Over the past few weeks, I’ve sort of played around with calling games “important.” Make no mistake, tonight’s isn’t important:
It’s must win.
For UT Martin, the Skyhawks are teetering on the edge. At 2-9, the Skyhawks are mathematically still eligible to make the OVC Tournament, but another loss, any loss, lowers their odds from slim, to quite possibly none.
In three years of preseason rankings by division, Southeast Missouri is already the second division favorite struggling just to make it to Nashville. SEMO’s situation may not seem as dire: a loss here would drop the Redhawks to 4-8 with four games remaining, but opportunities are running out.
8-19 (3-9 OVC)
13-13 (4-8 OVC)
As much as I’ve chastised SEMO’s lack of defense, UT Martin’s is statistically worse. The Skyhawks are last in the OVC in defensive efficiency, struggling against shooters inside and outside equally. UTM does force turnovers at a healthy rate, but it’s simply not enough to make up for allowing 53% shooting from the field, and 40% shooting from behind the arc in conference play.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Skyhawks aren’t as far from the Redhawks as you might expect. While SEMO scores’ plenty of points, they do so thanks in part to tempo, something UT Martin has no problem with. In fact, the Skyhawks points-per-possession is just one-hundreth less than the Redhawks, which translates into less than a point’s difference over a standard game. They’re able to score just as well despite shooting worse from the field (50% to 45%) thanks to few turnovers and great free-throw shooting.
Whether it be recovering from injury this past summer, or something else all together, Myles Taylor hasn’t exactly struck fear into the OVC during his junior year. He’s still putting up likely all-conference numbers, leading the Skyhawks in scoring and rebounding, but both are down slightly from a year ago. Mike Liabo remains as inconsistent as ever, and could easily light up the stat sheet as he is to shoot 2-10. With Liabo being the exception, the Skyhawks scorers drive the ball, and know how to get to the free-throw line.
Southeast Missouri has a reputation for scoring, which makes the fact that they’re just fourth in the OVC in offensive efficiency somewhat interesting. Their sub-70% free-throw shooting, combined with a surprising number of turnovers are both good reasons why.
By now, you know the two big names on the Redhawks roster: Jarekious Bradley and Tyler Stone are all-OVC locks, and one or the other could be in the running for the conference’s player of the year, especially if the Redhawks record weren’t quite as disappointing. The duo combines for 39-points a game, 47% of SEMO’s scoring output. That can create problems, though, when one of the two have an off-game or get into foul trouble. The rest of the lineup has had great moments: we know Nino Johnson is capable, Antonius Cleveland had big games early in the season, Darrian Gray is coming off his season-high against Eastern Illinois, and Lucas Nutt has scored in double-digits in four of the last five games. But, we don’t know when we’re going to get those big games from these guys.
Both teams are solid on the glass, although the Redhawks likely hold the edge in that department. Turnovers could be a game changer, as an already suspect SEMO teams faces a pressure defense in UT Martin. About the only thing that would surprise me is if this game didn’t make it out of the 60’s.
It might even make it out of the 80’s.