2011 has been full of surprises I didn’t see coming: Austin Peay’s end of game implosions, SIU Edwardsville winning their first two ever OVC games, and Murray State’s domination, just to name a few. So I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m yet again surprised by what I saw on the floor in Martin today.
Don’t let the final score fool you. This is the best I’ve seen the Skyhawks play all year, although they couldn’t keep up the intensity for 40 minutes. And they did it against a good team. Right? I’m not so sure.
As has been the case this year, it could be simply be another case of misconceptions swirling around each team. I picked Tennessee Tech to win the conference; the coaches and athletic directors picked the Golden Eagles to finish 2nd. But look at what they’ve actually done this season: They’re 8-6, including a loss at home to 5-7 Appalachian State. They were the first Division I team now 4-12 SIU Edwardsville beat all season. And some of those wins: 1 point over Wilberforce at home, (who are they? Exactly) and 2-point wins against 6-5 Evansville and 6-8 Lipscomb.
And yes, this is the team that won today’s game, by 23, on the road. By every right the team, and the fans, should be happy about today’s performance. So why all the negativity? It’s all goes back to expectations.
The team with the best guard trio in the OVC isn’t supposed to have 11 first half turnovers. The team picked to win the OVC isn’t supposed to allow one of the worst offensive teams in the OVC this year to hit 14 of their first 20 shots from the field.
But all things considered, things could be much worse for the team from Cookville. The only team picked to finish ahead of them is 0-2 to start the conference season, and still stuck on just 3 wins this season. The Golden Eagles have escaped any major injuries this season. And they’ve played a tough schedule that included games at Miami (FL) and West Virginia. And Kevin Murphy bounced back from a horrenduos 1-16 performance against SIU Edwardsville. They’re just not “dominant.”
At least, not yet.
The losses may be piling up for the Skyhawks, but for the first time in my 5 trips to Martin, (and 6 times I’ve seen the Skyhawks) I actually feel like I saw some improvement. Freshman Myles Taylor is embracing his role as a leader of the team, and although Mike Liabo still took 14 shots from the field, at least 5 of which were not great decisions, he also added 6 assists, and may be starting to embrace that he might simply be a role player and not the star.
But now they the Skyhawks finally got the offense going, it’s hard to ignore the huge hole that is UT Martin’s defense. “Porous” is too kind of a phrase to describe the defense in today’s game, which allowed the Golden Eagles to shoot 54.2% from the field, and honestly could have been even higher.
The problem for Martin continues to be putting together a complete game. After shooting a blazing 63.6% from the field in the first half, they hit just 5 of 23 in the 2nd, finishing the game under 43%. UT Martin tried to play the game at Tennessee Tech’s blazing pace, and ended up turning over the ball 23 times. But it’s hard to say what pace the Skyhawks should play at when they’ve let to create an offensive identity.
Final Thoughts: If I were to reset my predictions for 2012, I’d probably put the Golden Eagles 2nd in the conference. They’re one of the better teams in the OVC, very athletic, but they’re going to struggle in games they shouldn’t, and not going to light the OVC on fire. They still have 3 strong players (and got a surprising 13 points from a 4th, Zach Bailey) but are far from being a complete team.
I had the Skyhawks 5th during the summer, which is looking to be my worst pick out of them all. Martin’s downward spiral continues and although I still feel it’s valid, we’re at the point in the season where you have to stop making the “we played a hard schedule” excuse. When conference play comes around, you have to win. And if you can’t win, you need to compete wire to wire. In 2 OVC games so far, UTM hasn’t been able to do that. It will likely take 4 or 5 wins to make the OVC tournament in March. While I’m more hopeful after tonight, I’m still not certain if UTM can get to that number.