Conference season is rarely short on surprises, but does this year not seem especially chaotic? Besides that fact that same two teams are atop each division as last year…
Here’s the 10 things we learned in the past week.
1. The more things change…
Belmont leads the East, Murray State leads the West. Regardless of where we thought they might finish, no one can be wholly surprised at the division leaders through the first fourth of the season. Belmont’s offense has picked up right where they left off last season, and might even be better (it is statistically, although it ranks slightly lower) than last season. And despite a woeful start to the season, the Racers are figuring it out at the right time, proving the West still runs through Murray.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Yet…we kind of are. At least, we’re surprised at how poorly their expected rivals have started, and how quickly both teams have taken sole command of their respective divisions. There is a difference, though, between the two teams: Murray State has beaten their top division rivals, with both games in Murray. Belmont hasn’t.
These two don’t meet on the floor February 6th in Nashville.
2. The word you’re looking for is “defense”
When a mid-major team enters conference play, defensive numbers tend to get better. That’s because the so-called “money games” tend to skew them in a negative fashion during non-conference play. So when your defensive efficiency is worse against conference opponents, that’s generally not a good sign. Case-in-points, the four teams whose defensive points per possession (DPPP) have risen since conference play began.
- EKU (1.101 in conference play, 2-2)
- EIU (1.113, 2-3)
- SEMO (1.212, 1-3)
- UT Martin (1.163, 0-4)
None of those teams are above .500 in conference play, and with the possible exception of Eastern Illinois, they’re all off to a worst start than most expected. (EIU is playing through a relatively tough part of their conference schedule, so 2-3 is fairly reasonable) Is it an over simplification? I’d argue it’s not, especially since the top four defensive teams in the conference are a combined 9-3. The offense gets all the praise, but the link is clear: you’re not going to win without defense.
- Belmont (1.074, 7th in the OVC)
Okay, unless you’re scoring 84 points a game.
3. Non-conference strength of schedule matters…to a point
We go through this every year, but I’d like to make the case again: playing a tougher non-conference slate is better than playing a soft one. Here are the non-conference SOS of the teams picked atop both divisions:
- Murray State: 186th
- Southeast Missouri: 325th
- Belmont: 49th
- Morehead State: 160th
- Eastern Kentucky: 266th
I don’t think it’s sheer coincidence that the teams that played a tougher schedule are having more success in conference play. It’s not just that they’re getting tested more, (which they are) it’s that they’re actually playing games that show us their strengths and weaknesses, and we simply have a better idea how good they truly are.
As always with this argument, there are a few teams that wreck the curve.
- Tennessee State: 80th
- Eastern Illinois: 198th
I could easily argue, though, that both teams have at worst matched, and at best possible exceeded their expectations so far, and will continue to do so. Tennessee State and Eastern Illinois have both looked better in conference play, have both seen their offensive numbers (which were both not very pretty at one point) rise, and both have played opponents closer than many have expected.
4. The newcomer and freshman of the year races are over
I’ve been high on Jarekious Bradley all year. It’s hard not to be, when he’s the conference’s second-leading scorer, sixth-leading rebounder, shooting 50% from the field, 80% from the charity stripe, and 40% from three. In fact, the Redhawks newcomer should be in the running for conference player of the year, although SEMO getting a few more wins would help his cause greatly. His top challengers could include Chris Olivier from Eastern Illinois, although he only has half a season to state his case, and Jarvis Williams from Murray.
The freshman of the year? Murray State’s Cameron Payne. He’s the Racers’ leader in points, assists, and steals, and is already drawing comparisons to Racers’ great Isaiah Canaan. That’s not from fans, that from other coaches in the league, including Eastern Kentucky head coach Jeff Neubauer. He’s a huge difference maker on the floor, and the Racers’ offense runs completely different when he’s on the bench. Second place? Antonius Cleveland, SEMO. He’s having a solid freshman campaign, and could be a great four-year starter, but he does trail Payne in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
5. Tennessee Tech continues to be the conference’s most overlooked team
Need proof? Check back through 1-4. They’re not mentioned anywhere. Not as a contender, not as a pretender. Just not mentioned. At all. That’s not on purpose to make a point. In fact, I just noticed it myself.
