If the AP's preseason All-American picks serve as an indication, 2012-13 may be the year of the mid-major star. Three of the six players picked for first-team honors come from leagues that typically receive no more than one bid to the NCAA tournament.
One of those individuals is Murray State's Isaiah Canaan, who a year ago became the star on a Racers team that nearly went undefeated in the regular season. MSU's only loss before the NCAA tournament came to Tennessee State, which quietly had one of its best seasons in recent decades, thanks in large part to Robert Covington. While he's not yet burst onto the national spotlight like conference-mate Canaan, Covington is nonetheless a player who bears watching in 2012-13.
Covington's name is not unfamiliar. He was a first-team Ohio Valley Conference performer as junior in 2011-12, and he's even on the radar of folks who make a living analyzing NBA draft prospects. But like Norfolk State's Kyle O'Quinn a year ago, Covington enters his senior season largely missing from the national conversation of players to watch. While his team has a new coach after John Cooper left for Miami OH, Tennessee State should still contend with Murray State and Belmont for the Ohio Valley crown. Covington figures to be a key cog for the Tigers in that race.
As a junior, Covington was impressive on a number of fronts. His counting stats were solid enough to win over OVC voters, as he finished the year averaging 17.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Check out his tempo-free profile and the gushing continues. Covington used 26 percent of his team's possessions while on the court, and he recorded an offensive rating of 118 and an effective field goal percentage of 61. The athletic 6-8 forward does most of his scoring damage inside the arc, where he shot a stunning 57 percent last year. But what makes him downright lethal is his perimeter game. After shooting 46 percent from downtown in 2010-11, Covington connected on 45 percent in 2011-12 while also increasing his frequency of shots from there.
Covington's progression as a scorer indicates that he's in for a big senior season. He's managed to accomplish the difficult task of becoming more efficient as his role in the offense has increased in each of his seasons at Tennessee State. He presents match-up problems at his level because of his ability to make baskets from anywhere on the court. He can clean up off of his teammates' misses (he had an offensive rebounding rate of 11 percent), or he can create his own shot off the dribble, as he often did in an impressive 10-for-15 outing against Murray State last year. Moreover, Covington's not just an efficient scorer, but an exciting one. In fact his athleticism is off the charts by OVC standards.
The only missing piece from the man's offensive arsenal is an ability to get to the free throw line more often. He made some progress last season, jumping his free throw rate from 26 percent to 32 percent, but given his ability and athleticism, it doesn't seem too outlandish to think he could bump that closer to 40 percent. More trips to the line would certainly be welcome for a guy who has shot 78 percent there for his career. On the other end of the floor, Covington will have to cut down on the number of times he sends the other team to the line. While he improved in this area last season, through three games this year he has struggled to stay on the floor for long stretches due to foul trouble.
Covington has long been a great defensive rebounder. His career defensive rebounding rate hovers around 19 percent, and he hit a career-high of 20 percent last season. The Tiger star also started to swat more shots as a junior, finishing the year with a block percentage of 5.3 percent. If that trend continues upward, and if Michael Green or M.J. Rhett make an expected leap this season, then Covington and company could be on their way to improving their two-point field goal defense, which was well below the OVC average in 2011-12.
While Covington is certainly an efficient and exciting star, the Tigers are rounded out with a solid supporting cast, a majority of which is back from a year ago. Covington fouled out in 19 minutes in TSU's opener against BYU, which gave 6-8 forward and fellow senior Kellen Thornton an opportunity. He took advantage of that chance by putting together his best scoring output yet as a Tiger. Patrick Miller, a junior point guard, will also figure prominently as a key setup man for Covington and the Tigers. Going forward, Tennessee State will have some opportunities to impress in the early going, though they haven't quite gotten to that point in losses to NCAA tournament teams like BYU, South Dakota State, and Minnesota.
Following a challenging non-conference slate, the Tigers will enter an Ohio Valley Conference climate that should be rather competitive at the top. The series with Murray State will be great after their battles last season, and so too will matches with nearby Belmont. Through it all, expect Covington to shine brightly. The great OVC teams of the last few years have been led by supremely talented individuals such as Morehead State's Kenneth Faried and Isaiah Canaan at Murray State. Covington is primed to join that club in 2012-13.
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