When Jacksonville State plays Austin Peay tonight in the first round of the OVC Tournament, the game will match teams with two distinctly different traditions in the event.
Peay, the No. 6 seed, will be in the event for the 28th straight year; it’s played 70 games, won 38 — both second to Murray State — and claimed four tournament titles. The Gamecocks, seeded seventh, are making just their fourth appearance (and second since 2006) and have won only one tournament game since joining the league in 2003.
On top of those disparate histories, no player on JSU’s current roster has ever played in the OVC Tournament before, but the Gamecocks are confident that won’t be a factor when they step on the Municipal Auditorium floor for the first time and against a team they’ve only beaten once ever in their history.
“It’s not a concern in the sense that they’ve never been,” JSU coach James Green said. “It’s the normal concern of how you get a focus in a tournament situation to go play. Without any experience there’s nobody to lead anybody, but we’ve been in that situation in games and other things, so I don’t see that as a major disadvantage.
“A tournament setting offers something different to teams and the teams that can make that adjustment, keep poise, stay under control and don’t get caught up in the hype — approach it as a game like you always do — are the ones who give themselves the best chance.
“I think if you say, ‘OK, we made it’ and that was your goal, then I think it is an issue. I don’t think our guys are thinking that way; I sure hope not. For our guys, getting in the tournament meant an opportunity to play for a championship, and that’s where you want your mindset.”
The Gamecocks (14-17) made the tournament with a big second-half push that saw them win eight of their last 11 games. The surge began right after they lost at Peay in mid-January by three with a shot at the buzzer to force overtime.
“I feel we’re a better team even from then,” junior guard Ronnie Boggs said.
Sophomore guard Brian Williams, the Gamecocks’ leading scorer, had the last shot in the first meeting. He said after the game he might have rushed his potential game-tying 3-pointer after stumbling crossing the mid-court line, but that’s not what has been gnawing on him about the game since.
“We felt like we should have won that game,” he said. “So, we know we’re going to come out and game plan the same way and just get a victory.”
Peay, meanwhile, seems just glad to have crossed the finish line in qualifying time. The Governors (12-19) were the preseason conference favorite but started the season 0-9 and have been resetting goals all year. They have won their last three — just like JSU — after losing six of their previous seven (beating UT Martin, the only winless team in the league).
Both teams were 8-8 in league play, finishing tied for sixth in the standings.
Green wouldn’t presume to speak about Peay’s problems this season, but he does suspect his team will be facing a motivated opponent.
“I know their program has won games in the past, so I think their tradition has got to be to some advantage over quite a few teams in our league going into a tournament like this,” he said. “I would think in their mind they’re saying ‘There’s a championship in the regular season and there’s a championship in tournament play and now we’ve got us a fresh start.’
“It’s gotta be some motivation if you’re picked to win the league and you don’t win it to go into the tournament and redeem yourself. I know that’s probably something we’ll be up against.”
But Peay coach Dave Loos wouldn’t be so quick to assume that tournament experience gives his Govs an edge.
“I wish it did, but I’m not sure that’s true,” he said. “We do have some guys (who’ve played before); we start four seniors. (John) Fraley has extensive experience ... but our other seniors only played one game, so in this case I’m not sure how much that really amounts to.”
Instead of being worried about their circumstances, the Gamecocks agreed being in such uncharted territory can work for them.
“Since we’re all new and it’s something we’re experiencing for the first time in college, we’ll all have a lot of energy on the court,” Williams said. “Hopefully we’ll come out and nobody will have jitters and just play ball and let’s see how far we can go.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.