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Six games on the slate today as conference play mixes with the last remnants of non-conference play. Which means the second season, and in many way the more important season, officially beings today.

 

UT Martin (3-9, 0-0) at Southeast Missouri (8-6, 0-0)
Noon CST

West division play begins with two teams picked at the opposite end of the division. The Redhawks are hoping to give the Racers reign at the top of the OVC a run, and UT Martin is hoping to give anyone in the conference a run, coming off a winless conference campaign a year ago.

This will likely come down to a battle in the frontcourt. Myles Taylor and Tyler Stone are each team’s best weapons and could be matched up against one another throughout the night. The question is the supporting cast for both squads. Nino Johnson makes a great second option underneath for the Redhawks, and their guards have been fairly inconsistent although playing better as of late. Corey Wilford has far been the most consistent option in SEMO’s backcourt, and Lucas Nutt has been a solid facilitator.

Both teams have had some issues on the defensive side of the ball so far this season. The Skyhawks transition defense has been incredibly poor, the question is whether the generally half-court oriented Redhawks will want to run to challenge it. Meanwhile SEMO isn’t likely to take the ball away at all, giving you plenty of time to run your offense on the offensive end.

While the frontcourt game is the battle to watch, the backcourt could be more key in separating the teams. Mike Liabo is scoring double-digits consistently, but doing so far by taking far too many shots. Both teams need other guys to step up, not only to win today but to make a run deep into the OVC year.

Valparaiso (9-4) at Murray State (9-2)
2:00 p.m. CST – ESPN3

The Racers haven’t had a losing streak since March of 2010, when they lost to Tennessee Tech in the OVC Tournament and then Missouri State in the opening round of the NIT. Avoiding another streak will require a good effort against a solid Valparaiso team.

Their records are nearly equal, and for the most part so has been their competition. The one knock on Valpo, though, is that they’re 0-4 against teams in the RPI top-150. Murray State? 3-2.

Defensive issues for Murray reared their head again late in the game against Dayton, as a late run pushed the Flyers, who trailed most of the game, over the top. When it comes to statistical defense, the first number I always look at is tempo-free defensive efficiency. Last year, the Racers ranked 21st in the nation. The year before, 65th. Before that, second. And even during their 19-12 year four years ago, the Racers were 112th in the nation.

So far this year, Murray State is 165th, their worst in five years. There’s a few causes for this: overpursuit, young guys playing out of position too often, too many missed three’s leading to long rebounds and runouts. There’s not a single cause you can point to, but it’s clearly been an issue.

Valpo has been a much stinger defensive team this year than Murray, holding teams to 40% shooting from the field, but they’ve been especially weak at the perimeter, where as we all know the Racers love to shoot it from. But they can easily score with the Racers in a shootout. Valpo is led in scoring by Ryan Broekhoff, a 6’7″ forward that’s also the team’s best 3-point shooter. 6’1″ guard LaVonte Dority isn’t likely to kill you from outside, but averages 15 points a game.

 

Tennessee Tech (6-6, 0-0) at Jacksonville State (8-3, 0-0)
4:30 CST

Due to APR issues, Jacksonville State has been reduced to the season-wide role of spoiler, but they’ve got a team capable of costing a team in the loaded East Division a spot in the OVC Tournament. Tennessee Tech will the be first to look to crack the Gamecocks defense, holding teams under 60 points a game this year.

I’ve gone on end how important the play of Jud Dillard is to the Tech squad, which remains very true, and Jeremiah Samarrippas is shooting nearly 40% from behind the arc. I’m curious to see, though, how the Golden Eagles react if Jacksonville State is able to take away the three-point shot, as they’ve done all year. The Gamecocks feature the third best three point defensive percentage in the nation, holding opponents to less than 25% from behind the arc. While Dillard gets most of his points on the inside, if Tech can’t establish an outside game, there’s nothing to stop Jacksonville State from collapsing down on the Golden Eagles star. Hitting some early three’s may be the key to opening up the game for Dillard.

Jacksonville State continues to be about as unflashy of a team that exists in college basketball, as has been the case during the entirety of James Green‘s time with the program. They aren’t going to blow you out of the gym, rather they want to suffocate you, leaving you scratching your head how you’re supposed to score. The new wrinkle in this year’s team is forcing turnovers. The force over 16 a game, amazing given how few possessions their methodical offense allows their opponents.

 

Eastern Illinois (3-10, 0-0) at Tennessee State (6-7, 0-0)
7:30 p.m CST

In my OVC Reset for Eastern Illinois, I said the Panthers weren’t really that good right now, which is a sad truth.

Truth is, though, I don’t know what Tennessee State is right now. Going 0-5 against RPI top-100 teams is one thing, but they’ve also lost two games to teams whose RPI is over 200. They don’t seem like the team so dominant in January and February of last year, but that team wasn’t dominant in November or Decemeber. Neither was the year before. Is this team like those, waiting to make their run at the end of the year? It’s too early to say now.

What I can say is that after a slow start to the season, Robert Covington has bounced back. During his current streak of eight straight double-digit scoring games he’s only been held under 15 once, and scored more than 25 three times. He has two double-doubles to go with that streak, and was just one rebound away against Middle Tennessee State from making it three.

But the Tigers have lost two of three, and impressively; a 30-point loss to top-10 Missouri, and a 27-point loss to unranked Middle Tennssee.

Eastern Illinois is coming along in Jay Spoonhour‘s first year, but is lacking firepower. Josh Piper has been more inconsistent of late, joining Sherman Blanford and freshman Alex Austin who have been inconsistent all year. This is likely to remain the story for Spoonhour’s squad, but the question is can you get those three to come together on enough nights to earn a few wins in conference play.


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OVC Ball
Predicting the OVC race…in mid-December

2016-17 Basketball Standings

OVCOverall

EAST

Belmont8-014-4
Morehead State6-310-12
Tennessee Tech5-39-14
Jacksonville State5-413-11
Tennessee State4-413-8
Eastern Kentucky2-69-14

WEST

UT Martin5-315-8
Murray State5-311-11
SEMO5-310-13
Austin Peay3-57-15
Eastern Illinois1-79-12
SIUE0-85-17
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