It’s a sign of respect.
The Oklahoma Baptist University men’s basketball program, under fourth-year head coach Jason Eaker, was recently picked No. 1 in a preseason poll by the Great American Conference coaches for 2021-22.
The Bison return all five starters, including All-GAC First Team selection in 6-foot, 3-inch Brantly Thompson and All-GAC Second Team pick in 6-7 Harrison Stoddart, both of whom are seniors, – along with 6-3 senior Jaquan Simms, 6-6 junior Nigel Wilcox and 6-2 sophomore Trey Green.
“Our guys have earned that through their hard work, but as everyone knows, anybody can beat anybody on any given night in the GAC,” said Eaker. “It’s a good sign. It’s better than being picked last.”
Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams in the poll. Eaker says he voted Southern Arkansas No. 1 as the Muleriders also welcome back all five of their starters.
OBU and SAU each received six first-place votes, but the Bison got the edge on overall votes.
“The line between winning and losing in (NCAA) Division 2 basketball is invisible. It’s razor thin,” Eaker said.
Eaker says he embraces the recognition for his squad and the gradual success the program has experienced the last few years. Since Eaker has taken over, OBU is 54-29, including 38-16 over the past two seasons, the latter of which was a pandemic-shortened campaign.
The Bison were picked last in Eaker’s first season at the helm. That went from being picked third during his second season and being selected second last year.
The result from 2020-21 was OBU finishing 16-6 and coming within one victory from reaching the NCAA Division 2’s Sweet 16, the furthest any GAC school advanced. The Bison fell to Lubbock Christian in the round of 32 after knocking off conference foe Arkansas-Monticello in the first round.
It was the second straight season in which OBU qualified for the NCAA Division 2 Tourney. The Bison were unable to play because of the onset of COVID-19 cancelled the tournament.
“Does it put a bullseye on our back? Yes, but that was going to be there anyway,” said Eaker. “What will happen when we experience adversity? And it will happen. Does a (lofty) preseason ranking have a chance to cancel out adversity? The answer is no.”
Many things can happen along the way, according to Eaker.
“We’re going to lose some games and we may have some guys get hurt,” Eaker said. “The question is what do we have control over? Expectations are great until you don’t meet them. We want to continue to provide experience and growth, along with dealing with adversity which every college basketball team experiences.”
Eaker is confident with his team, including the accolades of his two all-conference returnees in Thompson and Stoddart.
Thompson averaged 13.8 points and knocked down 49 3-pointers on the season and Stoddart averaged 13.9, shot 53% from the foul line and was an 80% free-throw shooter.
Wilcox blocked 30 shots on the season, shot 64% from the field and averaged 8.8 rebounds (193 total boards) to lead the league.
Simms averaged 10.5 points and 3.0 assists per game in 2020-21 and Green averaged 7.7 points and shot 52% from 3-point land.