Sunday, October 28, 2012

Conference Calling's 31 in 31 Series: 2012-13 OVC Preview

The Conference Calling 31 in 31 preview series will examine each of the NCAA Division I auto-bid conferences (so no Great West or independents), one per day, leading up to college basketball's opening day on November 9. 


The Ohio Valley Conference got a major shot of adrenaline in the form of a talented Murray State team riding a loaded starting lineup, an All-America guard and a surprisingly potent schedule to a 23-0 start, a top-15 AP ranking and a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. With Isaiah Canaan still in a Racers' jersey, four of the six announced OVC games to be televised on ESPN feature MSU.

The fly in the ointment for a Murray State team looking to win the league by four games once again is the addition of a veteran Belmont squad that terrorized the Atlantic Sun for most of the last decade. There ain't nobody winning this one by four games unless Canaan or one of the Bruins' guards breaks a leg.

Of course, looking around the rest of the league, is there anyone else qualified to win? Maybe not, but the Murray-Belmont battle is the kind of drama that hasn't surrounded basketball in Nashville for a while now. Well, aside from wondering how Vanderbilt's gonna hock up their opening NCAA tournament game, but that shouldn't be a concern this year.

Read on to see which titan takes TBI's No. 14 conference.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: As I write this, I'm nursing a 102-degree fever. If I don't go quite as in-depth on the OVC's teams as I have on some of the other leagues, please don't take it personally.]

East Division:
1. Belmont
--It might not be empty hyperbole to call Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark one of the nation's best backcourt duos. The two led an offense that ranked fourth in America in scoring and assists, 15th in FG% and ninth in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency. The two both had eFG%'s above .560 and TS%'s above .600. Clark finished in the A-Sun's top 10 in both those categories all three of his seasons, and lest anyone think the defense was neglected, he won the league's DPOY last year. These guys can ball in any league.

Where the rest of the OVC has to take advantage is up front, after the loss of a pair of dominant big men. Juniors J.J. Mann and Blake Jenkins will be set to start after making a combined 16 starts last year. Jenkins averaged 6-and-3 in about 15 MPG and can play either forward position. Mann can slide to the backcourt in the Bruins' offense, and he'll usually be found out around the arc. He made about 32% from deep last season.

In the post reside the biggest question marks, surrounding the biggest guys. 6'11", 275-pound sophomore Chad Lang and 6'7", 240-pound junior Trevor Noack averaged a combined 4.7/2.5 in 11.5 MPG. Add in senior Brandon Baker's 2.6/2.7, and there's not a ton of proven production on hand. Noack did average about 15 minutes two years ago, and he was sort of inconsistent as a face-up four in coach Rick Byrd's offense. A better rebounder than three-point shooter, Noack may get more minutes inside this season.

Sophomore Reece Chamberlain, a 50% three-point shooter, may be the microwave off the bench, and senior Adam Barnes provide backcourt depth. Barnes struck for 11 in a double-OT win over Middle Tennessee in November.

Depth isn't extensive for the Bruins, so if anything happens to Clark or Johnson, Belmont's OVC debut could be the biggest flop since "Speed Racer." As long as the two All-OVC candidates are calling the shots, though, the rest of the East is playing for second.

2. Tennessee State
--Two words: Robert Covington. A South Alabama fan on a Sun Belt message board wasn't happy that TSU was considered USA's "Marquee Matchup" in my Sun Belt preview. First off, USA's not beating Florida State, and secondly, how many other NBA prospects are on the Jags' slate this season?

Covington has gained two inches and 40 pounds since coming to Nashville, and he's now a cut 6'9" and 215. He averaged 11.5/6.5 plus a steal and a block as a freshman, and he's done nothing but improve ever since. Covington finished top-10 in every major category except assists and free-throw percentage, and he was 13th in the OVC at the line. He may be a better pro prospect than even the mighty Canaan.

But what's around him? Sophomore M.J. Rhett and senior Kellen Thornton are the only frontcourt returnees who averaged more than 10 MPG. Both are decent inside scorers and very capable rebounders. 6'9" junior Michael Green is a former starter who lost his job to Thornton. Look for Dutch juco Chaed Wellian to provide some outside stroke.

