Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Antonius Cleveland and Jamaal Calvin remember all the emotions that come with playing in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, while on the other end of the spectrum, they're grateful for the chance to return to the postseason as seniors after missing out on it last year.
When the fifth-seeded Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team begins its OVC tournament bid at 6:30 p.m. today against No. 8 Tennessee State at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, Cleveland and Calvin will serve as the only two players on SEMO's roster with playoff experience at the Division I level.
And make no mistake about it -- everything about the OVC tournament seems to have a different feel.
"I think the most locked-in, soundly-defensive teams -- the most detailed teams -- are more than likely going to win the game," Cleveland said. "With so much on the line, the team that makes the lesser mistakes and plays the toughest will win. ... Even the setup of Municipal Auditorium is a bit different. The rims are different. Each team having its home fans there. There's just small things like that.
"The little things play a factor."
As freshmen, Cleveland and Calvin were a part of the program's most recent OVC tourney win, as Cleveland scored 15 points in helping to propel Southeast to a 79-61 victory over Eastern Illinois in the opening round in 2014. Calvin had 17 points in the Redhawks' second-round game, but third-seeded Eastern Kentucky came away with the victory, winning 84-76 and bringing an end to SEMO's season.
Both players scored in double figures the following year -- Cleveland had 14 points, while Calvin chipped in 11 -- but Southeast was edged out as the No. 8 seed, falling to Morehead State in a 79-74 decision.
Then came the 2015-16 campaign. Under the direction of a new coach in Rick Ray, the Redhawks stumbled their way to a 5-24 record and failed to qualify for the conference tournament altogether.
It was a moment Cleveland never thought he'd have to experience.
"It really didn't hit me until I actually was at home watching the OVC tournament," Cleveland said. "It was a bad feeling knowing that our season ended that early. We made it our priority, for the most part, to get back to the tournament, which is something we pretty much knew we could do.
"We wanted to really just put ourselves in a position to be successful."
The process of turning around the program began with mixing in a multitude of newcomers -- 11 to be exact -- while getting the four returning players to buy into a more concentrated approach.
For Calvin, the art of improving as a team came down to perfecting the little things -- showing up to meetings on time, devoting more effort to individual workouts and getting better at fundamentals on the court, like boxing out and communicating.
"We really wanted to make sure we perfected everything we did ... because everything matters," Calvin said. "... No matter what it is, whether it be on the court or off the court, we just focused in on honing all of that."
While the returners have done their part to steady the ship and guide the program back to the postseason, the newcomers have also played a vital role in the Redhawks' resurgence.
Freshman Denzel Mahoney is second on the team in scoring with 14.2 points per game and has started all 31 games this season. He's been joined by another stellar freshman in Tahj Eaddy, who's averaging 7.6 ppg and is shooting a team-leading 43 percent (37 of 86) from 3-point range.
Along the way, junior college transfers Jaylen Benton (6.1 ppg, 2.5 assists per game, 21 starts), Milos Vranes (6.1 ppg, 29 games played) and Daniel Simmons (5.5 ppg, 30 games played) have added more talent to the rotation since joining the program.
But with only four potential games remaining in order to reach the NCAA tournament, Cleveland understands there's an even smaller margin for error.
"I think the team that makes the least amount of mistakes and plays the toughest on defense is going to win," Cleveland said. "Everyone is going out there with the same motive to win. No one wants to go home, so it's something you've got to do better than those guys on the other end. It's going to come down to rebounding and defense for us."
Southeast let a golden opportunity slip away with the OVC West Division title on the line Saturday, as an Austin Peay team that had been eliminated from the OVC tournament pulled out an 88-79 win at the Show Me Center.
With a win, the Redhawks would've clinched a double-bye as the No. 2 seed in the tourney but instead dropped to the No. 5 seed. If they have any aspirations of winning the tournament, they'll be forced to win four games in four days instead of two in two.
But if that sounds impossible, think again.
APSU did just that a year ago as the eighth seed, making an unprecedented run to the tournament title and serving as a reminder that the madness of March is alive and well.
"Anyone can really win it if you just get hot at the right time, lock in and get to who's playing the better brand of basketball," Cleveland said. "With a couple of good practices like we had [Monday] and another one [Tuesday], I think we're going to be fine. I think we just need to get this first win, and the feeling of Saturday will be gone.
"That feeling was a bad feeling just knowing that we had so much on the line, and we kind of dropped the ball on it. Taking it a game at a time and just getting out of this first round, I think that's going to relieve us. We really messed up by not winning that game Saturday, but we're right back at it with a win in the opening round. We'll be right back to playing good basketball."
Despite Saturday's defeat, the Redhawks have been playing a very team-oriented brand of basketball down the stretch, defeating a pair of division rivals (Murray State and UT Martin) that are also in this week's field of eight teams.
"I think this team is focused," Cleveland said. "Coach Ray basically told us that if we're going to live in the past and think about Saturday, we might as well not even take the trip to Nashville because if we go up there with that mindset, TSU is going to kill us.
"He basically told us that we've got to get over that loss and get ready and prepared for this Tennessee State team."
Cleveland leads Southeast (14-17) in scoring with 17.0 ppg to go along with 5.1 rebounds per game.
Fellow senior Trey Kellum is averaging 11.8 ppg and a team-high 6.5 rpg, while Calvin is generating 7.2 ppg and 2.3 apg.
The Redhawks are scoring 75.2 ppg and are giving up an average of 74.7 ppg.
Southeast will face a TSU squad that's 17-12 on the season and is led by senior Tahjere McCall, who's scoring 14.4 ppg and is a cog on the defensive end.
Wayne Martin is producing 14.3 ppg and leads the Tigers in rebounding with 9.2 boards per contest.
TSU is scoring 71.0 ppg but is holding its opponents to an average of 67.4 ppg.
"I think the key is to just stay together as a team," Calvin said. "Whether we're going down a bad stretch or a good stretch, we just need to stay together and just play hard and focused and do what we do best and not worry about the other team."