We’re at the halfway point of the conference season, (more or less) and this year’s standings, in many ways, mirror last year’s. The race to win the West Division is seemingly over, barring a collapse by Murray State. The same three teams are fighting atop the East, with Belmont holding the edge a the moment. If the Bruins get past Morehead State on Wednesday, once again we could very well turn our attention away from the top of the conference the last few weeks and instead look to race for eighth.
And what a race that could be. There are five teams within a game of .500, currently fighting for 5th-9th. Southeast Missouri isn’t one of those teams, currently in tenth, two games below an even conference record, but there’s almost no one counting the Redhawks out of making a run. (Should we be?)
So what are out biggest surprises (both good and bad) of the first half?
- SIUE: The Cougars were picked to finish last in the West Division, and are anything but. With wins over Eastern Kentucky and Murray State, SIUE isn’t just beating “lower” teams, and appear to be a real threat.
- Nino Johnson: A preseason all-conference selection, Southeast Missouri’s junior forward has been all but missing in action. After coming back from an early season suspension, Johnson is averaging just eight points and six rebounds a game, below his sophomore year numbers.
- Blown leads: There’s something about being up 20 that is leading to collapse after collapse. This week alone, Belmont scrapes by for a win after building a big lead against Eastern Kentucky, and SEMO does the same against SIUE. Both of those teams were at home, as well.
- Tennessee State: No one expected them to be great, but this has been an absolute disaster. Patrick Miller has done his part, but there’s just not enough scoring on the back end, and the defense hasn’t been consistent. They pushed Morehead State to overtime this week, but just couldn’t get a W.
- The year of the newcomer: There’s almost too many impact newcomers to mention. Murray State freshman Cameron Payne, SEMO’s Jarekious Bradley, EIU’s Chris Olivier, Morehead State’s Brent Arrington, TTU’s Dwan Caldwell, Belmont freshman Evan Bradds; there are just so many great new players this year.
- Murray State’s OVC dominance: Even head coach Steve Prohm admitted his team’s 7-1 start in conference play was better than he expected. Sub .500 entering league play, many people (*waves*) didn’t expect the Racers to be in the race for the conference crown.
At midpoint last year, the player of the year race in the OVC was down to two, who in the end were named co-OVC players of the year. This season? Um…well, it’s a bit more complicated.
The first question is: can POY go to a player on a sub .500 team. How about a player on a sub .200 team? Looking at you, Patrick Miller. Miller leads the league in scoring, (23.2 ppg) minutes played (37.5 mpg) and is in the top ten in assists, (4.0 ppg) and steals. (1.8 spg) He’s scored at least 13 points in every game, and has been held under 20 just twice in conference play.
If you’re not willing to vote for a player on a team with just two wins, there’s two players on another sub .500 conference team that’s worth consideration: Jarekious Bradley and Tyler Stone. Bradley is second in the OVC in scoring, (21.2 ppg) sixth in rebounding, (7.0 rpg) and shooting 51.5% from the field. Stone has been good, although not getting as much attention; he’s fourth in scoring, (18.2 ppg) and fourth in rebounding. (9.3 rpg)
If you’re a “best player on the best team” kind of guy (and if so, why?) who do you pick from Murray State or Belmont? JJ Mann? He’s sixth in scoring (17.2 ppg) but does lead the league in steals. (2.2 spg) The Racers don’t really have a dominant player. Jarvis Williams is second in the league in rebounding (10.2 rpg) but has struggled scoring as of late. Cameron Payne can be a game-changer, but isn’t exactly lighting up the stat sheet: 14.9 ppg, 5.4 apg.
How about from the teams in the middle? Glenn Cosey‘s 19.1 ppg and 4.5 apg make him a strong candidate. Angelo Warner puts up 17 points per game, 3.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and two steals. And we can’t leave out the top rebounder in the league, Chad Posthumus, but he’s only scoring 10.7 ppg, despite pulling down 11.8 rebounds a contest.
It may seem early to talk about “scenarios” but there are already a few that are becoming clear with about eight games to play for much of the OVC. Right now, only two teams control their fate to earning a double-bye: Murray State, and Belmont.
The Eagles path is a complicated, because even if they beat Belmont on Wednesday, if both teams win out, they would be tied, and split the season series. Under this scenario, both would have split with Murray, split with EKU, and it would depend who was fifth (or deeper) to determine who won the division, and could actually come down to a coin toss. It gets even more complicated if it’s a three-way tie. The point: they’re not fully in control, although if they win out, it would be hard to see them not getting the double-bye.
Eastern Kentucky needs very specific help: they need Murray State to beat Belmont. If Belmont beats Murray, and ends in a tie with EKU, the Bruins would hold the tiebreaker. There are still a lot of games, and EKU could potentially clear Belmont by a game, but that would require three Belmont losses, and the Colonels to win out. It’s just worth noting: Eastern Kentucky fans are doubly Murray State fans when Belmont hosts the Racers next month.
The West race could come down to this: does anyone beat Belmont, and can anyone else beat Murray State. Assuming there’s not a sweep, the tiebreakers go to record against the top seed, presumably one of those two. If SIUE is the only team in the West to beat the Racers, they’re in a good spot in a tiebreaker scenario, assuming they’re not swept by a division opponent.
Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State are on fairly equal standing if they end in a tie in the East. They still have to play each other twice, so there’s a lot to go here.