Austin Peay basketball coach Dave Loos will be the first to admit that, a couple of months ago, he had to face the harsh reality that this just might not be the year for his Governors.
“In January, it didn’t look like we were going anywhere,” Loos said on Selection Sunday after learning that his team would take on No. 1 seed Kansas University at 3 p.m. Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. “And then we went out and won our conference tournament and became the only 8 seed in conference history to do that. So that was very exciting and something we’re very proud of.”
A three-game losing streak in mid-January dropped Austin Peay’s record to 9-12, and Loos’ team was blown out twice, 66-52 at Tennessee State and 76-58 at Belmont.
Sinking fast, Loos and his still relatively young squad decided to make a couple of changes that wound up altering the course of the season.
Sophomore Josh Robinson moved from shooting guard to point guard, and that allowed Loos to insert freshman Jared Savage into the starting lineup.
Savage, who started the final six games of the season — including the four OVC tourney victories in four days that helped Austin Peay earn a No. 16 seed — is an electric 6-foot-5, 195-pound guard who can both shoot from the outside (34 percent) and attack off the dribble (16.7 ppg).
Putting the freshman X-factor on the floor with Robinson, senior guard Khalil Davis, junior forward Kenny Jones and senior forward Chris Horton forced opponents to extend their defense to the perimeter, giving Horton (18.9 ppg, 12 rpg) more room to operate and Savage, Robinson and Davis more lanes to attack.
“At the beginning of the year, we knew we had a very talented team,” Davis said. “But we weren’t sure how the lineup would shake out. So we shifted things a lot and struggled some. It was like a roller coaster, up and down. But when they moved Robinson to the one, that just made us harder to guard.”
And it led to a heck of a finish. Not only did Austin Peay (18-17) become the first 8 seed to win the Ohio Valley tournament, it also closed the season by winning eight of its last 10 games and, in the OVC tourney, avenged those three consecutive losses in mid-January, along with a fourth revenge-victory over UT Martin in the OVC title game.
That, Loos said, made qualifying for the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2008 all the more satisfying.
“It’s exciting,” Loos said. “Because of what this team is now and where it’s been.”
All that matters from this point on, of course, is what the Governors do next. Both Loos and Davis acknowledged that facing Kansas (30-4) in Thursday’s first round would be a heck of a challenge. But they’re hoping that their recent success when staring another monster challenge in the face will provide them with confidence.
“Us being the 8 seed (in the OVC tourney), that gave us nothing to lose, and we had to want it more to win it,” Davis said. “That helped. And we’re gonna have that same mentality against Kansas.
“The biggest thing with us is just going into the game and not saying, ‘They’re a 1, they’re gonna beat us.’ As long as we believe we have a chance, that’s the biggest thing.”