The day is upon us. We’ve had important games before now this season, but nothing like this. For some teams, it’s another win or go home moment, while for the majority it’s their first.
As much as we talk about championship, this is truly the one that matters. Winning a regular season title makes for a nice trophy, and a banner drop from the rafters. But it’s often a hollow victory, if not followed with an appearance to the dance: the NCAA Tournament. The true “March Madness.”
But for the teams that play today, they are playing to keep their season alive another day. A tournament championship is far down the scope, and recent history may even try to convince us it’s out of reach for these four teams. For two teams, their season will officially end, as likely will the careers of their many talented seniors.
Even if a win today means just one more game, it’s one more day. One more day of the game they love. One more chance to experience the thrill of victory like no others.
It’s tournament time in the Ohio Valley Conference:
(5) Morehead State 14-17 (8-8) vs (8) UT Martin 9-20 (5-11)
6:00 p.m CST
Morehead State won season series 1-0
The first matchup between these teams was pretty clear: Morehead State shot 54% from the field, held UT Martin to 34% on their home floor, and won despite an egregious number of fouls. The Eagles earned the victory without turning over the Skyhawks much either, something Morehead State has excelled in, and UT Martin struggled with all season.
But the interesting thing about the Skyhawks is simply how they’ve played this year. When they’re off, they’ve been horrible. But when they’re on, they quite solid, earning wins against Eastern Kentucky at Murray State. They then followed those wins with 31 and 33-point losses to worse opponents. You really just don’t know what you’re going to get on any night.
Not that Morehead State is incredibly better in that department. You know they’re going to push tempo, they’re going to pressure ball-handlers. But too often they make too many mental errors on both side of the ball. It’s gotten better as the players get used to head coach Sean Woods up-tempo style of play, but there’s much more in the way on inconsistency with this team than others.
More so than any game in this tournament, this game could simply be decided on who shows up. If both show up, they could put on quite a show for the OVC men’s opener. If only one team does, this one could be decided before halftime.
(6) Southeast Missouri 16-15 (8-8) vs (7) Eastern Illinois 11-20 (6-10)
8:00 p.m CST
Teams split season series 1-1
In my profile of the last 12 OVC champions, there were two criteria outside of seed that they all had in common: They all won their season finale, and were all better than .500 in their last six games. Only three teams matched those two criteria. Two are playing in this game. The other? Top-seeded Belmont.
Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri are both playing their best basketball of the year right now, which kind of makes it a shame they’re running into each other in the first round. They got to their current paths in much different ways: SEMO by speeding teams up, Eastern Illinois by slowing them down.
In their first two matchups of the season, the Redhawks got the best of the tempo battle, with the winner reaching in to the 70’s on both occasions. In both of those game, Southeast Missouri shot very well from behind the arc, draining 11 in their loss, and 15 three’s in their wins. Eastern Illinois finished last in the conference in 3-point defense, and as hot as the Redhawks have been behind the arc down the stretch, it could cause major problems for the Panthers.
Eastern Illinois tempo has somewhat disguised how efficient their offense can run. They don’t have a lot of sharpshooters, but they take care of the basketball, and make great decisions on offense. One of their few seniors, Alex Austin is a great point guard, and leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. (He’s also 11th in the nation) When their offense is clicking, it’s tough to stop, and they’re run up the score a surprising number of times late in the season.
These teams know one another. They know their strengths and weaknesses. The question is can one make a key adjustment to throw the others off their game. I would be surprised if either team can shoot their way out of this one, and it should come down to which team can make the most stops, which has been a struggle at time for both of these teams.