Here we are…after about 2 and a half months of conference play, it all comes down to tonight.
I love anytime we talk about “must win” scenarios, because with almost every team, there’s at least one game you think “they should have won” that would have changed the landscape completely. Everyone puts it all on the team in the final week, or the final day, when in reality the only reason their in this position in the first place is because of what’s happened in the 15 OVC games to this point. That game in December that “they should have won” could have easily been a “must win,” we just didn’t know that at the time.
The biggest thing at this point for most of the games is seeding. The #1 and #2 seeds are locked to Murray State and Tennessee State, so only two single-byes remain up for grabs. But the #3 seed avoids Murray until the finals, just like the #6 and #7 seeds would as well. (The #5 seed may be the worst in the tournament, aside from the #8)
Thankfully, there’s mainly 3 battles going on today, so it’s not impossible to sort out. SEMO, Tennessee Tech, and Morehead State will earn the #3, #4, and the very dreaded #5 slot. Austin Peay and Jacksonville State are looking to earn the #6 or #7, as is Eastern Kentucky, although they have the added pressure of possibly missing the tournament all together when they host Eastern Illinois, who needs a win and some help to make their way to Nashville.
My fear in this post is that I messed up one of the tiebreaker scenarios, since the OVC themselves did that earlier this week with the Panthers. I tried to compare every possible outcome with the updated sheet of tiebreakers (posted here) the OVC sent to make sure I was right. That being said, if you feel I’m wrong about one of the scenarios, please leave a comment in the post so I can double check, and update if need be.
What’s at Stake: Biggest game of the day right here, as a spot in the OVC Tournament could very well hang in the balance. The Panthers will need some help from Morehead State, but Eastern Kentucky is in control of it’s destiny to make the OVC tournament. If EIU makes the tournament, they’re the #8 seed. For EKU, they can earn the #7 seed if they win and Jacksonville State loses, and although mostly meaningless, the #6 seed if both JSU and AP fall. Either way, that means avoiding the Racers until the tournament final.
Matchup: Does anybody remember the last OVC game the Colonels won? It was at Eastern Illinois, 23 days ago. And it was one of the most awful games from both sides in the conference this season. Eastern Kentucky won 47-41 in Charleston, a game with under 100 total possessions. (For reference, the average game has almost 130)
The Colonels survived a 7-point game from star Jaron Jones, his lowest point total since their 2nd game of the season. That being said, the Panthers are coming of a 39-point performance against Morehead State on Thursday, a game at the time everyone thought was do-or-die. What I’m getting at here is that neither team has exactly played their best basketball as of late, so the fact that they’re both in this position is almost fitting.
A weak game aside last time, we know that Jones and Jeremy Granger are likely to finish around the 15-point total for each team. Unless one of them just has a breakout game, that’s not likely to be the deciding factor. The question is who else shows up? EKU needs Joshua Jones, or D’Mitri Riggs to have a big game, as the Panthers will look to Alfonzo McKinnie and Joey Miller. The play of those 4 players is likely to have the biggest impact on the final score.
What’s at Stake: As I mentioned above, the #8 and final seed could rest on this game, if the Panthers win at Eastern Kentucky. Morehead State is also in a dogfight for a bye, and just as importantly, a possible #3 seed, meaning the Eagles avoid the Racers until the tournament final should they make it that far. The Eagles don’t hold any tiebreakers at 10-6, so will need both Tennessee Tech and SEMO to lose to earn that 3rd seed. A loss here, and Morehead State can hold on to the #4 seed assuming a SEMO win and a TTU loss. As has been the case with the Cougars all season, they’re just playing spoiler.
Matchup: That being said, the Cougars were able to spoil Morehead State’s trip to Edwardsville earlier in the season.. The Cougars shot 54% from the field, held Morehead State to 35%, but were locked in a tight game thanks to poor rebounding and turnovers. Mark Yelovich was an amazing 10-11 from the field. That game was also called about as loose as could be imagined, with the teams combining for just 19 free throw attempts. Clearly, the Cougars could have been more aggressive in fighting for rebounds in that battle, something I bet they’ll look to rectify tonight.
It feels like Morehead State has to search for their breakout players every time they take the floor. Over the last 3 games, 3 different Eagles have led the team in scoring, and 3 different Eagles, including guard Angelo Warner, have led the team in rebounds. Given the injury situation, I wouldn’t be surprised by this…in December, when the injury occurred. Shouldn’t they have a better idea of their current team by now?
