Tournament time is almost here, which means for 7 of the teams in the OVC, their NCAA tournament hopes rest on 4 days in Nashville, Tennessee.
If still feels really weird that previous statement doesn’t apply to all 8 teams this season…
But for the teams playing on the first day, many are just happy to still be alive. Jacksonville State looked dead in the water in early December, and both Austin Peay and Eastern Kentucky look all but determined to find a way to slide out of a tournament spot over the past month.
And then there’s SEMO, who is likely very disappointed with their seed, running in 2nd heading into the season’s final month.
While winning one game would be great, do any of the four have what it takes to crash the semifinals? Vote at the bottom of this post. But first…The Game 1 Preview:
Season Matchup: SEMO 59, @EKU 63 (1/7/12)
How they got here: It’s rare when you out shoot a team by 20% from the field and lose, but that’s exactly what happened in early January as the Redhawks hit 57% from the field, but only managed 59 points in a loss in Richmond. That happens when you turn the ball over twice as much as your opponents, and you shoot just 4-13 from the free throw line, compared to your opponents 20-24 performance, and when your two of your better players spend much of the game in foul trouble.
At the time, this game just seemed like an enigma on SEMO’s radar. After this loss, they won 4 of their next five, and was in second place heading into their first matchup against the Racers.
But those things that cost the Redhawks the first game against the Colonels weren’t just one time problems. The Redhawks were last in the league in forcing turnovers; last in the league in free throw shooting, and 9th in the league in fouls committed. Despite being the best shooting team in conference play, SEMO could only manage to finish 9-7, losing 5 of their last 7 games (and their last 4) on their way from 2nd place…to being out of the bye.
In a way, EKU’s season seemed to mirror that of the Redhawks, although we began to saw the cracks in the armor sooner. EKU started off 3-0 in OVC play, beating 3 teams that would make the OVC tournament field, including the 2-seed, Tennessee State. After a loss to Murray State, the Colonels rebounded against these very Redhawks, and looked like they were a team to be feared in conference play.
And the defense began to falter, and suddenly a team that struggled shooting the basketball much of the year was left relying on their offense to carry the weight. And it simply wasn’t up to the task. But a complete disaster was averted on the final day of the season, as Eastern Kentucky shot 55% from the field in a tournament sealing win over a surging Eastern Illinois squad, earning the Colonels the 8th and final spot in the field of 8.
The Matchup: On paper, this doesn’t seem like a great matchup for the Colonels. Statistically, the Redhawks are better shooters, defenders, and rebounders, which makes them sound just…well, better. But where EKU has the edge is in ball handling, free throw shooting (and since these two teams are 9th and 11th in fouls per game, that could be a big part of the game) and the Colonels will look to control the pace, which they should be able to do unless SEMO can somehow force turnovers.
Much like their first matchup, EKU must likely keep the score on the low end of the 60’s to give themselves the best chance to win, because a shootout greatly favors the Redhawks. If the Redhawks guard can force 13 or more turnovers (a challenge given EKU’s 10 turnover average a game and SEMO’s 10 forced turnover average per game) and some of those turnovers lead to easy point, the Redhawks might be able to speed up the game to get to 70, which is where they’ll be more comfortable playing.
The battle of the boards should easily go the Redhawks way, and did for the most part the first time these teams met. Marcus Brister surprisingly led SEMO is boards in that game, partially due to Leon Powell‘s foul trouble. If Powell and Tyler Stone can stay on the floor, they will likely be able to have a great game. As I’ve said all season, though, is that this team will sink or swim based on the guard play. Nick Niemczyk has struggled since returning from a concussion, and Marcus Brister and Corey Wilford have completely faded in SEMO’s current 4-game losing streak. Even Marland Smith has struggled to score, although fouling out of 2 of the last 3 games hasn’t helped his, or SEMO’s cause.
For the Colonels, Jaron Jones has been one of the biggest surprises (in a positive way) in the league this year, and I think you can safely assume he’ll be rewarded on Tuesday by the league by being an all-conference selection. He’ll likely take at least 10 shots from the field, and will look to get to the free throw line at least that many times. Where Eastern Kentucky got a boost in their first matchup was from unrelated senior Joshua Jones, who matched the other Jones’ 20 points. Joshua Jones is the Colonels best 3-point threat, and, along with D’Mitri Riggs, should be able to get good looks against a team that’s not always been the best at defending the arc. One question is if they can get Mike Dinunno involved. He didn’t score in the first matchup (and has been struggling offensively in general as of late) and has been hot or cold as a solid assist man.
I wouldn’t expect a result as “fluky” as the first game, if for no other reason than SEMO isn’t likely to shoot that poorly from the free throw line again. If EKU is out shot that poorly, they will lose. But if they can control pace, and SEMO struggles to hold on to the basketball, the Colonels will likely find themselves in a close game down the stretch.
In March, it a late game situation, it’s all about who wants it more. We’ll find out Wednesday.