In the backcourt, point guard Patrick Miller and part-timer Jordan Cyphers will play the leading roles. Miller showed a great affinity for attacking the tin and ranked top-10 in both assists and steals despite not being the actual point guard. This season, that's his job. Cyphers shot 36% from long range. That's his job. 10-MPG reserves Jay Harris and Kharon Butcher return, along with new guy DeShawn Dockery, a transfer from Fairleigh Dickinson.

New coach Travis Williams takes over from the departed John Cooper, coming off the school's first winning season since 1996 and the first 20-win season since 1979. It's a tough row to hoe, but Williams had a hand in many of these players coming to TSU, and the transition has taken place with a minimum of fuss. OVC fans will debate all season who the league's best player is, but as long as Covington's making his case, Belmont may not be able to pull away from its city rival.

3. Jacksonville State
--The Gamecocks aren't going to the postseason, thanks to pesky APR-induced sanctions. It's a bit of a shame, because seven of the top 10 players are back from a team that made a 10-game improvement. Coach James Green has to get his team motivated to play for pride, and if he can do that, JSU could seriously screw things up if the division races are tight.

Guards Brian Williams, Ronnie Boggs and Darion Rackley are a solid defensive group, each averaging better than a steal per game. The issue comes on the other end, where Boggs shot 54%, but Williams struggled to break 40 and Rackley couldn't even get that far. Williams is the only real three-point threat at 34%.

Senior Tarvin Gaines and junior Nick Cook are veterans who can both crash the glass and crush opponents' drives. Cook ranked second in the OVC in blocks. Gaines exploded onto the scene with a 30-11 game against Alabama State, just one of his 21 double-figure nights. He has the ability to be a 15-PPG man if he can raise his three-point shooting numbers from 26%. Senior Rinaldo Mafra will play a strong backup role after averaging nearly 3-and-3 in 13.5 MPG.

Two freshmen, 6'9" Mike Louder and 6'8" Darrius Moore, are the only players on the roster above 6'7". The 250-pound Moore will see immediate time, while Louder, at 185, may be more of a mid-range player. Several other newcomers could crash the rotation, most notably 5'11" freshman point guard Alex Anderson. Anderson shot 52% from the floor and 48% from deep as a senior.

The Cocks aren't big shooting threats, but they were one of the OVC's most solid defensive teams last year. If the effort remains strong on that end, the shaky shooting won't matter quite as much. The challenge is keeping the players grinding when the February games keep coming and there's no tournament to look forward to.

4. Morehead State
--How would the Eagles fare without NBA first-rounder/athletic freak Kenny Faried? Fairly well, thanks. The team won 18 games and finished third in the OVC, which was good enough for Southern Miss to hire away coach Donnie Tyndall. If there was a perfect replacement for a school in eastern Kentucky, it may have been Sean Woods.

The former UK "Unforgettable" should have no problem recruiting in the state, even though his record at Mississippi Valley State was a dreary 50-80. His new team returns a frontcourt with a nice blend of skill and bulk. Junior Drew Kelly is the only returning double-figure scorer, and his ability to score inside and at the line will be essential to the offense. He may drift out to the perimeter a bit more if Woods has his way.

250-pound senior Kahlil Owens and 6'6" senior Milton Chavis also bring experience back. Owens could be among the OVC's top rebounders with enough minutes, as his .167/.273 rebounding percentages would have ranked among the best in America. Chavis's 53% shooting ranked fifth in the OVC.

Sophomore Angelo Warner and senior Devon Atkinson are the only backcourt vets. Warner's points were almost exactly balanced between twos, threes and ones, and look for him to crack double digits if he can also crack 30 MPG. Warner also came third on the team in rebounds.

From there, Woods is integrating an enormous group of newcomers, and he's got to find some scorers somewhere. Juco guards Taariq Muhammad and Bakari Turner may both start, while four frontcourt players 6'7" or taller will give the Eagles plenty of size.

The Morehead lineup looks like a fluid situation as practices continue, and Woods has a big dig ahead of him to find the right mixture. If the newcomers produce anywhere close to their previous pedigrees, MSU should be in great shape next year with only four seniors leaving.

