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10 teams hit the hardwood today in the busiest day of the season, while the 11th team prepares for their biggest game in 8 years.

No use wasting time with an intro when there’s this much action on the table. Here’s today’s First Word:

[Austin Peay (1-9) at Tennessee (3-4) 11:00 a.m. CST  ESPN3] Any other season, given the current state of Tennessee basketball, I’d give the Governors a fighting chance of pulling an upset. But this season, an undermanned Governors team still without without Anthony Campbell after another season ending injury? I just don’t see any way it can happen. But there is good news for a team in desperate need of it, John Fraley is back.

Austin Peay has been underwhelming on both sides of the ball, and goes up against one of the better offenses in that nation in the Volunteers who have already played ranked Memphis, Duke, and Pittsburgh. Tennessee is one of the worse in the nation at forcing turnovers, part of the reason their defense hasn’t been all the effective. But on the flip side, their one of the best ball control teams in the nation as well, part of the reason their offense has been so effective.

Although Campbell hasn’t been as effective this year, the loss of another forward means more pressure will be put on Melvin Baker and Will Triggs, who will have to go up against a duo of Tennessee forwards in Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon who are both averaging better than 13 points a game.

If you’ve watched Tennessee under Bruce Pearl, you were probably used to seeing a fact paced, transition-oriented game. That doesn’t appear to be the way new Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin has played this season: in fact, if either team looks to speed up the game, it will likely be the Governors, not the Volunteers. Tennessee’s defense has been especially soft from 3-point range, (although not as soft as the Governors) but Austin Peay’s shooters have been especially ineffective from that same range, so I don’t know if they’ll be able to exploit that hole in Tennessee’s D.

[Central Michigan (4-3) at Tennessee St. (3-6) 2:00 p.m. CST] Today’s game should tell us a lot about how well the Tigers can compete in the OVC. They’re hosting an okay Central Michigan team that hasn’t played the hardest of schedules. But what they have done is held opponents to the 8th lowest field goal percentage in the nation. Despite that, their defensive efficiency numbers aren’t all that great but much better than the ailing Tigers.

While strong defensively, the Chippewas are fairly week on the offensive side of things, averaging just 68 points a contest despite being a borderline up-tempo team. Most of their scoring comes from 6’5″ sophomore guard Trey Zigler, who is averaging over 17 points a game, and has posted at least 20 in each of Central Michigan’s last 3 games. Freshman guard Austin McBroom is a true 3-point threat, hitting 13-25 from behind the arc on the season. I mention the classes for a reason: there are only 2 seniors on Central Michigan roster, and only 1 of them play significant minutes. This is a very young team, something the Tigers know a thing or two about.

After a slow start to the season, Patrick Miller has come on strong, averaging 16 points over his last 4 contests, while junior forward Robert Covington has struggled some in his last 2 games against Middle Tennessee State and Belmont. Junior forward Kellen Thorton has been a great rebounder as of late for Tennessee State, but has been an inconsistent scorer all season.

If this game becomes a free-throw battle, which it likely could, (both teams average over 20 fouls a game) the edge goes to the Tigers: Central Michigan is shooting an anemic 62% from the FT line this year. Tennessee State’s size is likely to give Central Michigan problems, as Zigler, again a 6’5″ guard, the Chippewas leading rebounder.

[Southern (3-5) vs Jacksonville St. (2-6) in New Orleans, 4:30 p.m. CST] This is much like the Tennessee State game I just described above…this is a game that should show us a lot about the Gamecocks. Both teams have very low RPI’s, both have not played particularly strong schedules, and both have losing records. Plus, this game is on a neutral court. Want more similarities? Both teams offenses are in the bottom 40 in efficiency in the nation. Both teams don’t have a go-to scorer. Both teams shoot worse than 29% from 3.

But there is one major difference that gives a major edge to the Gamecocks: Defense. Jacksonville State holds their opponents to under 40% shooting a game. Southern’s opponents hit better than 44%.

Maybe it’s because there are so many new players around him, but I’m surprised at how pedestrian the Gamecocks’ only senior, Stephen Hall, has looked this season. His scoring is down (albeit just slightly) from last year, and it just doesn’t feel like he’s improved that much from a team that missed the OVC tournament a year ago. After putting up 30 points on Alabama State, junior guard Tarvin Gaines has faded, scoring only 30 points combined in the 4 games since. That’s left a lot of the scoring to junior guard Brian Williams, who is just shooting over 35% from the field, but takes enough shots to average better than 10 points a game.

Turnovers have been a problem for Jacksonville State this season, but they’ve made up for it by forcing a lot of turnovers. The Jaguars are the opposite: They hold onto the ball, but don’t generate any turnovers either. The big challenge the Gamecocks will face in this contest is to find a way to stop 6’8″ senior forward Quinton Doggett, who leads the Jaguars with 12 points, and 8 rebounds a contest.

