By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
By this point in his veteran coaching career, Scott Davenport knows the response he'll get whenever he asks one of his Great Lakes Valley Conference colleagues what they're chasing on the recruiting trail.
"Every coach, when you ask them what they're looking for, they'll say, ‘I need a big man," said Davenport, who is in his eighth year as Bellarmine's coach.
Finding a skilled big man is a battle most Division II coaches face, and the GLVC is no exception this year. What's not lacking in the GLVC is solid guard play.
"There are good guards in the league every year," Drury coach Steve Hesser said. "The names change, but I don't think the talent level does."
Coaches and fans alike are about to see just how high that level is.
GLVC play opens this week for several West Division schools, including Quincy University (3-2), which plays host to Illinois-Springfield (2-5) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Pepsi Arena in the league opener for both teams.
Entering play this week, 12 of the league's top 15 scorers were guards. The strong crop of guards is translating to a lot of points.
The NCAA Division II stat report released Monday revealed the GLVC had six teams in the top 55 in the country in points per game. That's out of 286 Division II teams tracked by the report.
The report included the 3-point percentages of 234 Division II squads, and the GLVC had eight teams -- half the league -- in the top 75.
Still, Davenport isn't convinced it's going to be a scoring frenzy every night of league play.
It all comes back to the depth of quality guards.
"Defensively, understand your first line of defense is always your guard play," Davenport said. "That's why it's so hard in this league. It's not just about scoring points. It's hard because they're such great defenders. These guys are good players."
They're good players who come in sets of two for several league schools.
GLVC West schools McKendree, Missouri-St. Louis and Maryville all had two guards ranking in the top 15 in the league in scoring coming into this week.
UMSL senior Joshua McCoy is one of five returning players who were first- or second-team All-GLVC last season. Of those five, four are guards.
Drury has two of the other returning all-conference guards -- seniors Alex Hall and Brandon Lockhart. Hall is a prolific scorer, while Lockhart leads the league in assists and steals. Both players are four-year starters.
"They've been through the wars," Hesser said.
Bellmarine senior Chris Dowe is the fourth returning guard who was an All-GLVC performer last year.
Hall and Dowe were selected as preseason All-Americans by Basketball Times, but it's debatable whether either player is actually the most dangerous guard in his own backcourt. While Hall has the talented Lockhart alongside him, Dowe is joined by junior Vance Hall, a transfer from Division I Wright State who has been lighting up the scoreboard.
Davenport said all of the league's top guards have an impact that extends far beyond their own game.
"What you have to understand about great guards is they have the ability on offense to control the game because they have the ball in their hands," Davenport said. "And what extraordinary (guards) do -- and we have a lot of them in this league -- they make others around them better. … If you have a great (big) man, it's tough for him to make a lot of people better, because he's trying to receive the ball."
Harry Statham, in his 47th season coaching McKendree, said preparing for a team that features a loaded backcourt can be particularly difficult.
"If they've got the (3-pointer) and they're quick, that's pretty tough to handle," Statham said. "So what you do is you help on the drive and then they kick out to another guy, and he's got room (to shoot). So it puts a little bit of pressure on the defenses."
McKendree is in its first year competing in the GLVC and has only served to give the league more talent in the backcourt. McKendree junior guard Clinton Happe and senior guard John Steppe were in the top seven in the league in scoring at the start of the week.
While there continues to be an influx of good guards, the league's low-post talent took a significant hit. The four first-team all-conference forwards or centers from last season -- QU's Justin Brock, UIS's Michael Fakuade, Kentucky Wesleyan's Anthony Young and William Jewell's Nick Larson -- all departed.
Nine teams in the league have fewer than two players on the roster who are at least 6-foot-8. Only two teams -- McKendree and Southern Indiana -- have at least four players who are 6-8 or taller. And McKendree lost its top low-post weapon, 6-8 senior David Ruckman, to a season-ending foot injury.
USI is the one team that appears loaded down low, and it could get even stronger when 6-9 senior forward Keith DeWitt, a Division I transfer from Southern Mississippi, returns from surgery he had a couple weeks ago to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. He's expected to return before the end of the season.
At QU, coach Marty Bell will feature a smaller lineup and more guard-oriented team than he has in many past years. And he's OK with that.
"Fortunately for us, (guard play) is our strength this year," Bell said. "So I think we'll be able to maybe match (up) a little better."
So who's the best guard in the league?
"There's just no way in the world I'd ever answer that question," Davenport said. "When you say the best guard, are you talking about the best defender, are you talking about the best passer, are you talking about the best pure shooter? Every category is going to go five deep."
Suffice it to say, teams better be on guard throughout the season.