5. Tennessee Tech
--Last year's "best player in the OVC" debate had Tennessee Tech's Kevin Murphy in it, but he's moved on to the NBA. So, he'll be replaced on the all-conference team by senior swingman Jud Dillard (6'5", 190). While Murphy was crushing kids on the regular, Dillard was quietly more efficient, ranking in the league's top 10 from both the floor and the line. He came fourth in scoring and led the league on the glass.

The Golden Eagles don't return a whole lot else, welcoming back only two other players who averaged 10-plus MPG. 275-pound hoss Terrell Barnes is going to be counted on for a lot more than 2.9/4.4 this season. Those numbers would be effective if he'd played about 15 MPG, but 23? Raising his production will be essential. Junior Matt Marseille missed last year with a knee, but could provide some outside shooting and offensive rebounding. Both these guys have been hobbled with injuries in the offseason, though, and recovery will last right up to the opener.

New point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA because new SMU coach Larry Brown is a mean, mean man. A career 7 P/4 A/1 SPG man with a 35% three-point stroke, Samarrippas will slot right into Tech's starting spot and could have a big impact. Next to him in the backcourt, coach Steve Payne may roll with sophomore Javon McKay or one of a host of freshmen. 6'3" rookie DeOndre Haynes is a true point guard, but he has the size and scoring ability to slide to the two.

Most of the depth and size will come from freshmen. Rookies Eric Weisenbach (7'0", 215) and Anthony Morse (6'8", 215) and redshirt Ryon Riggins (6'9", 210) are the only players on the roster taller than 6'7".

Payne has to seek more balance from his offense this season. Murphy and Dillard combined for 53% of the Eagles' scoring last year. The defense will also need some work, and a large amount of newcomers can take time to learn each other's tendencies.

6. Eastern Kentucky
--The Colonels will need a transfusion of new blood, as only four players return from last season's roster. Top scorer Mike DiNunno is an 81% foul shooter, but only dropped 27% from long range last year. He ranked top-10 in the league in steals and just missed in assists. Former D-I players Corey Walden (Stetson) and Orlando Williams (Miami-OH) averaged a combined 21.8 PPG in 2010-11, and both shot at least 34% from long range. Three other new guards without D-I experience will try to crash the rotation.

NJCAA All-American Tarius Johnson averaged 20-and-8 last season and may be called upon to provide inside muscle. Sophomore Eric Stutz leads the frontcourt returnees after ranking top-10 in the OVC in both eFG% and TS%. Three other 6'7" forwards give a little size, especially 250-pound Jeff Johnson.

DiNunno is the roster's only senior, so EKU could escape the basement next season if this year's roster blends effectively. An unheralded player coming out of nowhere is not unprecedented in Richmond after Jaron Jones went from 2.5 PPG to 17 last season. It's anyone's guess who the next Jaron Jones will be, but EKU is going to need one.

West Division:
1. Murray State
--Isaiah Canaan is one of America's top 20 or so players, and he's going to have to prove it to put the Racers anywhere close to the lofty heights they hit last season. Fans have to struggle to temper expectations, because right now, it's anyone's guess where the rest of the starting lineup is coming from.

Senior forward Ed Daniel, the owner of one of the nation's most prodigious heads of hair, is also one of the OVC's more efficient inside scorers. He'll need to push double-double averages to keep the Racers winning. From there, three starters are gone and part-timer LaTreze Mushatt is out until January with an injured Achilles. Add to that the loss of guard Zay Jackson to a scary case of vehicular assault, and the next most experienced returnees are senior forwards Brandon Garrett (2.2/2.1 last season) and Stacy Wilson (4.2 PPG, eFG% and TS% around 59).

UAB transfer Dexter Fields should start next to Canaan, bringing his 37% three-point stroke in an effort to replace the production of the departed Jewaun Long.

That lineup could be strong in the OVC, but like so many other schools, Murray has to rely on newcomers for depth. Five freshman forwards will jockey for spots, most notably 6'7" combo forward Zach McCree. 6'8", 225-pound center Zabius Henderson is the biggest man on the roster, and he'll play solid minutes from day one.

The Racers are still projected to win the division based on the force of Canaan's will, but coach Steve Prohm has to pull serious production out of his freshmen. He did it with Jackson last year, so the precedent exists. If I was picking now, though, my expectation would probably be for Belmont to prevail in the OVC final. An at-large bid is highly unlikely, so somebody's going to end up in the NIT.

