If you ask the players, I’d bet they’d rather be on the court this week than taking the time off for finals. But this week also marks the end of the fall semester, which is noteworthy because some mid-season transfers are about to become eligible.
Here’s the 10 things we learned in Week 4:
1) JANUARY 16TH CAN’T GET HERE SOON ENOUGH
What’s January 16th, you ask? The first of at least two matchups between Eastern Kentucky and Belmont. The Bruins took care of Middle Tennessee on the road this week, improving their already impressive early season resume. The Colonels didn’t get the win, but took VCU to overtime on the road, and did notch a W at Longwood over the weekend. There’s no conference game more highly anticipated this year, and it could go a long way to determing this year’s OVC champion. Oh, and these two teams play again nine days later, on the 25th. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a third matchup in March.
2) AN ALREADY GOOD TEAM IS ABOUT TO GET EVEN BETTER
I’m talking about Southeast Missouri, who earned a hard-fought win over the weekend against Southeast Louisiana. I’m all but convinced that last year’s team, and the year before would have lost that game, as they were not known for mental toughness. They have a solid core of four players, that’s about to become five when Auburn transfer Josh Langford becomes eligible at the end of the week. They don’t have a lot of depth, and even with Langford or Jarekious Bradley at the two, I’m not sold on the backcourt as a whole. But I feel Langford will make an impact, and likely make the Redhawks the best offense in the conference.
3) …SO IS BELMONT
But it’s not because of a transfer, but injuries. The most impressive thing about their win at Middle Tennessee is that they did it without their top two point guards: Craig Bradshaw and Reece Chamberlain. JJ Mann has been terrific after a slow start to the year, and the idea this team will be even better when injuries heal has to be a scary thought for the conference.
4) LOVE HIM OR HATE HIM, MIKE LIABO IS IMPORTANT TO THE SKYHAWKS SUCCESS
He’s been one of my personal favorite players in the OVC over his career, not necessarily because he’s the league’s best player (he’s not) but because of how he plays; his intensity, his emotion, just how he carries himself on the court. But there are quite a few people who disagree with me on that. But one thing that I don’t think can be discounted is how much of an impact he’s made in his return. He’s averaging more than 14 points a game off the bench since his return, and the Skyhawks have won three of those five, including a big win on the road against former OVC foe Samford. When Myles Taylor gets healthy, the Skyhawks could prove quite a threat in an uneven division.
5) EASTERN ILLINOIS OFFENSE IS FAR FROM FIXED
I promise, this isn’t here just to make fun of EIU’s 32-point performance against Western Illinois, although, that is part of the reason. Reggie Smith, who went out in that game after a collision with the bleachers, IS the EIU offense, and that’s troubling. Sherman Blandford, who we expected to play a major role this year, just hasn’t been involved in the offense, averaging just eight points a game despite 48% shooting. Alex Austin‘s shot selection isn’t great, and freshman Dennis Green is the only other player averaging more than five points a game. Last year’s team, which everyone though was inept on offense mostly because of super-slow tempo, was 176th nationwide in offensive points per possession, which was 7th in the conference. They weren’t a horrible offense, they just played that slowly. This year, they’re playing faster, as we expected, averaging 6.6 more possessions a game, yet averaging just one more point a game. The offense, simply, is much worse this year. Going back to that points per possession number, whereas the Panthers were in the middle of the conference and the nation last season, this year they’re currently ranked 347th out of 351 teams. The numbers are bad enough, but made worse when you consider that scoring is up on average six points a game across the NCAA this season, thanks mostly to an increased number of free-throws. This is a bad year to have bad offense, and the defense isn’t good enough to make up that kind of difference.
6) SIUE IS STILL BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD
Not to be the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” type, but the Cougars are 10 points from being a 6-3 team, instead of being 2-7. Okay, so that’s exactly what I’m doing. Last season, SIUE went 5-11 in conference, but I can’t help but thinking most of those wins were the result of a down West, and down games by many of their opponents. The big problem last year was the offense: SIUE was 11th in the league in offensive efficiency, but 4th in defensive efficiency. This year’s team is the complete opposite: 6th in offense, 11th in defense. Here’s the thing to: Offense, generally, doesn’t improve much throughout the year. See: Eastern Illinois. Defense, on the other hand, can. For a 2-7 team, I’m still confident this Cougars team could make the OVC Tournament.
7) MOREHEAD STATE IS THE STILL THE MOST OVERLOOKED TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE
Last year, it was Tennessee State, the third best team in the East, that played this role. This year, it’s Morehead State, the (seemingly) third best team in the East. The thing about the Eagles is how unique they are in how they play. You have to change some of your principles when you face Morehead State, and when they’re only a once or twice a year opponent, versus the other 26, it can be hard to do. The problem is, much like last year, Morehead State can’t get out of it’s own way. Fouls are creeping upward, and forcing turnovers is great when you’re not turning it over at the same frequency, or more often. But make no mistake, the Eagles can beat Belmont and Eastern Kentucky, and the rest of the conference. But I can’t help but feel they’ll also lose one or two games that make you scratch your head.
8) MURRAY STATE’S WINNING SEASON STREAK LOOKS SAFE..ISH
Murray State hasn’t had a losing century since I was three years old, which is 26 straight seasons for those who are counting. (Hint: They are) With a tough non-conference schedule, there was some concern if they’d be able to keep that streak alive. Winning two games at home this week makes you feel a bit better. If they win against Southern Illinois next week, they’ll be back to .500, and could win a sixth game before conference play begins. If they get to six, finishing 8-8 in a down West Division guarantees a winning season.
9) TENNESSEE STATE CAN’T BLAME THE SCHEDULE ANY MORE
It’s still the toughest in the OVC, hands down, but TSU has had two good chances to win against SC-Upstate and hosting Alabama A&M, and lost both. They’ll win against non D-I Fisk Sunday (right?) before finishing the non-conference slate at Illinois State and hosting their old coach and Miami (OH.) Those are both winnable, but I’m not betting on the Tigers until they show me they can win a Division I game.
10) A POTENTIAL BLOWOUT THE BEST GAME OF A LIGHT WEEK
As I mentioned at the top, it’s finals week for most of the OVC, so there aren’t a lot of games. There are even fewer good ones. The best on the list? Eastern Kentucky at #8 Wisconsin. The Colonels played poorly against NC State, but well just a few days later at VCU. Which do we get against the very unique Badgers?
Other games worth mentioning:
Sat: Liberty at Austin Peay – The Governors are 3-1 at home, and coming off a horrible loss at Samford. Turnovers continue to be a problem, and the Governors did a horrible job of defending the perimeter against the Bulldogs
Sat: Belmont at South Dakota State – The Jackrabbits aren’t the same team without Nate Wolters, but it’s still one of the better mid-major matchups of the week.
Sun: Fisk at Tennessee State – This is interesting for just one reason: it will likely be the Tigers first win of the season, after an 0-10 start. Where there first Division I win comes? That’s anyone’s guess.