RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – On Tuesday, the Great American Conference announced the results of its 2021 men’s basketball preseason poll. Southeastern Oklahoma State placed first in the Western Division while Southern Arkansas garnered the top spot in the Eastern Division.
Last month, the GAC announced its basketball regular season would consist of a 20-game division schedule. As such, the league’s head coaches only ranked their division opponents. Both Southeastern and SAU received four first-place votes. In the Eastern Division, Henderson State, the 2020 GAC Champions, finished second and received two first-place votes. In the Western Division, Oklahoma Baptist, runners-up to the Reddies at the GAC Championships, took second. The 12 head coaches also chose an overall champion. In that poll, the Savage Storm claimed eight of the 12 votes.
A season ago, the Savage Storm posted a 23-8 record and earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament. While they must replace 2,000-point scorer and All-American Kevin Buckingham, the Savage Storm bring back a pair of All-GAC selections in Adam Dworsky and Kellen Manek. Dworsky, a D2CCA All-Region honoree, set the league’s single-season assist record a season ago. Manek averaged 14.0 points and 6.6 rebounds. He shot 48.1 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from the 3-point arc.
The Muleriders return their three double-figure scores in Aaron Lucas, Devante Brooks and Jalen Brooks. Lucas also paced the teams in assists and steals. Devante Brooks led the league in rebounds and ranked second with nine double-doubles. Jalen Brooks ranked second on the team in rebounds and led in blocked shots.
Last season, Henderson State captured the program’s first league title in 17 years and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 seasons. The Reddies must replace four starters from last season. Raekwon Rogers returns after ranking second in the league in field-goal percentage and fifth in rebounding. He earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
The Bison joined Southeastern, Henderson State and Southern Nazarene as NCAA qualifiers as the GAC sent four schools to the Central Regional for the first time in league history. The Bison earned their first appearance at the NCAA Division II level. They bring back three starters –Jaquan Simms, Harrison Stoddart and Brantley Thompson – as well as their top reserve in Jarius Hicklen. Simms led the team in scoring and 3-point field goals; Stoddart shot 51.7 percent from the floor and led in blocks; Thompson ranked second in assists and third in rebounds. As a freshman, Hicklen averaged 9.1 points and shot 38.7 percent from the 3-point arc.
Southern Nazarene, the GAC’s three-time regular season champion, took third in the Western Division. The Crimson Storm faces the task of replacing the dynamic duo of Jhonathan Dunn and Micah Speight. Dunn, the GAC’s Male Athlete of the Year, set the league’s single-season and career scoring records. Speight captured the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor after leading the GAC in steals for the third time. He finished his career as the GAC’s all-time leader in steals and assists.
Arkansas Tech and Arkansas-Monticello shared third place in the Eastern Division. The Wonder Boys made a change at head coach and hired a familiar name in Mark Downey. He coached the Wonder Boys from 2006-10 and posted a 77-43 record - 53-11 in his final two seasons. In 2010, Tech held the No. 1 spot in the NABC poll for seven weeks.
For the third time in the last four seasons, the Weevils won at least 19 games. They lose four double-digit scorers from last year. Denzel McDuffey returns after leading the teams in rebounds, blocks and steals while averaging 10.7 points per game.
Southwestern Oklahoma State and Northwestern Oklahoma State tied for fourth place in the Western Division. The Bulldogs saw an eight-win improvement from 2018-19. Damion Thornton earned the league’s Newcomer of the Year honor as he ranked in the top five in points, rebounds and steals. He shot 50.6 percent from the floor. The Rangers’ Parrish Hewitt returns after led the team in scoring in his first season on the team.
Ouachita and Harding rounded out the Eastern Division while East Central took sixth in the Western Division. The Bisons’ Romio Harvey ranked fourth in the GAC in scoring by averaging 20.9 points per game. ECU features a new head coach in Chris Crutchfield. In the last nine seasons he spent eight as an assistant at Oklahoma and one as an assistant at Arkansas. He inherits two double-digit scorers in Tylor Arnold and Gerren Jackson.
The league’s basketball season will feature a 20-game divisional schedule with an opening night slated for Thursday, January 7 with six doubleheaders – Arkansas Tech at Arkansas-Monticello, Southwestern Oklahoma State at East Central, Ouachita at Harding, Southern Arkansas at Henderson State, Southern Nazarene at Northwestern Oklahoma State and Southeastern Oklahoma State at Oklahoma Baptist.