We’re back from hiatus. Would Eastern Kentucky like to join us? Murray State dominated the Colonels in Richmond last night, sending EKU to 1-2 in the conference, and essentially 2.5 games behind the Racers, who are very much in the mix to win the conference. They were outrebounded by 14 (which was kind of expected) and leading scorer Glenn Cosey was held to five points on 2-13 shooting on the night. (Which was not)
The most troubling trend for me is one we noticed after Eastern Illinois and became apparent after SIUE: this defense isn’t very good right now. All three of the Colonels conference opponents have shot better than 50% from the field, and EKU is struggling to force turnovers. (Just 12 last night) In conference play, they’re allowing 1.141 points per possession, which is not a good number, (the national average is just above 1.00) and up more than 10% from their non-conference campaign.
As we’ve pointed out all season, and evidenced again last night, EKU’s frontcourt is a weakness. Racers forward Jarvis Williams was 9-9 from the field, notching another double-double, while completely shutting down Colonels forward Eric Stutz. For their three OVC games, opponents are shooting 62.4% on two-point field goal attempts, worst in the conference by far. For the year, they’re allowing 54.1% inside the three-point arc, which is in the bottom 40 nationwide.
Even with last night’s lackluster performance factored in, they’re still one of the best offenses in the league, which will help them win a lot of games. But if this team still wants a chance to win the OVC, their defense must get better, and in a hurry. They travel to Morehead State Sunday, and I don’t see EKU winning the division, much less the conference, if they fall to 1-3.
Last night’s loss by EKU / win by Murray State makes tonight’s game in Cape Girardeau even more interesting. Southeast Missouri is trying to avoid an 0-3 conference start against 2-0 Belmont. For the Bruins, this is a great chance to put more separation between themselves and the Colonels (who will, undoubtedly, make some sort of run) and stay ahead of Morehead State, who is looking more like East Division competitors. Southeast Missouri, on the other hand, can’t fall three-games back of Murray if they’re going to challenge in the West.
Much like how EKU has been statistically worse in conference play, Southeast Missouri has been statistically worse with a major exception: the play of Jarekious Bradley, who isn’t just a frontrunner for newcomer of the year, but should be in serious consideration for the OVC player of the year award. They’ve struggled to score, and have been surprisingly soft inside. (Nino Johnson, where have you gone?) The one thing to note: this team hasn’t played at home but twice this year. One of those games (Illinois-Chicago) was pretty much an unmitigated disaster, and the other they edged an IUPUI team whose RPI is…317.
Belmont has struggled a bit in their two OVC games at home, and their recent road form hasn’t been great. But what we’ve seen over the past few weeks is that the Bruins aren’t J.J. Mann‘s team, like many of us expected: It’s Craig Bradshaw‘s. Bradshaw has led the Bruins in scoring each of the last six games, despite not leading the team in a single statistic for the year. He’s scored at least 17-points in all six of those games, and is shooting 51.7% on the year, which is stellar for a 6’3 guard. Mann is in a shooting slump: he’s shooting 30.9% from 3-point range for the year (down nearly 8% from last season) and is just 7-28 from behind the arc over that same six-game stretch. If he gets going, the Bruins could be a dangerous team. If he still struggles, the Bruins could struggle with them.
Today’s other two matchups really have major implications at the other end of the scale. Four teams are going to be left out of the OVC Tournament in March, and tonight’s game could have an impact on which four those are. Eastern Illinois’ offense has been much improved in their two conference games, but their defense hasn’t been. They face a Tennessee Tech team coming off a very emotional loss to the Bruins, and I’ll be curious to see how they can bounce back.
SIUE is on the other end of the emotional scale, coming off a major (season-saving?) win over Eastern Kentucky after a non-conference campaign filled with near misses. Jacksonville State, which has uncharacteristically struggled on defense, is coming off a loss to Tennessee State that really could come back to hurt them. They, especially, can’t afford two losses in a row if they’re going to be in Nashville in March.