There isn’t an official date for when the “stretch run” begins, but with three weeks left in the regular season, I feel it’s safe to declare it open. Especially since one team can clinch at least a share of their division title with a win today, and multiple teams are seeking wins to stay in the top-8.
We’re to the point, at least, where the general fan starts noticing the impact of wins and losses: not just another number, how it adds or reduces the team’s odds of making the run to Nashville.
9-16 (6-6 OVC)
15-9 (10-2 OVC)
17-9 (7-5 OVC)
13-13 (6-5 OVC)
9-16 (6-7 OVC)
11-14 (5-6 OVC)
17-9 (8-3 OVC)
10-17 (4-8 OVC)
3-24 (2-11 OVC)
20-8 (11-2 OVC)
SIUE at Murray State
The Cougars got the better of the Racers in Edwardsville earlier this season, and have since set out to prove that win wasn’t a fluke. I’m not sure if they’ve succeeded. SIUE has won three of four, but losses against Eastern Illinois and SEMO do somewhat leave you wondering how viable they are as a threat.
Winning in Murray would go a long way to answering that question.
The first challenge for the Cougars: winning on the road. Anywhere. They have just one road win all season: at UT Martin, which is far from impressive, and are even 0-3 on neutral courts. They’ve been as good at home as anyone in the conference, but haven’t found a way to match that success away from the Valdabene Center.
In their win against the Racers earlier in the year, the Cougars went zone in the second half, as the Racers three-point shooters went cold. Tennessee Tech tried a similar tactic just one game later, only to be shredded in one of the most lopsided losses of the season. In fact, since that loss, Murray’s three-point shooting has been rather hot.
Both teams can hit the long-shot, but the Cougars defense of the three-point line has been impressive: in conference play, SIUE is holding opponents below 30% from three-point range, tops in the OVC. The Racers are second, but at 33.5%, far behind the Cougars. What makes SIUE particularly dangerous is that they’re shooters aren’t concentrated: Edwardsville has seven players who have hit 10 or more three’s this year. Murray State only has four that have hit any.
Inside is where things get more challenging for the Cougars. Their two-point field goal defense is second-worst in the league, against a Racers team with a strong frontcourt duo in Jonathan Fairell and Jarvis Williams. Fairell got in major foul trouble in Edwardsville, playing just 13 minutes in the loss. Since then, he’s generally avoided many of those early, bad fouls that forced him to sit long stretches. He’s also coming off a career high 17-points in the Racers win at Tennessee State Saturday.
It’s hard to imagine Murray State shooting as poorly from behind the arc in their home gym, which means SIUE is going to need to score, and win the battle on the boards like the did in their first matchup.
Eastern Kentucky at Tennessee Tech
Tennessee Tech’s oddly lopsided scheduled is about to reach it’s peak in the final three weeks. The Golden Eagles face two of the top four teams in the conference twice each in their final six games, starting tonight with Eastern Kentucky.
The Golden Eagles continue to rank last in the conference in offensive efficiency, but it’s not their shooting (ranked 11th in the league almost across the board) that would concern me tonight against the Colonels: it’s the turnovers. TTU turns the ball over on more than 20% of their possessions, one of the worst rates in the league. Eastern Kentucky leads the OVC in turnovers forced. See the problem?
In fact, when EKU doesn’t force turnovers, their defense is rather squishy. (To use the technical term) The Colonels have the second worst field goal percentage defense in the OVC, and the worst inside. They’re the worst rebounding team, last in blocks, and 11th in fouls committed. It’s far too often turnover or bust for the Colonels.
For Tennessee Tech to win, they’ll look to their two big men for big games: Dwan Caldwell and Dennis Ogbe are the only Golden Eagles averaging double-digits this season, and Caldwell especially has been playing well as of late, averaging 14.4 points over the last five games.
Eastern Kentucky is on the other end of the turnover spectrum, leading the league not only in turnovers forced, but fewest turnovers per possessions. Their guard play on offense is terrific, and could present problems for Tennessee Tech, who have struggled at times to contain shooters.
TTU will likely need to find a way to “steal” a win or two against EKU and Morehead if they want to get to 7-9, which is what we feel like will be the likely cut-off point to making it to the OVC Tournament. Playing this game at home is about as good of a chance as they’re going to get.
Eastern Illinois at Austin Peay
As discussed in an earlier Daily 3, EIU has a pretty brutal stretch to end the season, playing their final four games on the road. At 6-6, they probably need at least one win to secure a spot in Nashville. Other than their season ender, this could very well be their best chance to get it.
Earlier this year in Charleston, Austin Peay shot 49% form the field losing a nip-and-tuck affair by three. Although the 67-64 final score might not represent it, both teams shot the ball, from the inside at least, fairly well, in a sloowwww game. The difference: The Panthers hit seven three-pointers, Austin Peay just three.