Pace will be a big issue for this one. Look for Edwardsville to speed up the Eagles, and visa versa for Morehead State.
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What’s at Stake: A win, and TTU is the #3 seed, important as I mentioned above because it means avoiding Murray State until the tourney finals. The good news for Tech is that they still win a lot of 9-7 tiebreakers, meaning they could still earn a #4 seed, or even the #3 if Morehead and SEMO also lose. But if Tech loses, and SEMO wins, it’s down to the #5 seed. For the Racers, a win would mark the first time in school history the team went undefeated in true road games. It also would put the Racers as a lock to make the NCAA tournament, regardless of the OVC Tournament. (At least, I have to imagine it would)
Matchup: The last game these teams played in Murray was right about that time you started to feel the pressure might be starting to get to the Racers a bit. Murray State blew a large first half lead, but battled back behind, who else, Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole to get the win. It was also a game that featured 68 combined free throw attempts…which made building momentum a near impossibility.
The biggest issue for Tennessee Tech in that game were turnovers: 17 as a team, and 7 from primary ball handler Zac Swansey. Shockingly enough, fouls were also an issue in a game with that ridiculous number of free throws, with Jud Dillard and Kevin Murphy both fouling out, though they both still played 37 and 34 minutes, respectively.
I doubt we get the same kind of game in Cookeville. The Racers seem to playing some of their best basketball of the season over the past few games, and although “The Hoop” will be full, Tech hasn’t exactly been unbeatable at home. (Just 7-4 on the season) Assuming we don’t see the same kind of “physical” game that results in a glorified free-throw contest, there should be a chance for both teams to try and make runs, which could benefit the home team. This should be a fun game.
What’s at Stake: SEMO is involved in the very messy tiebreaker situation I’ve mentioned in the last two previews. Their only path for the #3 seed is to win, and have Tennessee Tech lose. If SEMO loses, the Redhawks need SIU Edwardsville to beat Morehead State to avoid the #5 seed, because SEMO loses a tiebreaker with TTU. On the other end, Austin Peay has the 6 or 7 seed on their mind, as either puts them in the same first round matchup on the opposite end of the brackets from the Racers. If the Govs lose, they need Jacksonville State to lose as well, or SIUE to win to avoid the #8 seed.
Matchup: When SEMO was 7-2 in the conference and about to face the Racers in Murray, some people told me they thought that SEMO wasn’t the 2nd best team in the conference. I disagreed at the time. The argument was that SEMO’s schedule to start the conference season was soft.
Well, I was wrong. Including the loss to the Racers, SEMO has dropped 5 of 7, and 3 straight.
Not that Austin Peay has a lot of positives to talk about right now. The Govs have won 2 straight (one was UT Martin without Myles Taylor, the other a meaningless Bracketbusters game) but lost the 5 games previous, 3 of which were by 20 or more points.
Last time these teams met, SEMO had 5 scorers in double figures, and the Governors had absolutely no answers for Leon Powell and Tyler Stone, who both finished with a double-double. All that said, SEMO just eeked out a 5 point win in Cape Girardeau, mainly thanks to 23 (!) turnovers, although to be fair the Redhawks were missing guard Nick Neimczyk. (Who isn’t their primary ballhandler though)
What’s at Stake: Obviously, UT Martin wants to avoid going winless in the OVC. Jacksonville State is in that messy 6-seed tiebreaker, and obviously wants to be the #6 or #7 seed, for the reasons described above. If they win, that’s a lock. If they lose, they need EKU to lose else it’s to the #8 seed they go.
Matchup: UTM will be without their star freshman Myles Taylor who continues to sit out a suspension due to “conduct unbecoming to the team,” whatever that means he did. So I’m not sure the word “uphill” even begins to describe their quest not to go 0-16 in the OVC.
Obvious Statement #2 – UTM lost the first matchup between these teams. Yes, really. Taylor has 16 points in that game, on a day that saw UT Martin shoot 62% from the field…and lose. If that’s not a record this year, I challenge you to find a team that shot better, and still lost.
Big picture for the Gamecocks: A win tonight, they roll into Nashville winners of 3 straight and 4 of their last 5. This is the kind of team you don’t want to play, generally, come tournament time. That one loss…a 5-point loss at Tennessee State, which isn’t a bad loss by any stretch. This is a great chance to keep momentum rolling heading into Tournament time, where the Gamecocks will need 4 wins in 4 days.