Tennessee State is without its leading scorer. Belmont has plunged into uncharted territory.
Yet both teams are in right where they want to be in Ohio Valley Conference play — undefeated.
After the opening week, TSU is the league’s lone 3-0 team. Right behind the Tigers in the Eastern Division is Belmont, one of four teams 2-0 in OVC play.
Though still early, both TSU first-year coach Travis Williams and Belmont coach Rick Byrd feel encouraged by the quick starts. The Tigers (9-7) lost big man Robert Covington to a knee injury three weeks ago but have rattled off four straight wins. The Bruins (11-4), who were picked to win the East, have — thus far — made a smooth transition in their first year in the OVC.
Starting on Thursday, both teams play three consecutive home games before they meet for the first time this season, Jan. 19 at Belmont.
“Based on the tough non-conference schedule we’ve had I was hoping to get to a point where it has us in this position,” Williams said. “We’ve had to regroup tremendously and the guys have responded well.”
TSU prepped for conference play with six games against 2011-12 postseason participants, including three that made the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers, who returned four starters from a 20-win season, sputtered offensively at times and leaned heavily on Covington’s 17.4 points a game. When the senior and NBA hopeful injured his knee in a blowout loss to Middle Tennessee State — he is expected to return in February — it looked as if TSU was bound to sink. Instead, the Tigers have kept their heads above water.
Covington averaged 14 shots a game but in his absence, others have stepped up and provided big buckets. Three different players led the team in scoring the last four games. Most notably sophomore forward M.J. Rhett averaged 12.5 points, 14 rebounds and 2.5 in his last two games and was named the OVC’s Player of the Week. In addition, Kellen Thornton (13.8), Patrick Miller (12.8) and Jordan Cyphers (11.0) have in double figures.
“We’ve got some guys who are stepping up and producing in Robert Covington’s absence and we’re still getting that consistency from Kellen Thornton inside,” Williams said. “More importantly, guys are beginning to believe and trust in each other. I think that says a lot. The chemistry is there. Guys are playing well at the particular moment. But we need to continue to get better.”
For Belmont, winning its first two conference games isn’t a huge surprise.
The Bruins return a huge chunk of last year’s nucleus, including senior guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson. Byrd was concerned about the loss of three starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team —guard Drew Hanlen and centers Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders. Plus, his bench didn’t go as deep as he had been accustomed.
“I thought the lack of depth and losing three really important players it would just be hard to be as good,” Byrd said.
Making up for a shorter bench, Byrd’s starters have performed admirably.
Preseason All-OVC selections Clark (17.1) and Johnson (13.3) have been as good as advertised. At 6-foot-7, Trevor Noack has given up height to play the center spot but is filling the void with 12 points and 5.7 rebounds. Athletic Blake Jenkins is all exerting his force inside by averaging 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds. In Belmont’s first two conference games against Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech, guard J.J. Mann performed at an “all-conference” level, according to Byrd. He averaged 18.5 points and seven rebounds.
“Those five guys are carrying the load,” Byrd said. “Getting 11 wins coming off a season in which we lost three really good starters we’re a little bit ahead of where I thought we would be.”