2. SIU-Edwardsville
--Three double-figure scorers return for the Cougars, and the most notable may be sophomore guard Kris Davis. Davis drained a ludicrous 59.8% of his three-point shots last season, by far the nation's top percentage. It's not ludicrous to suggest that Davis's name be included on the short list of college ball's best shooters. Oddly, he's not a volume gunner, as less than 45% of his shots came from outside the arc.

The senior frontcourt trio of Mark Yelovich, Jerome Jones and Derian Shaffer make it easy for Davis to see open looks. The three combined for almost 33 points and 18 rebounds per game last year, with Yelovich and Jones earning All-OVC honors for a ninth-place team. All three were OVC top-10 rebounders, and Yelovich ranked eighth in scoring. Shaffer could make himself a double-figure scorer, evidenced by his 12-11 double-double against Murray State.

Junior Michael Messer may get the start next to Davis in the backcourt. Messer is a career 8-and-3 guy who had his 2011-12 year derailed by a wrist injury. Other contributors are former D-I transfers Maurice Wiltz (Colorado State) and Tim Johnson (George Washington). Both saw limited minutes at their prior schools, although Johnson did make five starts at GW. Wiltz is described as a combo guard who could back up Davis at the point.

6'9" Zeke Schneider is the biggest man on the roster, but he's never produced with any consistency. His improvement will be critical. Sophomores Michael Birts and Charles Joy will get a chance to expand their minutes, and Vincennes (Ind.) transfer Ray Lester can contribute quickly.

The Cougars' perimeter-oriented offense performed well last season, but the FG and 3P defense also ranked in the top half of the OVC. SIUE gave up a lot of points because it struggled on the glass and with ball security. If Davis is going to run the point effectively, he needs to improve on his A/T ratio, which was three miscues to the negative. Also, the senior forwards need to get some support on the glass. The Cougars were near the bottom in both OR% and DR%. If any of the reserves can hit the glass effectively, look for SIUE to threaten the .500 mark in its first full D-I season.

3. SE Missouri State
--There's a clear pecking order of players lined up as OVC POY candidates, including Canaan, Covington and the two Belmont guards. After that, the next likely candidate may be SEMO's 6'8" junior Tyler Stone. Stone was top-10 in scoring, rebounding, blocks and FG% last season, and the only reason to think he won't improve is the loss of his All-OVC running mate Leon Powell.

The Redhawks have three guys 6'7" or taller set to audition as Powell's replacement. Sophomore Nino Johnson played well in his limited minutes last season and could crunch substantial numbers as a starter. Redshirt freshman Jacob Tolbert and true frosh center Colin Ferguson will also see time, especially now that starting forward Michael Porter will miss the early part of the season with a broken foot.

The backcourt returns great experience with three seniors and a junior, all of whom played at least 15 MPG last year. Coach Dickey Nutt's son Lucas takes over as the full-time point guard after splitting the job with the departed Marcus Brister. The coach wants to see his kid look for his shot more often while continuing to take great care of the ball (league-best 2.2 A/T ratio). Shooting guard Marland Smith could end his career as a top-10 all-time scorer at SEMO, especially if he repeats his 40% three-point stroke from last year. Seniors Nick Niemczyk and Corey Wilford can also stroke the long jumper.

Freshmen Jared White and C.J. Reese, along with juco transfer A.J. Jones, provide even more backcourt depth.

While the guards have proven they can shoot the three, defending it was an issue last season. SEMO will miss Powell's low-post defense and rebounding, but Nino Johnson could be capable of filling some of that production. Any frontcourt injuries, especially to Stone, would prove disastrous for a squad that's already guard-heavy. Finally, foul shooting should be better without the scattered shots of Powell and Brister dragging the team to the league cellar.

4. UT-Martin
--It should be assumed that UTM won't be going winless in OVC play this season. The talent that got such rude treatment from the rest of the league now has a year of seasoning, and medical redshirt Terence Smith returns. Smith missed last season with a heart ailment, a major loss coming off his 11.3/3.9/3.1 OVC Freshman of the Year debut. His scoring may increase, as he's not expected to work as the point guard this season.