[UT Martin (2-8) at Middle Tennessee State (8-2) 5:00 p.m. CST] You don’t have to get past the records to see who the clear favorite is in this game, and just to get this out of the way early, the Skyhawks top scorer and assist leader Mike Liabo is expected to come off the bench again. There, I’m done.

But here’s the interesting thing: Remember how Martin beat UAB on the road? Middle Tennessee lost to UAB on the road by 10 points on Wednesday. Am I saying the Skyhawks are going to win? No. But do they have a chance? Well, yeah.

In that loss, the Blue Raiders shot just 41% from their field, way off their 4th best in the nation 52.5% on the season. UAB also shot 47% from the field, way better than the 38% the Blue Raiders have held their opponents to on the year. I could go on to tell you all the things that were much different in that game than what we’re used to seeing from the Blue Raiders (rebounding, scoring from LaRon Dendy, assists) but the thing to know is this: That game appears to be an enigma. One of those road games where the inexplicable happens. Because outside of that loss, the Blue Raiders have been a very, very good team, including 2 wins over Austin Peay. Okay, so that doesn’t really prove my point, but their 8-2 record with wins over UCLA and at Tennessee State, and just a 3-point loss to Belmont, do. Their body of work is much better than UT Martin’s at this point in the season, even if they lost to a team the Skyhawks beat.

The big picture for the Skyhawks is this: the defense isn’t great, but I honestly think the offense is worse, and their efficiency statistics agree with me. Liabo is taking a lot of shots, and easily leads the team in scoring, but if they can’t find some consistent help, they aren’t going to win many games. Freshman forward Myles Taylor has been one of the bright spots for this team as of late, averaging 10+ points and 5+ rebounds in the Skyhawks last 5 contests. Troy King had a good game against Central Arkansas, and put up 16 points off the bench with Liabo out against Ball State, but faded again with 1-4 shooting, and 2 points against Lipscomb. Junior forward Jeremy Washington is hitting less than 40% from the field on the season, which is horrible for a 6’7″ forward. 17 turnovers a game don’t help, at all.

I know it sounds like I’m riding the Skyhawks hard, and I am. But I really thought this was a team that could be a solid contender this year. Right now, does this team make even make the tournament? I’m not sold yet that they do.

[Georgia Southern (3-4) at Eastern Kentucky (5-5), 6:00 p.m. CST] This is a very winnable game for the Colonels. Georgia Southern hasn’t really played a difficult schedule, and definitely hasn’t beaten a strong team. In fact their top RPI win? At home versus Appalachian State, ranked 317th in RPI.

That being said, EKU does have 5 wins, but their top RPI win? At Winthorp, ranked 253rd.

The Eagles will rely on 6’7″ sophomore “guard” (at least, that’s what he’s listed as) Eric Ferguson, the team’s leader in points (16.0 PPG) and rebounds (7.3 RPG). They also have two other good guards in 5’10” sophomore Ben Drayton III,  who scores more than 12 a game and dishes out 3+ assists, and 6’2″ senior Willie Powers III (what is it with this team and thirds?) who also averages double digit scoring and 5+ assists, 4+ rebounds a game. Offensively, the Eagles shoot really well, but are plagued by turnovers, and sub-par defending, especially in the paint.

Not that the Colonels defense has been much better. Don’t let their opponents 64 points a game fool you; that has much more to do with pace than defense. EKU’s opponents shoot better than 55% inside the 3-point arc, 328th in the nation, which is still better than Georgia Southern. (All but 2 teams aren’t better than Georgia Southern in this regard) Both teams have defended the 3-point arc well, but when you allow 55% (or 60% in the Eagles case) shooting inside the arc, who needs to shoot 3’s?

The Colonels score by committee, which is kind of built into the modified Princeton style of offense Jeff Neubauer employs. But senior guard Jaron Jones has hit the double digit mark in scoring in his last 8 games, (after just 6 total points in his first 3) is coming off a 30 point effort Tuesday against North Carolina Central, and is shooting better than 53% from the field on the season, and freshman Eric Stutz is making a big impact averaging 10 points and a team high 5 rebounds a game. Stutz recently had a 22 point performance as well against Brescia and, in my view, is a real candidate for freshman of the year honors this early in the season.

[South Dakota (3-5) at Morehead St. (4-6) 6:00 p.m. CST] South Dakota is kind of a tough team to get a read on. They like to run, and don’t turn over the basketball. But they don’t force turnovers, which is the best way to speed up a game. They have 4 solid scorers, but absolutely no help behind them: Only 7 players have played all 8 games for the Coyotes. And their defense isn’t great.

Wish I could say the same about the Eagles. But if they want to get a win at home, mission number one is finding a way to stop South Dakota’s senior guard Charlie Westbrook. Westbrook has scored in double digits in every game he’s played, averaging over 16 points a game. And that’s while shooting 4-22 (18%) from 3-point range this season. Imagine if he actually hit a few.

