As we enter conference play, we’re looking at the best, worst, and most likely scenarios that could play out for every OVC team.
Entering December, you could make the case for Eastern Illinois. They were 3-3, with a big over Illinois-Chicago on the road, and were coming off a tight loss to IPFW. They’re winless in December, and have looked somewhere between hapless and awful most of the month. The question: which team do we see entering conference play?
Best case scenario: Obviously, the offense has to get off the struggle bus for this to happen, but there’s reason to believe they can. Here’s the defensive efficiency ranks for their last five opponents:
- Western Kentucky: 95th
- Western Illinois: 44th
- Indiana State: 150th
- Wright State: 93rd
- IPFW: 135th
While you can’t completely point to their opponents, there is a case to be made that the EIU will be much better offensively in conference play, because the OVC defenses aren’t as good. Here are the ranks for the top-5 OVC teams.
- Morehead State: 151st
- Eastern Kentucky: 153rd
- Austin Peay: 209th
- Southeast Missouri: 213th
- Murray State: 221st
Not one OVC team has a better defensive efficiency rank than the Panther last five opponents. The Panthers put up 88 points at Illinois-Chicago, the 281st ranked defense, so they can score against weaker defenses. Like last year, this team has the capability of being much better in February than they were in November. While they don’t the firepower to win the division, they could easily make the tournament, and pull a first, and maybe even a second round upset.
Worst Case Scenario: It’s not about the defenses, it’s that EIU’s offense has completely lost confidence. They open conference play against Tennessee State, and while that represents a chance to get a win, especially at home, a loss against a TSU team that’s played the hardest non-conference schedule could be devastating, especially with Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State on the horizon. Josh Piper never finds his shot, Reggie Smith remains inconsistent, and Sherman Blanford regresses to his early season form. By the time the offense gets confidence, assuming it happens at all, eighth place is out of reach, and the Panthers are left stretching their head, and sitting home in March
Most Likely Scenario: I do think EIU’s offense appears to improve in conference play, although their schedule isn’t especially friendly for a fast start, as they’ll be almost certain underdogs in at least five of their first seven games. Even if they only pull two wins, things soften up a bit from there, with four to six easily winnable games the rest of the way. Seven wins almost certainly makes the tournament. The problem is, the final four games are all on the road: at Austin Peay, at Murray State, at Belmont, and at SIUE. Last year, they had the same four teams at home to end conference play, and split those games. They should get to six wins, but they’ll be scoreboard watching the final week to see if they make back-to-back trips to Nashville.