Junior Omari Minor will fill that role, expected to continue taking care of the ball while providing a minimal shooting threat. 6'4" freshman Dee Oldham may challenge, as he's a bit more capable scorer. Jucos Bobby Jones and Justin Childs add more size and scoring touch to the backcourt.

Swingman Mike Liabo and UTM's second straight Freshman of the Year, 250-pound tank Myles Taylor, return after being the Skyhawks' only double-figure scorers. Liabo's shot can be erratic at times, but it doesn't stop him from firing away (OVC-high 223 3PA). His versatile point-forward game works well with the low-post threat of Taylor, who can finish strong around the rim and makes opponents pay for contact (.749 FT%).

A pair of seniors return in the post, 240-pound Corderio Maclin and 230-pound Jeremy Washington. Washington is another skilled passer who can hit the mid-range shot. Maclin is a banger inside, and he tends to draw whistles because of it (7.2 fouls per 40). Juco transfer Tobias Dowdell should help on the glass.

It's hard to overstate the importance of Smith's return, as Liabo was the only reliable backcourt scorer UTM had last season. The Skyhawks were one of the OVC's worst shooting teams last season, and they need all hands on deck who can make some shots. Taylor should be able to help clean up some messes, but he'll need help from Washington and Maclin. The potential is there for UTM to climb a bit, but .500 in the conference would be a stunning success.

5. Austin Peay
--The Governors could be feeling impeached this year, entering the season without last year's top four scorers and three of the top four rebounders. Like UT-Martin, Peay could pin a large portion of its hopes on a player returning from injury. Forward Anthony Campbell is a former All-OVC player who has had his past two seasons cut short by knee injuries. His workload will be light in the early going to minimize re-injury risk, but that was also the plan last year, as Campbell only played 15 MPG in his 10 games.

The rest of the frontcourt will need to be pieced together, but a main contributor will be junior Will Triggs, who averaged a double-double in the Govs' trip to Canada this summer. He was a 6-and-4 man last year who recorded a dub-dub against Bowling Green State. Power forward Chris Freeman is the only other returnee who's played significant minutes up front. 6'7" freshman Preston Herring is a former high school guard who grew four inches between his sophomore and junior seasons. Look for him to contend for small forward minutes.

The point guard spot is a battle between incumbent Jerome Clyburn (6.3/1.7/2.8 last season), sophomore Herdie Lawrence and freshman A.J. Lynch. Despite standing only 6'2", Lynch was a double-double man as a high school senior. Junior Alton Williams can provide some shooting off the bench.

Coach Dave Loos has a lot of questions to answer entering the season, primarily on the front line. The point guard spot should be Clyburn's to lose, but Loos wants to motivate the senior to finish his career strong by putting his job in jeopardy. Last year's Govs were among the worst defensive teams in the OVC, and that will stick in the craw of a defensive-minded coach like Loos. He'll work them hard, but there just may not be enough pure talent to contend in a sneaky-good division.

6. Eastern Illinois
--New coach Jay Spoonhour has wasted no time in putting his stamp on the Panthers, watching multiple players walk out for greener pastures in addition to the usual graduation losses. There is now only one player on the roster who has been in the program for more than one season. The returnees have a combined eight starts in an EIU jersey.

The logical building block would be 6'8" sophomore Josh Piper. Piper was a highly effective scorer with a TS% over 63. He scored in double figures four times, but the only D-I opponents among the four were Houston Baptist and Central Arkansas. Junior Alex Lubsey brings back 47 minutes, and he's the only other frontcourt vet. Jucos Keenan Anderson, Sherman Blanford and R.J. McGhee will compete immediately. McGhee is a dangerous scorer from anywhere, while Anderson and Blanford may help on the glass.

In the backcourt, seniors Austin Akers and Taylor Jones are the most experienced faces. Akers is a capable distributor who takes great care of the ball (2.2 A/T ratio), and Jones likes to camp at the arc, where he shot 34% last year. Junior hustler Morris Woods and senior Malcolm Herron provide defensive ability off the bench.

Three freshmen, two of them Spoonhour signings, will compete with the veterans. Perimeter shooter Alex Austin and big point guard Dennis Green should see some minutes. The Panthers are also still waiting on news of UNLV transfer Reggie Smith's eligibility. He would provide serious athleticism to a team that could use some.

