After three days of being knocked out by illness, I’m back. I know, I know, you missed me. It’s alright, I would miss me too.
Are you rolling your eyes yet? Or deeply sighing? Because you probably should be. Or laughing. Something of the sort.
While I was out, Belmont dispatched Eastern Kentucky to set up a first-place showdown with Tennessee State today. Austin Peay continued their trend of second half collapses at home, in a loss to SIU Edwardsville. Murray State woke up at halftime to run away from Eastern Illinois. Southeast Missouri just ran away, losing at home to Morehead State. And Tennessee State survived a late run from Jacksonville State.
So where does that leave us? Exactly where we were a few days ago.
The drama is all but gone from the West Division race. Murray State has a two game advantage over SIU Edwardsville, and are 2.5 ahead of SEMO, both of which may honestly be insurmountable, despite the fact we’re just five or six games into a 16-game schedule. The only thing left to be decided is which two of three among Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, and UT Martin get left out of the OVC Tournament, or do all three find themselves on the outside looking in this March.
The East is much, much, much more interesting. Eastern Kentucky gave the Bruins quite a scare at home, setting up one major showdown when the Colonels host the Bruins one week from today. Tennessee State gets their chance to earn the top spot in the East, as they face the Bruins today in a cross-town battle. (Which I will be attending today) And what do we do with Morehead State? They’re 3-2, but haven’t won against much upper echelon competition.
Tennessee Tech, well they don’t really fit into the narrative. Their chances of making the OVC Tournament are slim, as it looks likely they’ll finish in last place in the division. Still, if they can manage enough cross-division wins, and rack up an upset or two, they might just get enough to earn a spot over a West Division squad.
Over at OVC Boards, we’re starting a new Pick ’em contest. The idea is pretty simple: Pick OVC games against the spread. You should join up, you have until tip of the first game today (2:30 EST) to get your picks in.
No podcast again today, as I’m still getting over strep throat. It will be back next week, barring any more sickness.
Enough of me rattling, here’s today’s First Word:
Game of the Night
Tennessee State (12-7, 6-0) at Belmont (14-4, 5-0)
7:00 p.m. CST
Favorite: Belmont (-15.5)
Live Coverage @OVCBall
After tonight, the number of undefeated teams in Ohio Valley Conference play will be down to one. Yet, despite the fact it’s a matchup of the two final remaining undefeated team in the OVC, Belmont is a 15 and a half point favorite. Of course, given the Belmont has a top 25-RPI, and the Tigers have lost by 29.3 points in three games against top-50 RPI teams, 15 and a half might be generous.
On paper, the matchup looks much more even than the spread. The teams rank first and second in offensive efficiency in conference play, first and third in defensive efficiency, and first and second in field goal percentage offense and defense. Out of those four categories, Belmont leads Tennessee State in three, with FG% defense the only edge for the Tigers.
On the court, Belmont’s Ian Clark has been almost unstoppable in OVC play so far. In his last four games, the senior guard is hitting 77% from the field, and leads the OVC in shooting, almost unheard of from the guard position. But what makes Belmont so good isn’t just Clark, but his supporting cast. In their win against Eastern Kentucky, Blake Jenkins scored 21 points on 8-9 shooting, Trevor Noack pulled down 10 rebounds, versus just 17 as a team for the Colonels. But in that win, a chink the the Bruins armor emerged: turnovers. The Bruins turned the ball over 21 times, which was key in EKU’s run to take the lead in the second half.
The bad news for Tennessee State: they haven’t forced many turnovers this year. In fact, they’re last as a team in OVC play, forcing fewer than 10 a game. To their credit, they don’t commit many turnovers either, but they’re going to need to take advantage of every opportunity tonight.
Patrick Miller, who scored just over 10 points a game with Robert Covington in the lineup, is fifth in the league in scoring since conference play began (and Covington’s injury) averaging over 19 points a game. Kellen Thorton, who had two double-doubles in non-conference game, has had three in six OVC games, falling just two points short of a fourth. Even M.J. Rhett, a virtual non-threat much of the year, has three double-digit rebounding games. After a disappointing start, the Tigers have rallied, and even without their leading scorer could provide a serious threat.
Rebounding will be key, but the larger question is this: can the Tigers top scoring defense stop the league’s best offense.
Eastern Kentucky (14-4, 4-1) at Jacksonville State (12-6, 4-3)
1:30 p.m. CST
Arguably, Eastern Kentucky hasn’t performed well coming off losses this year. After their first loss of the year at Illinois, the Colonels suffered a bad loss to North Carolina A&T, before edging a less-than-mediocre High Point. After a loss at West Virginia, EKU fared better, but their next opponent was Eastern Illinois, so take that for what it’s worth. This time, they face a challenge, traveling to face a good Jacksonville State squad, but one that’s yet to get a quality conference win.
Both teams are coming off pretty woeful rebounding performances, a problem that’s plagued both teams this year. While I can make an excuse for the undersized Gamecocks, the Colonels don’t get the same pass, with three guys 6’7″ or taller playing significant minutes. The inside play shows up on defense as well, as Eastern Kentucky has struggled to defend guys in the paint.
Defense has been a sour note in general for the Colonels as of late. Eastern Kentucky is relying on outscoring teams, allowing three of their last five opponents to shoot better than 45% from the field. That’s not to say they don’t get stops. They do, by forcing turnovers. It’s a risk/reward defense: when it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it puts a lot of pressure on the Colonels offense to score, more so than other teams.
Jacksonville State’s record is starting to look bloated, by which I mean filled with too many non-quality wins. In fact, the Gamecocks don’t have a single win against the RPI top-200, but there’s an sort of an asterisk by this statistic. They haven’t played a single team with an RPI between 100 and 200, and they have three close losses to teams between 50th and 100th. As a result, it’s kind of hard to figure where this team really falls.
The Gamecocks style is the polar opposite of the Colonels: Half-court, inside heavy basketball with four guys that can score, but no one that’s likely to light up the scoreboard. Playing their style of basketball is important, but they have the offense to compete in a faster paced game, something that’s been lacking in the past.