We’re one rivalry game short of calling it rivalry Saturday, but it’s close, with two of the biggest OVC rivalries on the slate today. In fact, I would argue they are the OVC’s two biggest rivalries at least as of late.
Sadly, no time for a podcast today. We’ll try to return with a special Morning After edition tomorrow to make up for it.
Here’s today’s First Word:
UT Martin (4-13, 1-4) at Belmont (12-4, 3-0)
4:00 p.m. CST
Favorite: Belmont -26.5
As much as I hate to say it, anything short of a rout is a win for UT Martin, especially since the Skyhawks are coming off a rout at the hands of Tennessee State, and Belmont just routed Southeast Missouri. It still counts as a loss, but as the odds show, this has a chance to get ugly.
Of course, that’s reliant on a focused Belmont team, which hasn’t appeared to be much of a problem this season for the Bruins. In conference play, the Bruins are outscoring their opponents an average of 22 points a game and haven’t been held under 50% from the floor. Their defense has been spectacular as well, holding conference opponents under 42% shooting from the field, and a conference best 25% shooting from behind the arc.
The Bruins defense has been a little weaker on the inside, which is good news for UT Martin’s Myles Taylor. The sophomore forward has two double-doubles in five conference games, and hasn’t been held under ten points but once this year, in a lopsided win over Lyon College in which Taylor saw limited minutes. The question all season, though, has been the play of the supporting cast, which has dealt with some injuries this year but is now mostly healthy. Freshman Dee Oldham is seeing his minutes increase as of late, and he’s leading the team in 3-point shooting percentage, at a rather underwhelming 10-26 from behind the arc-. (38.5%)
Jacksonville State (11-5, 3-2) at Eastern Illinois (3-14, 0-4)
6:00 p.m. CST
Favorite: Jacksonville State -6
Eastern Illinois was one minute away from their first conference win under Jay Spoonhour on Thursday, and that quest continues today against Jacksonville State. You may be wondering about the small spread, but there are really two reasons behind it: Neither team scores the ball that well, and possessions will likely be at a premium between the two slowest offenses in the OVC.
The big knock we’ve seen on Jacksonville State since conference play has been their rebounding. It’s not surprising given that they play with a smaller rotation, but it didn’t appear to be as big of a problem in non-conference play as it is now. Eastern llinois has also struggled on the boards, making that battle today one to watch for an edge between these two teams.
Junior Sherman Blandford appears to be emerging as a scoring threat over the past few games, but he’s done so earlier in the season as well, only to struggle for two or three games after. He’s averaging 16 points over the past two night, and the Panthers need him to make buckets.
The Gamecocks strength on defense continues to be generating steals, and while Eastern Illinois raw turnovers look good, when you factor in their tempo it becomes much less solid. Jacksonville State remains in the top 10 in the nation in turnovers forced per possession, and could really challenge an EIU offense coming off their best scoring night of the year.
Morehead State (8-9, 2-1) at Eastern Kentucky (13-3, 3-0)
6:00 p.m. CST
Favorite: EKU -7.5
The first of two big rivalry games is in Richmond, as EKU hosts Morehead State. EKU hoping to not have a letdown game after a big win at Murray State on Wednesday.
Statistically, the Colonels have been much weaker defensively since the start of conference play thanks mostly to their game against SIU Edwardsville where they allowed the Cougars to shoot 60% from the field. In all three of their OVC wins, the Colonels have dominated the turnover game, almost doubling up their opponents so far in conference play.
Though far from a definitive answer as to whether he’ll play, Eastern Kentucky’s leading scorer Glenn Cosey is listed in the Eastern Kentucky’s game notes as the likely starter for tonight’s game.
If there’s a game Morehead State doesn’t want to give unnecessary fouls, it’s this one. EKU shoots better 74% from the free throw line as a team, and three of their starters hit better than 85%. In their first two OVC games, Morehead State did a much better job of defending without fouling, but not so in their loss Wednesday at Austin Peay. The Eagles still lead the nation in fouls per game.
Morehead State has been able this year to force turnovers against even the stingiest of ball handling teams, and Eastern Kentucky is stingy, for sure, turning the ball over fewer than nine times per game in their three conference matchups. Morehead State may have to find a way to execute in the front court if they’re going to pull the upset on the road.