Ty Proffitt has been playing very strong of late, scoring at least 13 points in each of his last 4 games. But the other senior guard, Terrance Hill, hasn’t been playing strong as of late, and we have seen absolutely no consistency from the team’s forwards. Part of the problem with the team’s defense falls on those forwards: when opponents get the ball into the paint, it feels like scoring is automatic. Being a guard-oriented team, some of this can be expected, but not to this level.

The one bright spot on offense: The Eagles are shooting 40.8% from 3-point range, actually BETTER than they shoot inside the arc. (40.7%)

I will be here tonight and covering the game live on Twitter @OVCBall, plus a recap tonight on OVC Ball. 

[UMKC (5-5) at SEMO (4-5) 7:00 p.m. CST] Well, they’re at home, so that means they’re going to win, right? SEMO is 4-0 at home, 0-5 on the road, and today host a team that beat them at their place last season. UMKC has played a tough schedule this year, and taken a few beatings as a result, but unlike the Redhawks, they’ve won games on the road.

We’ve seen SEMO against a NBA caliber player when the Redhawks topped Miami (OH) and Julian Mavunga, and tonight they face 6-foot senior guard Reggie Chamberlain, who is averaging 19 points and over 2 steals a game. Head coach Dickie Nutt said after the win over Miami (OH) that their gameplan was to let Mavunga get his points, but stop everyone else. It’s likely they’ll employ a similar tactic tonight.

Leon Powell has finally found a way to stay out of foul trouble for 2 straight games, and has double-doubles in both those games. Amazing what happens when you pay more than 25 minutes. Between he and Tyler Stone, who is coming off a 30-point showing against Central Arkansas, a smaller Kangaroo team is likely to have problems keeping the Redhawks out of the paint. The problem is the trio of guards, who have been inconsistent anyway, have been completely silent in the past 2 games. It will be more important that they have a good game with Marcus Brister out to injury.

While turnovers aren’t necessarily a huge problem for SEMO, their inability to force turnovers from their opponents is, and this falls on the guards. It’s one of the reasons their defensive efficiency are so low: When you’re opponents at least get off a shot on most possessions, they’re going to score more points.

[Hannibal-LaGrange at SIU Edwardsville (1-6) 7:00 p.m. CST] So I have a rule that I don’t preview games against lower division teams, and I’m not going to break it for this game. (And that’s why they get a smaller logo)

But I will say this: The Cougars must find an identity on the offensive end. If they don’t, this will continue to be a very long season.

[Lipscomb (6-4) at Tennessee Tech (4-4) 7:00 p.m. CST] This is another game that will show up how well we can expect a team to compete. Lipscomb is 3-0 against the OVC, with wins over Austin Peay,  SIU Edwardsville, and UT Martin. But this is the toughest Ohio Valley Conference team they’ve played so far, until their next game when they travel to Murray.

These team play very different styles of basketball. Lipscomb likes to play full-court, fast paced basketball, which mean ball control is a premium. The problem: that’s not one of Tennessee Tech’s strengths.  Lipscomb is a guard-oriented team, unlike the Golden Eagles. Bisons senior guard Jordan Burgason has only played in their last 5 games, but has been a big boost for the Bisons, averaging 14 points and 2 steals.

Kevin Murphy and Jud Dillard have been very consistent for Tennessee Tech, but Zac Swansey‘s production, both in scoring and passing, hasn’t been as strong this season, although he does have 15 assists in his last 2 games. It’s the same with senior guard Zach Bailey. He’s putting up about 8 points, but his production is about even what he did last season. It’s not that this team is any worse than last season, they’re just not much better.

[Eastern Illinois (6-2) at Western Illinois (3-3) 7:00 p.m. CST] If you were to call EIU’s schedule thus far “easy,” I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But given how rough the OVC is, you can’t complain much about a team being 6-2.

But you can’t say the same about Western Illinois, who has played Dayton and ranked Michigan.

These two rivals know each other well, having played every season since at least 1994. 8 of the last 9 games have been won by the home team. EIU broke that streak last time they traveled to Macomb 2 seasons ago, giving them 3 straight wins over Western Illinois.

But don’t expect this to go like games in the past, as 2 new players on the Leathernecks roster has emerged this season: forwards in Obi Emegano and Terell Parks.  Emegano is just a freshman, but averaging 14 points a game and shooting over 62% from the field. This is Parks first season with the Leathernecks, and he’s averaging a double double. (12 PPG, 10 RPG)

Where as Panthers head coach Mike Miller empties his bench on a regular basis, the Leathernecks only run with a 7-man rotation most games, another reason to believe that EIU will look to speed up Western Illinois.

 


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OVC Ball
Predicting the OVC race…in mid-December

2016-17 Basketball Standings

OVCOverall

EAST

Belmont8-014-4
Morehead State6-310-12
Tennessee Tech5-39-14
Jacksonville State5-413-11
Tennessee State4-413-8
Eastern Kentucky2-69-14

WEST

UT Martin5-315-8
Murray State5-311-11
SEMO5-310-13
Austin Peay3-57-15
Eastern Illinois1-79-12
SIUE0-85-17
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