There are 5 games today, and the only one featuring a ranked team has the weakest storyline. Murray State is hosting an Eastern Illinois team they absolutely manhanded in Charleston earlier this season. But Ivan Aska is back for the Racers, so we’ll see if he’s capable of shaking off the rust.
In other games, the never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get Golden Eagles are on the road against a surprisingly good Morehead State squad, Eastern Kentucky faces Tennessee State is a very important game for a bye game, Jacksonville State is hoping to keep the wins rolling against SIU Edwardsville. And then Austin Peay is back home, hoping to not be the first OVC team to lose to UT Martin.
Here’s today’s First Word:
[Tennessee Tech (13-8, 4-4) at Morehead State (11-11, 4-4), 2:00 p.m. CST, ESPNU]
What’s Kevin Murphy going to do next? After putting up just 7 points in a loss to Jacksonville State, Murphy is averaging 30 points in his last 2 games. You’ve got our attention, if nothing else.
Every game is a must-win for the Golden Eagles at this point. I doubt anyone on that team would admit it, but they’ve underachieved this season. There’s no way that at the halfway point of the conference season, the Eagles wanted to just be .500 in conference. This team has shown they’re capable of winning the big game, and winning the OVC tournament, but it’s going to be a lot harder to do if you have to play 4 games in 4 days in Nashville. I severely doubt that 8-8 will be good enough for a 4-seed some March.
I wonder how much Morehead State’s tough non-conference slate is benefiting them now. The Eagles have been playing with a toughness over the past few weeks, and I wonder if any of that can be attributed to playing West Virginia, NC State, and Princeton. Though not quite to the level of Murphy, Drew Kelly has been on a tear for the Eagles, averaging over 18 points, and shooting 65% from the field in the Eagles last 4 games. Last season, Kelly had just one 18 point game.
[SIU Edwardsville (5-12, 3-5) at Jacksonville State (8-14, 3-6), 4:30 p.m. CST]
Winners of 2 straight, and 3 of their last 5, the Gamecocks looked poised to earn a spot in the OVC tournament. And with Eastern Illinois at Murray State, a Gamecocks win against a reeling Cougars squad could put some separation between Jacksonville State and the Panthers, who are currently on the outside looking in.
The Gamecocks lost the first matchup in Edwardsville, thanks in part to 6-9 3-point shooting from the Cougars, compared to 3-22 for Jacksonville State. Despite allowing SIUE to shoot to 52% from the field, the Gamecocks held the Cougars to just 66 points, and only lost by 5. They forced 17 Cougars turnovers, while only committing 8. This has been a defensive-minded team all season, and I’d be very surprised if the Cougars shot as well this time around.
That turnovers statistic is very telling for the Cougars, who are dead last in ball control, and 8th in forced turnovers. The Cougars offense has been much improved against OVC competition, but they’re actually turning the ball over more than they did earlier in the season. And one of the biggest offenders is Kris Davis. You’ll often see forwards or centers with more assists than turnovers, but when you see that with your guard, that’s not a good sign. (47 TO’s, 40 assists this season) He’s had at least 3 in each of the Cougars last 5 games, and 7 of his last 8. (The one game he didn’t have at least 3 turnovers? UT Martin.)
[Eastern Illinois (9-10, 2-5) at No. 11/9 Murray State (20-0, 8-0), 7:00 p.m. CST ESPN3]
Live coverage on Twitter @OVCBall for those of you who couldn’t get a ticket…
WPSD Local 6 did a story earlier this week about how the Racers remember their loss to EIU last year. I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I bet Eastern Illinois remembers the Racers running them off their own court last month. Just maybe.
I’m really to the point now that I don’t really know what to say about the Racers. They struggled some with Aska out, but he’s back…against the team he injured his hand against. And it’s even hard to type the word “struggled” when talking about the last undefeated team in the nation. While the national discussion continues to be “who the heck are the Racers,” the discussion among people that already know has to soon move to how far does this team go. I’m not just talking about a undefeated season, and not what seed they’re given, but how far can this team go in the NCAA’s. Is this a legitimate Sweet 16 team? Can they go farther? I could care less about the seed discussion, because that’s not what’s remembered. When you talk about George Mason, about Butler, nobody cares what seed they earned. They care what happened after.
On the Eastern Illinois side, when many people are having the discussion about firing the coach in the middle of conference play, that’s not a good sign. Mike Miller has already, for lack of a better word, survived a few fire-able seasons. But there were contract concerns, and EIU was likely going to have to pay Miller if they fired him. This year, his contract is up. I don’t he’s de facto fired yet. But his team’s performance these final games may have a big impact on what the Panthers decide to do. A one year extension? Does he salvage the season and earn something more long term? Time will tell.
[Eastern Kentucky (12-10, 5-4) at Tennessee State (12-10, 5-4), 7:00 p.m. CST]
Big game for seeding purposes, but the Tigers need the win more. The Colonels got the first game, so if TSu loses, they are essentially 1.5 back of the Colonels; a full game, and a tiebreaker. These are two teams both hoping for that top-4 seed, and avoiding the first day of the tournament.
Last time they met, the Tigers defense was bad, their offense wasn’t much better, but they only lost by 5 on the road. Robert Covington pulled down a double-double, but the Tigers didn’t contain Jaron Jones and D’Mitri Riggs. Riggs did not play against in the Colonels loss to Tennessee Tech, and I’m not sure of his status today.
That loss to the Golden Eagles aside, the Colonels have been good at home, but not good on the road. They haven’t won on the road since opening the OVC at Jacksonville State, and are just 3-8 on the year in true road games. The Colonels are one of the few teams that statistically haven’t played better since entering conference play. You many remember this summer I wasn’t high on EKU’s schedule, and now, I still wonder how much it helped the Colonels get ready for OVC play. But one of my complaints was that they were playing on the road too much. It doesn’t appear those November road games had a lot of positive impact on the Colonels play on the road.
[UT Martin (3-19, 0-9) at Austin Peay (8-14, 5-4), 7:30 p.m. CST]
The Governors have been dominant at home in OVC play. The Skyhawks…well, yeah. The record pretty well tells the story.
I’m having the a similar problem finding what to talk about with the Skyhawks as I have with the Racers, although it is completely different. I’m still not sure the Skyhawks have put together 40 solid minutes in any one game. On a good day, they play 30 good minutes. On a bad day, maybe 5. And it’s not one individual player. Jason James continues to experiment with the lineups. He appears to try and find the “hot hand” each night, and let them play. But they simply just can’t get over the hump, and get that win. Mathematically, they’re not eliminated from anything, but being 2 games behind in the win column, they might be with 2 weeks left.
The Governors are 2nd in the OVC in RPI, and were just a few points short of moving into a tie for 2nd in the standings. SEMO still has 2 games against the Racers, and the Governors still have one. Assuming those are all loses, and each team wins out, Austin Peay could be just 1 game behind when they host SEMO to end the season. Still a lot of hurdles to cross before that game, but the Governors have to realize they still have a solid chance to earn the 2-seed, and the double-bye in Nashville. But, thanks to that 0-3 start, the margin for error is thin, and they can’t take a big upset.