There’s a lot to digest from last night’s 107-94 shootout in Cape Girardeau, but let me start with this. According to BB State, there have been 5,241 “performances” by Division I teams this year. (For every Division I vs Division I game played, that’s two performances, one from each team. For every game against a non-Division I team, only the Division I is counted.) Belmont’s offensive efficiency (1.51 points per possession) was the 17th best performance in college basketball of the year. If you only count games involving two D-I teams, it was the 7th best. Of course, the flip side of that, is that SEMO’s defense was responsible for the 7th worst performance nationwide all season long. To put it another way, Belmont’s performance offensively last night was in the top third of the top 1% of performances all season.
BTW, interesting note from the other end of the spectrum. The 5,240th best (as in next to worst) offensive performance of the year? Eastern Illinois’s 0.48 points per possession against Western Illinois.
History is not on the side of Southeast Missouri and Eastern Kentucky right now, as you would probably imagine. But this isn’t just conjecture, I have some numbers to back it up.
EKU’s game against Morehead State Saturday is without a doubt a “must-win” if they want any chance at the conference crown. Sure, theoretically they could claw their way out of a 1-3 hole, but it doesn’t happen often. SEMO will be no better than 1-3 after their next game. Since 2000, 5 of the 13 champions had fewer than three losses. Only six had four losses. None have had more than four. So the room for error is already next to nothing.
But history is even more unkind to team under .500 after the first four conference games. Dating back to 1980, only one OVC team has won the title after starting 1-3. That was UT Martin, back in 2008-09, during the reign of Lester Hudson. That season, the Skyhawks opened play on the “death valley” road swing, losing to a Morehead State team that finished 12-6 in conference play, and at a 10-8 EKU team. They beat a 13-5 Murray State team at home, before losing to a 13-5 Austin Peay team. They then went 13-1 to finish conference play to capture the crown. That season, UTM started conference play with the next four best teams. Eastern Kentucky can’t say that, although you could make the argument Southeast Missouri has played a similar opening schedule.
Even if EKU gets to 2-2, history isn’t much kinder. Only two teams have gone from 2-2 to a title: the 13-3 Austin Peay Governors in 2002-2003, and the 12-6 (seriously…12-6 won the conference one year) Murray State Racers in 1996-97. No team has gone from 0-4 to the conference crown in the last 33 years.
Somehow, and I truly don’t understand why, the OVC’s conference RPI has risen in the past two weeks from 27th to 23rd, according to BB State. I say I don’t understand because it’s not like the OVC has notched a lot of quality non-conference wins in that time, they’ve mostly been in conference play. But that’s somewhat aside the point.
ESPN’s bracketology currently has Murray State (due to their record being 3-0 on the day of the update versus Belmont’s 2-0) in the field…as an play-in game team. Assuming the Racers make the tournament it does make sense: Murray’s RPI is 193, they don’t have just one road win, and one top-200 RPI win. But there’s my question: would that be such a bad thing? Would a Murray State, or any OVC school, playing in the “first round” really hurt the OVC. Money-wise, that win counts, as Morehead State learned when they won that game five years ago, starting the OVC’s four-year win streak in the NCAA Tournament. The fact of the matter is…with the possible exception of Belmont, it’s hard to see any other team rising higher than a 15-seed. Would it be better for the OVC representative to have a legitimate chance of beating another mid-major, then likely throwing them to the wolves against an overmatched opponent? This year, given the current state of the OVC, I’m not sure that’s not the best thing that could happen.