With conference play officially underway, we bid a fond farewell to non…yeah, it’s not that fond a farewell really. More a “good riddance” to non-conference play, at least for many of the schools. Our 10 things from Week 7.
1. The OVC’s newcomers are the real deal
I’ve talked about them in the past, but they just continue to impress. SEMO’s Jarekious Bradley was just named the OVC’s player of the week thanks to averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds in the past week. Murray State’s T.J. Sapp is averaging more than 17-points in his three games with the Racers. Chris Oliver at Eastern Illinois not only hit the game winner against Tennessee State, but is averaging 10-points and five rebounds in three games with the Panthers. Ty Allen leads Tennessee Tech in scoring, Brent Arrington is having a solid campaign at Morehead State. There’s others I’m certainly forgetting, but don’t be surprised if this year’s all-OVC team is filled with first year OVC players.
2. At the very least, the OVC could prove very entertaining
As alluded to in the intro, the OVC isn’t having the best of years. They’re 49-93 against Division I teams (.345 winning percentage) and have more teams with a 300+ RPI than a sub-200. But if the opening game to conference play taught us anything, it’s that the conference can be very entertaining to watch, even if it’s not all that great. Parity is very much the name of the game, as not a single team has proven they’re not capable of losing to just about any other team on a given night. Expect lots of “upsets” and quite a few games to the wire this year.
3. Eastern Kentucky is staking a claim to being the OVC’s best team
Two weeks ago, there was little question that the Bruins had put together the best non-conference resume. But since then, things have turned south in a hurry for the Bruins, who have now lost four straight, and five of their last six. Sure, four of those losses were on the road, but the Colonels are coming off the destruction of a solid, 10-win IPFW team in their gym, a team that was previously 4-0 against the OVC this season. While we were still fawning over Belmont, the Colonels have shot 56% or better from the field in their previous two wins. They don’t have the flashy win of Belmont, but the Colonels may be the team to beat right now.
4. …but Belmont played a much tougher schedule
The reason non-conference records are so hard to compare is one, there are few, if any like opponents and two, the schedule difficulty can vary wildly. While the Bruins are on a losing streak, it’s worth mentioning the Bruins currently have the toughest SOS of any OVC team, according to Ken Pom. Eastern Kentucky? 7th. Here’s the full list:
- Belmont (22nd Nationally)
- Tennessee State (75th)
- Murray State (117th)
- Morehead State (135th)
- Eastern Illinois (159th)
- UT Martin (169th)
- Eastern Kentucky (201st)
- SEMO (260th)
- Austin Peay (278th)
- Tennessee Tech (296th)
- Jacksonville State (311th)
- SIUE (317th)
5. First half leads are fleeting
Eastern Illinois had a 15-point lead against Tennessee State on Saturday, before falling behind by double-digits. (Only to then have a dramatic comeback, but that’s not the point.) Murray State has had first half leads in both of their last two contests on the road, only to fall behind before the half both times. EKU was down 11 to IPFW before blowing them out, and SEMO nearly came back from a double-digit deficit to Southeast Missouri. I’m not saying fast starts are overrated but…no wait. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
6. Southeast Missouri, Murray State still have a lot to prove
For the two teams expected to be the powers in the West, it’s hard to ignore what’s they’ve done, or rather haven’t done, in non-conference play. As shown in the chart above, the Redhawks haven’t exactly challenged themselves in their non-conference slate. The Redhawks have lost three of four, and have just a single RPI-top 200 win, but two sub-RPI 200 losses, including at home to Illinois-Chicago. Murray State is much in the same boat: sub .500 overall, with zero top RPI-200 wins, and two sub-RPI 200 losses. We feel pretty sure that one of these two teams will emerge atop the division, but it’s hard to feel great about either one with conference play on the horizon.
7. The East shouldn’t overlook Morehead State
The best offensive rebounding team in the conference? Morehead State. The team that gets to the free-throw line the most? Morehead State. Who forces the most steals? Well, that’s actually Eastern Kentucky, followed by Morehead State. As I mentioned with SEMO and Murray State above, they’re unproven, with no wins against the top RPI-200. But the Eagles are able to challenge you in a way many teams in the OVC can’t. They’re not as foul-happy as last year, and have a solid trio of scores that could be a nightmare to overcome.
8. Tennessee State, SIUE are in a race to the bottom
The Tigers are without a Division I win, after letting EIU charge back from 10-down in the final four minutes. SIUE’s two Division I wins are against teams with an RPI of…335+, and have the dubious distinction of the softest non-conference schedule. If Ken Pom is to be believed, the Cougars are the low man on the totem pole, but neither is in a great position right now.
9. Two in, two out: Eastern Illinois, UT Martin, Austin Peay, Jacksonville State
If you’re making picks who goes to Nashville, this is the likely race for eighth coming out of non-conference play. For this, we’re assuming SIUE and TSU are on the outside looking in, and Murray, SEMO, EKU, Belmont, Morehead, and TTU are all but locks. These matchups is where making the tournament could be won or lost.
10. A battle in the West is the best game of the week ahead
OVC play is in full swing this week, and an early battle for the top of the West takes place Thursday when SEMO travels to Murray State. Both teams are looking to prove themselves as co-picks to win the division, and the opener could go a long way to determining the double-bye out of the west.
Other games worth a look:
Tonight: UT Martin at Jacksonville State. The Skyhawks are seven-point underdogs, given their struggles on the road this year. It’s early, but being the only matchup between these squads, the winner gets the leg up in a possible tiebreaker in March.
Saturday: Tennessee Tech at Belmont. Are the Golden Eagles a contender in the East? They can stake their claim with a win in Nashville on Saturday.