Release Date: 11/16/1998
Clarksville, Ark. --- It was just eight months ago that University of the Ozarks Eagles completed an impressive 17-7 men's basketball season with a team that consisted of seven underclassmen among their top nine players. With so many underclassmen, the expectations were high for the 1998-99 season.
Eight months later, however, the Eagles are heading into the 1998-99 season with just two returnees from that team, and it's question marks and not high expectations that define the start of head coach Johnny Johnson's ninth season at the school.
"If everyone from last year had come back we'd have a chance to be very good, but that's one thing about Division III; you never know from year to year who you will have," said Johnson, whose program is entering its third season on the non-scholarship level. "We had some players move up a level to other schools and we had others who left because of financial aid reasons. We're basically starting over again."
Johnson's cupboard isn't completely bare, though. The two returnees include 6-1 junior guard Patrick Prater of Sherwood, last season's leading scorer (14.2 points per game) and a two-time All-American Southwest Conference honorable mention selection, and junior guard Daniel Shepherd of Dardanelle, who led the Eagles with 37 three-pointers and averaged 10.5 points a game last year. Also back is 6-3 sophomore guard Ryan Marshall of Beebe, who averaged 12 points a game as a freshman starter two years ago before missing all of last season with a knee injury.
"Obviously in those three we have three guys who could average between 12 and 15 points a game," said Johnson, who is 128-97 in eight seasons at the school. "All three of them have plenty of experience and we will be counting on them to step up and provide leadership this year. They're the nucleus we're building this team around."
The Eagles' biggest loss from last year is junior point guard Andre Webster of Dardanelle, a two-year starter and All-ASC performer who transferred to Arkansas Tech. Among those who will try to fill his shoes are Donald Williams, a 6-1 sophomore transfer from Shorter Junior College, and Bo Hammond, a 6-foot freshman from Jacksonville.
"The point guard position will be a big key for this team," Johnson said. "We haven't had to worry about that spot the past couple of years. If we can find someone who can fill that spot quickly, it will give us a tremendous boost."
But while the Eagles lost Webster to Tech, they also gained a player from the Wonder Boys. Ben Jones, a 6-7 senior post player from Clarksville and a three-year letterman at Tech, will play his final year at Ozarks, giving the Eagles an experienced inside player. Jones averaged 9.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in 25 games last season at Tech.
"Ben's not a true center, but he's the type of player who can score all the way out to the three-point line," Johnson said. "We're going to be counting on him to average double-digits this year and give us a strong inside presence. It's not very often you get a transfer of his ability and experience, so it's a big plus for us."
The Eagles' other inside position will probably be handled by a pair of freshmen: 6-7 Jeremy Box of Pottsville and 6-5 Brian Henderson of Berryville. Henderson has been hampered in the preseason by a broken foot but should be at full strength by early December.
"Brian is a strong, physical player who can also score, while Jeremy has been a very pleasant surprise with how quickly he's picked up our system," Johnson said. "I expect both of them to contribute significantly right away for us, especially Brian when he gets healthy."
Sophomore Dennis Wright, Junior Russell Gorman and freshmen Anthony Peterson and Shane Norrid will provide the Eagles depth at the inside positions.
Ozarks opens the season Friday, Nov. 20, against Westminster College in the Hendrix College Tip-off Classic in Conway. The Eagles' first home game is Nov. 23 against Arkansas Baptist.