In yesterday’s preview, I had a poll asking which team playing on Day 1 had the best chance to make the OVC semifinals. The top pick…surprised me. It was the 6 seed, Austin Peay. (That poll is still open, and at the bottom of the post if you haven’t voted yet, or want to see the full updated results)
The reason it surprised me is that the Govs didn’t exactly excel through much of the month of February. Maybe it’s a case of short memories? Austin Peay has won 3 straight, but lost 6 of the 7 game previous. 2 of those final 3 wins came at home, and the third on the road against UT Martin, which was like playing another home game. Austin Peay struggled on the road this year, finishing just 4-12.
Of course, Jacksonville State can’t talk much of road prowess, finishing 3-11 on the road.
I think I know why these teams are playing in the first round:
Season Matchup: Jacksonville State 57, @ Austin Peay 60
How They Got Here: Jacksonville State has been a peculiar team. Over the first 18 games or so, Jacksonville State was about as good of a defensive team as you could find in a small conference. But on the other side of the basketball, they were about as bad of an offensive team found in any small conference. Then, after the Gamecocks surprised Tennessee State winning their first conference game, the Gamecocks suprised just about everybody, kicking Stephen Hall, the team’s only returning player with a year or more experience with the program, off the team.
And almost instantly, the team that couldn’t score couldn’t be stopped. And the same team that couldn’t be scored on…couldn’t stop anybody. After a two game transition, the Gamecocks finished the season strong, winning 8 of their last 11, earning a surpise 7-seed in the tournament.
Austin Peay has been a surprise as well, but in the complete opposite way. The Governors were the preseason pick to win the conference, (but as a reminder, not mine. I picked them 4th last summer) but lost their first 9 games out of the box, after John Fraley was injured in the season opener against Middle Tennessee State.
But after the Governors finally got into the win column, things were almost instantly looking up, after Austin Peay pulled off a 74-70 win against Tennessee. But a tough schedule to start the conference, forcing the Governors to make the Death Valley road swing, followed by hosting heated rival Murray State, sent the Governors to an 0-3 start in the conference, making many wonder if this team could bounceback at all.
And then came a 3-week period where the Governors again looked like they had returned to from. Austin Peay won 6 of their next 7, heading into a highly anticipated game against Tennessee State. And just as quickly as the Governors seemed to pull it together, they watched it all fall apart again. The Govs lost to the Tigers by 20, getting blown out in 3 of their next 5 games, all of which were losses. With EIU surging, and the Govs sliding, they rallied to win out, and earn the 6-seed in the conference tournament, a far cry from the team’s hopes back in October.
The Matchup: The first game between these two wasn’t just a close game…the teams seemed to mirror each other in the end. Field goal shooting, free throw shooting, rebounds, 3-point shooting, turnovers, all almost equal on the stat sheet. But on the court, Austin Peay watched a 10-point lead with 5-minutes remaining evaporate, winning after a last second shot by Brian Williams couldn’t find the basket.
Although Jacksonville State’s trademark defense faltered through a long stretch, it returned to form in the final 3 games of the season, holding each team under 38% shooting, including SEMO, the highest percentage shooting team in the OVC. But in all of those wins, the Gamecocks also protected the basketball, averaging just over 8 turnovers in those 3 contests. Ball control has been one of those areas the Gamecocks have been most improved, finishing 2nd in the conference to EKU in fewest turnovers a game. The Gamecocks also held the final three opponents to under 31% 3-point shooting, an area that was a strong point throughout the season.
The biggest improvement from non-conference play to OVC play for Austin Peay came on the offensive side of the basketball. They shot the ball better from all areas of the field, and held onto the ball better, (though still not great) a lot of which is a testament to exactly how challenging their non-conference slate was. The return of Fraley gave the Governors a much needed boost inside, and even help open up their shooters on the perimiter.
But the Governors were hardly the hard-nosed defensive team we’re used to seeing from coach Dave Loos. The Governors gave up five 90-point games, including back to back games twice. The latest stretch came just weeks ago, as Austin Peay was blown out against future OVC member Belmont, and current OVC member Murray State. But after that blowout loss to the Racers, the Governors seemed to right the ship on that side of the ball somewhat, icnluding holding SEMO to just 40% shooting on the final day of the season.
Jacksonville State doesn’t have a star, or really any player that’s a major threat to have a break out game. They do have a consistent scorer in Brian Williams, scoring in double digits in the team’s last 11 games. While he hardly is a 3-point “threat” he is the teams’s best 3-point shooter, at just 35%. As a team, the Gamecocks were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation, hitting just 25% from deep. Hall’s departure did cost the Gamecocks their best rebounder, leaving 6’3″ Ronnie Boggs as the team’s best rebounder, even over 6’6″ Tarvin Gaines. If you can explain that, please do.
We all expected Austin Peay to be led by Tyshwan Edmondson, but he’s been streaky at best. He took far fewer shots, got to the line less, pulled down fewer rebounds, and as a result scored almost 5 fewer points a game than a season ago. Will Triggs, who many people expected to have a breakout year, failed to do so, although he’s just a sophomore. Josh Terry was marginally better, and Jerome Clyburn didn’t have the immediate some expected being a Southern Miss. transfer. But the Governors do have a talented duo inside in Melvin Baker and John Fraley.
All this adds up to another grind it out type of game. Both teams are more talented inside then out, so while that’s where much of the focus of the game will be, a breakout game from one of the team’s guards could make a huge difference, with Edmondson being the most likely player to have that game. Barring that, this game could easily be a low scoring affair, with a few plays down the stretch proving to be the difference.