With three weeks to go in the season, it appears there are four teams for two OVC Tournament Spots: Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay, Southeast Missouri, and Jacksonville State. Tennessee Tech has a leg up on the other three at 5-5, but with a tough end of season slate, I feel it’s possible they could slip. SIUE and EIU, both with six wins, are likely in, barring a major collapse.
So, let’s compare some schedules down the stretch:
Home: Morehead State, Eastern Kentucky, Belmont
Away: Southeast Missouri, Tennessee Tech
Home: Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, Jacksonville State
Away: UT Martin, Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State
Home: UT Martin, Jacksonville State, Austin Peay, Murray State
Away: UT Martin
Home: Eastern Illinois, SIUE, Eastern Kentucky
Away: Morehead State, Southeast Missouri, UT Martin
The best schedule the rest of the way is SEMO’s. They only have one game on the road, and still have both their games against the team last in the division, UT Martin. If they win both of those games, they only need one between JSU, Austin Peay, and Murray State to get to 7 wins. Is 8-8 out of the realm of possibility? Maybe not, although we’re still looking at a Redhawks teams well below .500 in conference. Nothing is coming automatic.
Tennessee Tech may be a game up on the field, but they’ve got the most brutal schedule, still needing to play both of their games against EKU and Morehead State. They need to, at a minimum, win one of those four games. If they take care of business at UT Martin, that’s 7 wins. They also host Jacksonville State, which could be big to holding off a challenge from the Gamecocks.
Speaking of Jacksonville State, there’s isn’t really better. They host the three best teams in the division, and travel to two teams in “must-win” mode. Can they find three wins? They almost have to win both road games if they’re going to have a chance, and that’s a tall order for any team in the OVC.
Austin Peay’s schedule falls in the middle. They have to go to SEMO, but get to host the Illinois schools, which are winnable games, and games they need to win, honestly. Three or four wins isn’t out of the question, but neither is only getting one or two.
So where do my predictions lie? Southeast Missouri, a team that’s been on the outside looking in all season, is really in a good position. Tennessee Tech makes sense as well, with Austin Peay looking to pounce if the Golden Eagles falter.
I don’t know if the new rules deserve all the blame for this, but the OVC is markedly worse defensively this year than last. Why yes, I have numbers:
This year, the average DPPP (Defensive points per possession) is 1.075. Last season, it was 1.020. That might not seem like a lot on face value, but it statistically significant: assuming a game with 72 possessions (which is about average) it adds up to eight extra points over the course of the game.
Here’s why I say I’m not sure the new rules deserve all the blame: Last season, OVC teams allowed 44.9% shooting from the field; this season, it 47.3%. Sure, there are more fouls, and more free-throws, but this is large difference. There were some really good offensive teams in the league last year, including Belmont. There were three players currently on NBA rosters. Is this year’s class really that much better?
I don’t think so.
Again, the rules are having an impact on the field goal numbers. But all things being equal, and from what I’ve seen this year, it’s not just the rules. It explains why teams can’t hold onto leads. It explains why the middle of the league seems so inconsistent. And it explains why the OVC struggled so much in non-conference play earlier this year.
Speaking of schedules, over the next two weeks, we really get to see if Morehead State is ready to be a challenger in the OVC. Thanks to their big win at Eastern Kentucky on Saturday, the Eagles move to third in the conference, but things aren’t getting much easier for Sean Woods‘ bunch, with three of the next four on the road, including a trip to West Division leading Murray State a week from Saturday.
At this point in the year, it’s not about winning the OVC: Morehead State is essentially 1.5 games behind thanks to tiebreakers; It’s hard to see the Bruins losing two more games in OVC play, with most of their toughest games behind them. The Eagles would probably prefer to avoid Belmont until the tournament finals, but there’s still a lot of question just how good they are. A lot of people either have forgotten / don’t realize their only losses in conference play are against Belmont and EKU, and four of their seven conference win are by double-digits.
I do, though, think some still view Morehead State as a “second tier” team: They’re good, but they’re not going to beat the Bruins or Murray, or even win a big game when it matters. If they fall back to fourth over the next few weeks, that’s going to hard to shake this season.
But trust me — this Morehead State team could easily win the OVC Tournament.