Let’s be honest: so far this season, you’ve known nothing about every opponent an OVC team has faced. It’s fine, because I knew next to nothing either until I started doing research on those teams.
So much of the non-conference season is like this, but tonight that changes for the OVC’s newest members. I love that St. Louis is making the trip to SIUE. Just 30 minutes down the road, more or less, one of the bigger mid-major programs heading to the sold-out home of their smaller brethren.
These are the kinds of games worth gearing up for. Sure, the Cougars are huge underdogs, at home. But the 4,000 plus inside the ‘Vad Pad’ are going to be having a lot more fun tonight than the fans at EKU and EIU as they run away against teams they have no business playing in the first place. (Okay, so Eastern Illinois lost to a lower-division team last season. Maybe they have some business in this game)
Being new to Division I, SIUE doesn’t have a lot in the way of rivalries. But given their distance, and how excited the fans from the area are, I can’t help but hope this becomes one.
St. Louis (1-0 Atlantic 10) at SIUE (0-1)
7:00 p.m. CST
When I called SIUE “big underdogs” I failed to put a number beside it, but at last check that number is 18. Yes, the Cougars are 18-point underdogs in their own gym. Yikes, that’s not a small number.
We’ve already seen what the Billikens can do to an OVC opponent. St. Louis struggled to get separation against a shorthanded Southeast Missouri squad in their season opener, but pulled away with a big second half. My question: was it just nerves that led to the slow start?
St. Louis finished the night shooting 52% from the floor, but one thing I found striking is that they didn’t really control the glass, noteworthy since SEMO was missing their two starting forwards to suspension. That being said, Grandy Glaze, a rarely used reserve a year ago, had a monster night, scoring 16 points and pulling down 10 rebounds off the bench. We know guys like Mike Mccall Jr. and Dwayne Evans can be playmakers, but it was interesting to see players like Glaze and Jordair Jett have such strong openers. It gives you a bit of pause before focusing on the stars in the backcourt.
While I somewhat feel the need to note that SEMO isn’t exactly a team built on defense, SIUE isn’t either. An Arkansas team that lost two of their best players from last season to ill-advised decisions to bolt to the NBA (or bolt, at least) put up 99 points in a lopsided win in the Cougars season opener. Allowing 52% shooting, 50% from three-point range, and having 21 turnovers is an absolute recipe for disaster, one that SIUE must improve on to have any chance.
I’m also still not sold on SIUE’s starting lineup early in the season, and I would be surprised if it’s not tinkered with throughout the non-conference campaign. They’ve got a lot of talent coming off the bench, and through an exhibition and one regular season game it seems like their best talent is starting the game in a chair, instead of on the floor.
SIUE must find a way to penetrate, and get to the free-throw line. The disparity in the Arkansas game was striking, as the Cougars shot just 9 free-throws all night. With new rules seemingly turning every game into a free-throw contest, that’s simply not going to cut it.
UT Martin (0-2) at Arkansas State (1-0)
7:05 p.m. CST
They may be 0-2, but there are reasons to be encouraged about UT Martin’s start. Tonight, they face an opponent that should give us a much better look at how much the Skyhawks, still minus Myles Taylor, have progressed since last season.
The one thing the Skyhawks will have to contend with is a lot of size, but there’s a bit of a caveat to that. The Red Wolves have four players 6’6 or taller, all of whom played 10+ minutes in their only game, but they were still beaten badly on the boards by Jackson State. As we know, sheer size isn’t everything, but it’s interesting to see that happen.
Arkansas State is coming off a 19-win season, but are looking to replace two key cogs of that team. On top of that, the one returning star, Edward Townsel, was completely ineffective against Jackson State. How ineffective? Zero points on 0-9 shooting in 16 minutes. I’d be surprised if he has another night like that the rest of his career. Make no mistake, this is a guard-focused team, with Townsel, Cameron Golden, and Rakeem Dickson leading the way.
In my view, we’re going to learn more about UT Martin in these early games, without Taylor, than we will when he returns. We saw last season that Taylor is good enough for the Skyhawks to win games, and make the OVC Tournament. But if this team is to make the next step, they’ve got to find more firepower on offense, and just any defense. The good news is they seem to be taking a step in the right direction on at least one of those.
No, it’s not the defense.
Marshun Newell, a JUCO transfer and one of UT Martin’s few new additions this season, is a name to keep an eye on. He’s opened the season with 14 and 15 point performances against good opponents, and is doing so without needing to take a ton of shots. He’s shown he can get to the free-throw line, and can also dish the ball to teammates. UT Martin has been missing a consistent performer in the backcourt these past few years, and I feel Newell may be the answer they’ve been searching for.
Warren Wilson at Eastern Kentucky (2-1)
7:00 p.m. EST
Well, EKU can lick their wounds, so to speak, with an easy win in their home opener. EKU has a bit of soul-searching to do (I’m really in a ‘cliched sayings’ mood with this team, for some reason) and needs to find some toughness on the interior. Great guard play will likely work well in conference, but as Belmont found out last season, it doesn’t get you so far on the national scale.
Olivet Nazarene at Eastern Illinois (0-1)
7:00 p.m. CST
Yes, I’m sure we all remember how EIU lost to an NAIA team last year, yet that team somehow still made the OVC Tournament. Just let that sink in for a bit. I see zero chance of a repeat this year, as EIU has weapons they didn’t this time a year ago. Yes, I realize that’s not necessarily saying much. But still, head coach Jay Spoonhour is 1-for-1 in making the OVC Tournament in years that he lost to a lower-division opponent in a regular season game. That means something, right?