The Panthers may be the hardest team in the OVC to project, with all the new faces and lightly seasoned vets. It's natural for preseason projections to favor the teams with proven production, hence this last-place expectation. EIU could sneak up, however, if some of these newcomers come out firing. 

In this section: each team's most compelling non-conference game, weighed for visibility and chance of a win.
Austin Peay: Dec. 8 at Memphis
--Eh, it pays well.
Belmont: Dec. 13 vs. Middle Tennessee
--Don't get caught overlooking this one for the trip to Kansas two days later.
Eastern Illinois: Dec. 19 at Saint Louis
--Jay Spoonhour should get a warm welcome at his dad Charlie's old post...until the game starts.
Eastern Kentucky: Nov. 28 vs. Delaware State
--Since I have to pick one, and I'm tired of picking power-conference curb-stompings, we'll go with this one. Of course, Tahj Tate and Marques Oliver would be studs in the OVC, too, so this may be a low-major curb-stomping.
Jacksonville State: Dec. 18 at Nebraska
--A big conference doormat bringing on a new coach may be ripe. Or the Cocks may get beaten until they turn Japanese.
Morehead State: Dec. 28 vs. Southern Miss
--Ex-coach Donnie Tyndall brings his new team to town. Despite some attrition, USM should still have the ammo to win.
Murray State: Dec. 29 vs. Valparaiso
--Auburn's winnable and a game vs. Baylor COULD wait in the Charleston Classic, but the rest of this schedule isn't loaded with big game. Let's stick to what we know will happen. Valpo should be the Horizon League favorite.
SE Missouri State: Dec. 4 at Missouri
--Okay, this one tastes like squash.
SIU-Edwardsville: Dec. 8 at Western Illinois
--Don't make me pick Mizzou again. Ceala Clark and Terell Parks are a killer duo, but can Yelovich and Jones neutralize them?
Tennessee-Martin: Nov. 11 at Cincinnati
--I think Memphis is playing a full OVC schedule, but I'll go with UC here. Both games could get ugly.
Tennessee State: Nov. 9 at BYU
--A team with the quality to win a big game and the guts to schedule some. Covington vs. Brandon Davies is a nice-looking matchup.
Tennessee Tech: Dec. 6 vs. Wisconsin-Green Bay
--A great frontcourt, led by 7-footer Alec Brown.

G Isaiah Canaan, Murray State (6'1", 185, Sr.)
--He'll be the primary and secondary focus of defenses all year. And he'll probably brush it off like dirt on his shoulder. (Link may not be SFW, depending on where you work.) OVC POY.
G Ian Clark, Belmont (6'3", 175, Sr.)
--Will shoulder more of the scoring load with three starters gone, and we already know about his defensive credentials.
F Robert Covington, Tennessee State (6'9", 215, Sr.)
--Is usually in double-figure scoring the moment he gets off the bus. Could win POY if his team tops Belmont in the standings.
G Kerron Johnson, Belmont (6'1", 175, Sr.)
--A pest on both ends; he'll get your players in foul trouble on offense and strip them like a junk car on defense.
F Tyler Stone, SE Missouri State (6'8", 230, Jr.)
--Scored 18 against Missouri and 20 against Oregon, so production is proven.

F Ed Daniel, Murray State (6'7", 215, Sr.)
--He'll have to take on a lot more scoring, and he's perfectly capable of making 60% of his shots.
G/F Jud Dillard, Tennessee Tech (6'5", 190, Sr.)
--Would easily be first-team if Belmont hadn't joined the league.
F Tarvin Gaines, Jacksonville State (6'6", 220, Sr.)
--Double figures in 12 of his last 14 games; shot 40% or better in 10 of them.
F Myles Taylor, UT-Martin (6'7", 250, Soph.)
--11 games with four or five fouls last season; if he cuts that down, he's hard to stop.  
F Mark Yelovich, SIU-Edwardsville (6'6", 223, Sr.)
--Could use a little more consistency from the arc, but otherwise a money player in every way for the Cougars.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State
COACH OF THE YEAR: Lennox Forrester, SIU-Edwardsville
--Edwardsville could have a big celebration after finishing its D-I reclassification period.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Dexter Fields, Murray State
--He'll get a lot of open shots with defenses staring at Canaan, so 12-15 PPG is not out of the question.

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