There are a lot of arguments that can be made both ways on whether the Golden Eagles are a team that can challenge in the East Division. They’re 3-1, but have beaten three sub.500 teams. They did take Belmont to the wire in Nashville, but couldn’t hit a shot in the final seconds to force overtime. They don’t have a clear go-to guy on the floor, (their top scorer is 30th in the league) but have the second best defense in the OVC. But is that because they’ve played a weak schedule? But they did shut down the Bruins, something few teams can say.
This is Tennessee Tech in a nutshell. An enigma. (…wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by mystery. Sorry.) Their next three games are all against the West division, and we don’t see them against a East division challenger until February. Who knows what we’ll think of the Golden Eagles by then.
6. UT Martin may be the OVC’s most disappointing team
I really like UT Martin. I do. I like their head coach, Jason James. But this team brought back more of their production from the previous year than anyone else in the conference. This is, essentially, last year’s team, one year older, one year more experienced. So why have they seemingly taken a step backwards?
There are some causes: Myles Taylor started the season injured, (and may still not be 100%) there’s whatever happened causing Mike Liabo to miss the first three weeks of the year. But Terence Smith is healthy, which he wasn’t most of last year. And yes, they’ve played three of four on the road, and their only home game in OVC play was against the defending champs. I get all of that.
But, to be honest, there is always adversity you have to work through. And it just doesn’t look like this teams isn’t. The schedule is somewhat set up for the Skyhawks to prove me wrong, as they still have two games left against EIU, SIUE, and one against the bottom teams in the East Division. They still have seven home games, to just five on the road. They’re going to notch wins. But it’s pretty clear this team isn’t taking a major step forward. Which really is a shame, given the talent that came back this year.
7. Eastern Illinois’ win over Jacksonville State could loom large in March
They’re both 2-3, and currently tied for 7th in the OVC. Assuming SEMO’s 1-3 conference start isn’t a sign of things to come, this is very much setting up as the race for the 8th and final playoff spot, with SIUE and UTM possibly nipping at their heels. That being said, SIUE’s loss Thursday could also loom large for the Cougars chances. That’s because if there’s a two-way tie, the head-to-head matchup is the first tiebreaker. While there’s still a lot that can happen between now and March, the result of these two games, this week, could very well be a major contributor to who’s in and who’s out.
8. History says EKU, SEMO’s chances of winning the OVC are slim
I ran the numbers in a “Daily 3” earlier this week, but here’s the summary for those that missed it: Since 1980, only three teams have started 2-2 or worse through four games and won the conference crown. Only one did it from 1-3, and that was when the OVC played 18 games, not 16. Making things harder for EKU: both teams that rallied from 2-2 won the title with four or more losses. That’s a tall order to expect both Belmont and Murray State to lose that often, especially since EKU has already finished their series with the Racers.
9. Getting to the free-throw line isn’t luck, and is hugely important
You may think a rant on the referees is coming here. It’s not, although the new rules make the above statement even more true. One of the “four factors” has always been free-throw rate: essentially how often a team gets to the free-throw line, based on the number of possessions. Unlike the defensive numbers we listed above, they don’t provide as cut and dry a comparison to wins, but the numbers are still pretty telling. The top 4 free-throw rates for the whole season:
- Morehead State (53.0)
- Murray State (52.0)
- Austin Peay (44.6)
- Eastern Illinois (43.1)
The bottom 4:
- SIU Edwardsville (38.3)
- Southeast Missouri (38.3)
- Eastern Kentucky (37.1)
- UT Martin (33.1)
The top four teams are a combined 10-5 in OVC play. The bottom four teams? 4-12.
10. Don’t care about the records, Belmont – Eastern Kentucky is the best game of the week ahead
Eastern Kentucky can get right back in the conference race on Thursday, when they host East Division leaders Belmont. A loss, on the other hand, all but ends EKU’s chances of winning the conference, and just as likely the division.
Other games worth your time this week:
- Thurs. Murray State at Eastern Illinois. This road swing didn’t go well for Murray State last year. They’ll travel to Charleston, then Edwardsville on Saturday. If they can get a sweep, they’ll have a huge advantage in the West.
- Sat. Southeast Missouri at Tennessee Tech. This is another big test of the Golden Eagles defense, and a tough road test for the Redhawks, who have struggled scoring outside of Cape Girardeau.