, while guard Taylor Hawks was named to the OVC’s preseason all-conference squad. 

Hawks and head coach Rick Pietri joined members of the media via Zoom on Monday to discuss the upcoming season.

“I think going into this year and every new year, you are trying to figure out how to replace what you lost,” said Pietri. “We lost four seniors last year in particular an all-conference player in Destiney Elliot and JSU’s Eagle Owl award winner on the women’s side in Chloe Long. Those are the two that we are going to have to replace in the team’s production and how they helped us, so that is the first thing.” 

With a high number of newcomers, Pietri said, it’s important to get everyone on the same page.

“As far as keeping everything as normal as possible,” he said. “We do everything we can to keep everything as normal as it has been with the exception of how we gather. When we watch film, we watch in a large room wearing masks and lots of distance.”

Pietri explained that film is an important tool to educating players and getting the newcomers acquainted to particular concepts.

There is no doubt that when a team loses multiple starters, it can be difficult for the team to adjust and find that new leader. However, in the case of Hawks, she has received a lot of praise from her coach and teammates.

“She has started at the point guard position her eight games of her freshman season and has played that spot ever since,” said Pietri. “She has had a nice preseason in preparation for her senior year. Her teammates have a lot of respect for her.”

“We are excited to get back to playing,” said Hawks. “We have been preparing since July, so the adrenaline and energy is there and getting accustomed to one another.”

Asked how excited the team was on a scale of one to 10, Hawks replied, “12.”

Adjusting to the pandemic since March hasn’t been easy, especially when finding a gym to workout in, Hawks said.

“It was tough finding a gym to get into,” she said. “I think getting in the weight room has been a big thing because every gym was closed. It has been a big problem for us.”

With the Gamecocks set to face off against Georgia on Dec. 9, Pietri said that the team is always excited to face off against Power 5 teams.

“We have represented ourselves well when we have played those teams in the past and I expect us to do that this time,” said Pietri. “We have won games over Power 5 teams since I have been here. We won at Alabama in my second year and beat Ole Miss two years ago.”

Pietri explained that the team’s goal for the upcoming season is to go from the top 5 team to a “top-third team.”

“When you look at the preseason polls, you see Belmont and UT Martin at the top and then you have Southeast Missouri, who won the tournament last year,” he said. “We tied for fifth last year and got the fifth seed in the tournament last year, so we finished in the top half of a 12-team league. That is our objective, and we are going to try and accomplish that.” 

“This is a strong league and very well-coached from top to bottom,” he added.

JSU men’s basketball schedule

Nov. 25, at Alabama

Nov. 27, vs. Florida Atlantic

Nov. 29, vs. South Alabama

Nov. 30, vs. Mobile

Dec. 4, at Florida International

Dec. 6, at Florida International

Dec. 13, at Tennessee Tech

Dec. 16, vs. Tennessee Tech

Dec. 18, vs. Georgia Southwestern

Dec. 30, vs. UT Martin

Jan. 2, at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville

Jan. 7, at Eastern Kentucky

Jan. 9, at Morehead State

Jan. 14, vs. Tennessee State

Jan. 16, vs. Belmont

Jan. 21, at Murray State

Jan. 23, at Austin Peay

Jan. 28, vs. Morehead State

Jan. 30, vs. Eastern Kentucky

Feb. 4, at UT Martin

Feb. 6, at Southeast Missouri

Feb. 11, vs. Eastern Illinois

Feb. 13, vs. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville

Feb. 18, at Belmont

Feb. 20, at Tennessee State

Feb. 25, vs. Murray State

Feb. 27, vs. Austin Peay

March 3 to March 6, OVC tournament at Evansville, Ind.

JSU women’s basketball schedule

Nov. 28, vs. Georgia Southwest State

Dec. 3, vs. Tennessee Tech

Dec. 5, vs. New Orleans

Dec. 9, at Georgia

Dec. 13, at Tennessee Tech

Dec. 16, vs. Samford

Dec. 19, vs. Alabama State

Dec. 30, vs. UT Martin

Jan. 2, at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville

Jan. 7, at Eastern Kentucky

Jan. 9, at Morehead State

Jan. 14, vs. Tennessee State

Jan. 16 vs. Belmont

Jan. 21, at Murray State

Jan. 23, at Austin Peay

Jan. 28, vs. Morehead State

Jan. 30, vs. Eastern Kentucky

Feb. 4, at UT Martin

Feb. 6, at Southeast Missouri

Feb. 11, vs. Eastern Illinois

Feb. 13, vs. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville

Feb. 18, at Belmont

Feb. 20, at Tennessee State

Feb. 25, vs. Murray State

Feb. 27, vs. Austin Peay

March 3 to March 6, OVC tournament at Evansville, Ind.

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