Looking at the OVC this past summer, a lot of teams fell into the category of “could be good, or could be bad.” And after non-conference play, many of those same teams, including both Morehead State and SEMO still fell into that category.
For SEMO, many (myself included) wonder whether the Redhawks guards can compete with the talented backcourts of Murray State and Tennessee Tech, and there are still questions about whether this team can win big games on the road.
For Morehead State, the biggest question has been about defending the paint, something that’s been an afterthought for the Eagles the past few seasons due to the play of Kenneth Faried.
Tonight, I expected a battle of styles: Could Morehead State contain SEMO’s talented forwards, and could SEMO’s guards just get the ball to their forwards in a position to score.
In the first 8 minutes, I got an answer I wasn’t expected.
But it wasn’t their forwards who broke the game open early. It was their guards. Nick Niemcyzk scored 8 early points, including hitting 2-3’s as part of that 15 unanswered. Neither he or Marland Smith turned over the ball during the entire first half.
I know I’ve said it before. In fact, I’ve written about it before: when SEMO’s guards are on, they might be the most complete team in the OVC. Even more so than that undefeated team down in Murray everyone’s talking about. If only it happened when SEMO was on the road. Or when the Redhawks opponents are not playing a zone defense.
And that’s where SEMO really has a problem: Their guards aren’t inconsistent, they’re actually quite consistent: Not great ball handlers, they don’t drive the basketball, but they are solid passers.
So why play zone against the Redhawks? Simple. For smaller teams like Morehead State, it’s their best hope of containing Leon Powell and Tyler Stone, quite possibly the best frontcourt in the OVC.
But Murray State isn’t going to play zone against the Redhawks. (They rarely zone anyone) And other OVC teams like Eastern Illinois and Tennessee Tech likely have the size to man up against Powell and Stone. And that’s when we’ll really see what the Redhawks guards are made of. From what we saw in non-conference play, it’s not going to be as pretty as tonight.
But before they see any of those teams, SEMO could be 4-1, or possibly even 5-0, with upcoming games against Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky, and UT Martin. Only the latter of those 3 teams have the size to match SEMO, but the Skyhawks have their own host of problems.
On the other side, Morehead State is, as I’ve mentioned before, almost completely reliant of their guards, especially on the defensive side of the basketball. No team wants to see the ball get into the paint, but when it does against the Eagles, it usually means easy points. It’s the biggest reason Morehead State’s opponents shoot 47% from the floor, a statistic that is only getting worse with tonight’s loss. (SEMO hit 51.1% from the field)
This season, Morehead State has been able to force turnovers, second only to Murray State in the OVC in the tempo-free turnover forced rate statistic. Tonight, they only forced 11, not getting a single fast break point in the game. Another 0 on the stat sheet: second-chance points in the first 36 minutes of the game, not surprising giving the talent of Powell and Stone under the basket.
But the biggest reason the Eagles fell behind, poor shooting. Morehead State hit just 2 of their first 15 3-point attempts: of those, I’d wager 13 were clean looks. At the half, the 3 starting guard for the Eagles had totaled just 4 points, on 2-9 shooting. 2 other guards off the bench were a combined 0-5.
Most of us knew that the Eagles would have a hard fall from the top of the conference this year after Faried’s departure. The only question is how far they’ll fall. I still think Morehead State is an OVC tournament team. (if for no other reason that UT Martin and Jacksonville State don’t have the offense to put up more than 60 points on any given night.) But they’ll be playing on the tournament’s opening day, and if they face a team with any strong forwards, that’s the only day they’ll be playing.
Final Thoughts: We’re only one game into the OVC season for both these teams, but the path to a “successful” season appears clear for both teams. The Eagles only have the talent to be one-dimensional, which means their guards simply can’t have “let down” games like they did tonight.
SEMO has the talent to be multi-dimensional, but if their guards struggle, their forwards will as well. But when their guards are on, I’ll take SEMO to compete with anyone.
Simply put, the success or failure of both these teams seasons falls on the play of the backcourt. And yes, you can probably say that about any team. But many teams can survive bad nights from the starting guards. These two can’t. They’ve already shown that this season, and it was evident in this game as well. While every team wants great guard play, these two teams NEED it.