It’s really fitting, honestly, that the first game was so close, as these teams are almost mirrors of one another. Both teams feature good size, with Chris Horton and Will Triggs of Austin Peay going against Sherman Blandford and Chris Olivier of Eastern Illinois. Both have one guard that can scare you on the right night in Travis Betran and Reggie Smith respectively. Neither team is an offensive powerhouse, or a defensive powerhouse, both teams struggle with turnovers at times, neither team shoot well from behind the arc. The list goes on.
The one clear advantage that Austin Peay appears to have over EIU is depth. Behind Blandford and Olivier are three 6’8 or taller players, but their offensive effectiveness is suspect. (Remember when Josh Piper was a consistent scoring threat?) They have a backcourt JUCO transfer in Dylan Chapman that’s had some really good games in the past weeks, and then there’s…um…yeah.
Behind that trio mentioned above, Austin Peay has Zavion Williams, whose minutes have been reduced as of late but has nine double-digit scoring games on the season. Ed Dyson is averaging 18-points over the past three games, and Demarius Smith has been more solid in the past few weeks.
Like the first matchup, this could well come down to the little things, like rebounding and turnovers.
Morehead State at Jacksonville State
I got an email yesterday saying how this person was tired of us making digs at Morehead State, and how we didn’t even see them as a contender. I’d like to point out to this person this article, and this one, where in one I use the exact words “Morehead State” and “contender.” They’re not going to win the OVC outright without a lot of help, (starting with Belmont losing at least twice more this season, which I don’t see happening) but as an OVC Tournament contender? Absolutely.
Here’s why they are a contender, and Morehead State Sean Woods pointed it out in Tuesday’s teleconference: they defend, and they rebound well. In the Muni, where shooters seem to struggle, those are two very good traits.
Here’s why, though, they won’t be the favorite, records aside: Their offense isn’t really good in the half-court, and their defense, at least in OVC play, hasn’t forced near enough turnovers. In fact, the Eagles are a middle of the road sixth in turnovers forced per possession. They’re also the worst team in the league at handing the ball over to their opponents.
One team better in both turnover categories? The Jacksonville State team they’re about to play tonight.
That being said, JSU has many offensive problems of their own: They’re last in the OVC in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, they’re not a good rebounding team despite giving themselves quite a few opportunities. But the trademark James Green defense, which was wildly absent in non-conference play, appears to have mostly returned. As has the patented JSU tempo. Of which there is none.
At Morehead, Jacksonville held the Eagles to just seven three-point attempts, but were nearly doubled-up on the boards, and couldn’t get their offense going. In other words, their season in a nutshell.
While defense is important, you’re not going to win many games when you only score 54 points. If the Gamecocks can force some live ball turnovers, and get easy points, it should help spark their offense. They’ll also need to find a way to stop Angelo Warner, who is coming off a career-high 33 point performance against Eastern Kentucky. The Morehead State junior has been held to single digits just twice this season, and is shooting 46% from the field, a great percentage for a 6’2 guard. He’s also one of the better free-throw shooters in the league, and much like his teammates, knows how to get to the line.
Tennessee State at Belmont
Much like last night’s game between Southeast Missouri and UT Martin, this game looked a lot better on paper when the TV games were being picked than it does right now. Tennessee State is just playing out the stretch, and Belmont is racing ahead in the first place. The Bruins are 16.5 point favorites according to Vegas, and there are some who thinks that’s conservative.
In their first matchup, TSU’s less than stellar defense was, well, less than stellar. The Bruins hit 42% from behind the arc in a wire-to-wire win. Tennessee State kept the game fairly close in the second half, through, but never really got close enough to feel any upset potential. That also describes TSU’s last game against West Division leaders Murray State.
In the Bruins win over Austin Peay last Saturday, Rick Byrd made it clear that his team’s defense is his major point of emphasis going forward, going so far as to pull his starters over their effort on that end of the ball. In Nashville, where the Bruins will almost certainly have a double-bye, that’s one of the things that concerns you about a potential stumbling block. That and the shooters falling flat, which seemingly happened every year.
TSU currently has to be focused on two areas: getting Patrick Miller ready for the next level, (likely playing overseas) and getting this young team some experience. The first of which is mostly done. They really need to be focused on the second.
…which may mean taking the ball out of Patrick Miller’s hands. I know he’s the Tigers best player by a mile. (Or two) But with double-digit conference loses, this year is all but over. The best thing for the program is to look ahead. Miller putting up another 30 points isn’t likely to change his pro stock any. Having a role player handle the ball for 10-20 more possessions could.