Why USI men’s basketball hopes its first OVC season is historic

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Stan Gouard realizes the importance of this men’s basketball season at the University of Southern Indiana.

He’s been wrapped in excitement since the university decided to move to NCAA Division I in February. Now that the first game in Missouri is just weeks away, the buzz is even stronger. From volunteer trips across town to the West Side Nut Club’s fall festival, the Screaming Eagles have won acclaim everywhere they go.

Fans understand the importance of the jump. Gouard hopes his players too.

“They are part of the story. They might not understand it now, but in 25 or 30 years, when they’re my age, they’ll start thinking, “Wow, we’re the first team,” Gouard said. “Be the team that nobody forgets because you created some kind of history.”

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Southern Indiana players break a huddle during practice at the Screaming Eagles Arena on Monday afternoon September 26, 2022.

The starting XI begins to take shape

Although there is still plenty of time before the season-opening trip to Columbia, Mo., official practices have been underway for two weeks and rotations are emerging.

If the season starts now, Gouard said the Eagles would start three guards. Gary Solomon, a junior college transfer, would be the point guard alongside second Isaiah Swope in place of two guards and senior Jelani Simmons at three. He also said the transfer of Trevor Lakes graduates was a lock to start as a stretch four.

The most important question mark is in the center. There has been some debate over who will earn those minutes with Jacob Polakovich out for at least three months recovering from a Jones Fracture injury. It’s a draw between a transfer pair, sophomore Nick Hittle and freshman Kiyron Powell.

“We go to this board every day upstairs and change names because of what the guys are doing in training,” Gouard said. “We will have a real test with a closed-door scrimmage this week in Eastern Kentucky. It will kind of give us a measuring stick to know where we are at.

Southern Indiana's Nick Hittle makes a pass as he is defended by Kiyron Powell during practice at the Screaming Eagles Arena on Monday afternoon Sept. 26, 2022.

Depth will be tested with early season injuries

USI is already dealing with its fair share of injury-related setbacks. In addition to Polakovich, a few other key members of the rotation have missed practice this preseason.

  • Simmons twisted his knee and made his way back; Gouard emphasized how badly they needed him for the Missouri opener.
  • Hittle also missed a few practices due to a concussion.
  • Although not injury-related, junior guard Tyler Henry is suspended for Game 1 for “conduct detrimental to the team.”

This is where the depth of USI will be tested. This is something that Gouard has always emphasized. Still, the rotation will be boosted by experience and capable shooters – which was emphasized when building this roster – thanks to the addition of transfers such as Jeremiah Hernandez and Ryan Hall.

“We have to have that next-man mentality. I think we did a good job as a team of not letting one guy down affect us. It’s just an opportunity for the next one,” Gouard said. “I think this group is going to excite some people.”

Lakes added: “I think it’s good for the competition. We have a lot of guys on this team who can play. Knowing that if someone goes down, we have guys who can step in and we trust. It’s one of our strengths, that’s for sure.

Southern Indiana's Kiyron Powell performs drills at Screaming Eagles Arena Monday afternoon, Sept. 26, 2022.

Local stars share a close bond

Isaiah Swope had plenty to be excited about when he learned that Powell would be transferring to ICU.

But there was one that stood out among them all: he can play alongside his family.

“He’s my older cousin. We grew up together,” Swope said. “We played together in leagues like EBA (Evansville Basketball Academy), AAU and we even played together in the city this summer. For us, being on the same team now is super fun. I can’t wait to be on the court. »

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The duo had stellar matchups during their high school years as Powell was at Bosse and Swope at Castle. But aside from a few summer pickup games and youth basketball days, the pair have mostly only played as opponents.

Now teammates, they are excited to show just how well they can work together. The chemistry hasn’t weakened just because it’s been several years since they represented the same team. From energy to communication, expect to see the two share a close bond right away.

“We are both competitive. We have always been competitive with each other. Even in training, we get to talk to each other about noise when we’re on different teams,” Powell said with a laugh. “It just pushes us on the pitch together. We’re going to make some real, real noise this year.

Isaiah Swope of Southern Indiana performs drills during practice at the Screaming Eagles Arena Monday afternoon Sept. 26, 2022.

“Make a statement”: expectations remain high in OVC

Final standings predictions for the Ohio Valley Conference have been all over the place this preseason. That’s to be expected in a league that has three new teams to fill the departure of flagship programs such as Murray State and Belmont.

Tipsters don’t seem to know where to place the Eagles. They were selected up to fifth place by Blue Ribbon Magazine and up to eighth place by Lindy Sports. CBS Sports even listed them as one of the teams that will have the most impact on its new conference.

Although the official OVC poll will be released next week, Gouard doesn’t want his team to focus on the rankings. He wants them to control what they can control. If they do, he is confident that their first year with the OVC can be crowned with success.

“When you look at our league roster, only one team finished above .500 last year and that was Morehead State. We have a chance,” Gouard said. “We try to teach the guys to play every possession as if it were the last. If they do, we have a good chance of playing in front of 5,000 to 10,000 people at Ford Center in March. This is our goal.

But players don’t just play in the OVC tournament. They want to win everything. They believe it’s a real possibility with this deep group and some talented newcomers.

“We can make noise. We feel like we can make a run,” Powell said. “They threw us at, what, five? We project ourselves at number 1.

Swope added: “We have to come in right away and show that we belong. Make a statement early.

Contact Courier & Press sports reporter Hendrix Magley by email at hendrix.magley@courierpress.com or via Twitter @TweetsOfHendrix.

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