Just one week remains in the season, which means we’ve learned at least 140 things so far this basketball season. (Well, 120. I may have missed two weeks in there somewhere) With the final week upon us, what else could we possibly learn?
Quite a lot, actually.
Here’s this week’s 10 things:
1. Three teams for two spots? All three had a January to forget.
I’ve made this point all season: we always put major importance on these games down the stretch, but wins in January could have made this week moot. Looking back onto the first month of conference play: Eastern Illinois blew a second-half lead to Morehead State, and is the only one of the three uncertain teams to lose to Tennessee Tech, which has big tiebreaker implications. Austin Peay had two narrow losses on their November road swing through Illinois that could have changed their fate. And SEMO? They started conference play 1-4, and lost to both EIU and Austin Peay in January.
For these three, how they started is every bit as important as how they finish.
2. Chaotic OVC? Anything but…
There’s been a general feeling among many fans that the OVC was as close from 1-12 (well, 1-11) as it’s been in recent history. But instead of having an “anyone can win on a given night” type of year, there have been few actual major upsets.
Belmont’s two losses: Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech, both of whom are above .500 in the OVC.
Murray’s two losses: SIUE and Belmont. Cougars are .500, and have been very tough at home.
Morehead’s four losses: Belmont (x2), Murray State, Eastern Kentucky
Eastern Kentucky’s five losses: Belmont, Morehead State, Murray State, SIUE, and TTU.
None of the top four teams have really been “upset.” Sure, there have been near-upsets aplenty. But there are few losses that really make you scratch your head.
3. …Which makes it hard not to see a Belmont / Murray final. Again.
Sure, the Bruins defense isn’t dominant. And the Racers are allergic to made free-throws. But if there is a challenger who the throne, who is it? Eastern Kentucky has been somewhat disappointing this year. Morehead State is a combined 0-3 against the top two. (Although that includes an absolutely insane finish against the Bruins in Morehead) And under the new format, we’ve yet to see a team from the first round make a finals run. The rosters may have changed, but it’s becoming harder to see a stumbling block for either in the semifinals.
4. Tennessee Tech is peaking at the right time
At the end of January, we were a bit worried about the Golden Eagles. They were shellacked in Murray by 39, and then a week later they lost at Tennessee State. Since then? 5-1, with wins over Belmont and Eastern Kentucky. They’re doing it with defense, holding four of their last six opponents under one point per possession, (a tremendous number, given the rise in scoring this year in college basketball) all four wins. With the tendency of sub-par shooting in the OVC Tournament, (whether it be the arena, the lack of atmosphere, or just the tightness of every game being win-or-go-home) being a great defensive team could be beneficial to the Golden Eagles chances.
5. Morehead State is limping into Nashville
This past week, Morehead State needed double-overtime and a game-winning shot to get past Austin Peay…at home. They then went and laid a major egg in Murray, never even in the game against the West Division leaders. If seeds hold, Morehead State could get a second chance at the Racers, but I can’t help but feel the Eagles may be a bit vulnerable in their quarterfinals matchup given two sub-par performances.
But it’s not just the final score that worries me, it’s how they got there. Morehead State wasn’t dominant on the glass in either game, a mark of theirs all season, and couldn’t score inside. Especially troubling at Murray: they couldn’t get to the free-throw line.
6. The OVC Coach of the Year race is every bit as close as the race for Most Outstanding Player
I could make a reasonable argument for five OVC coaches to win coach of the year, (although I think only the first three have a reasonable chance)
- Rick Byrd: Bruins likely to earn the No. 1 seed for the second straight year. By far the best RPI in the conference.
- Steve Prohm: Murray has turned around from a terrible November to win the West Division going away. Arguably his best coaching jobs in his three years at the helm. (Yes, even over the 31-2 year. He doesn’t have Isaiah Cannan this year…)
- Sean Woods: Morehead State has (nearly) taken the next step, look to finish third in the league. You expect Murray and Belmont to be atop the standings, so I could see an argument being made for the improvement Morehead State has made under Woods.
- Lennox Forrester: No one expected anything from the Cougars this year, not in the preseason, and not after non-conference play. Now, they’re a trendy pick to make some noise in Nashville. (Their struggles away from Edwardsville not withstanding)
- Steve Payne: If Tennessee Tech can earn a bye in Nashville, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Payne. TTU has flown under the radar for much of the year, but Payne has done a great job keeping the Golden Eagles focused.
7. Defense matters. A lot.
Scoring may be up in college basketball, but that only goes to magnify just how importance defense is. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the three teams already eliminated from postseason contention are ranked in the bottom half of the conference in defensive points-per-possession. (DPPP) UT Martin is 12th, Tennessee State is 11th. Jacksonville State? 7th.
The three teams that could still miss the tournament aren’t much better in this department, either. Austin Peay and Eastern Illinois are in 9th and 10th in DPPP. Southeast Missouri? 8th.
That means the six teams guaranteed an OVC Tournament birth are the top six defensive teams in the OVC. Sometimes, it really is that simple.
8. Southeast Missouri, Eastern Illinois are victims of uneven schedules
Eastern Illinois had to schedule a non-conference game this week to avoid having their senior day on February 8th. (Seriously, that was their last scheduled home conference game) Part of the reason SEMO got off to a rough start and is suddenly surging? Four of the last five are at home…meaning seven of their first 11 were on the road. UT Martin, although eliminated, had a similar schedule, as their last four are at home. The last two or three weeks of the year, when games truly do have major implications, the schedules should be more balanced.
The schedules may be even over the course of the year, but no team should go three weeks without a home game. Ever.
9. The top four OVC teams would likely avoid a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournment
Without a doubt, Belmont has the best tournament resume of any team in the conference, but the rest of the OVC has risen. Well, at least the top four have. Thanks is part to the lack of upsets among the top teams, all four are now in the RPI top-140, and rising. (Murray State jumped 14 ranks in the last week alone) With the expectation of a few conference upsets across the board, it’s highly likely that any of the top-four (Belmont, Murray State, Morehead State, and Eastern Kentucky) would bypass the play-in game, and get seeded into the round of 64.
If Tennessee Tech get the four seed? Not so much, they’re still ranked 241st in RPI.
10. A battle for survival is this week’s top game
Austin Peay travels to Cape Girardeau Thursday, and while it’s not an elimination game, it’s close. Southeast Missouri is going to Nashville with a win, and while it’s not guaranteed for Austin Peay, things set up much better for the Governors if they can get the road victory, and sweep the season series against the Redhawks. (Can we say: tiebreaker?)
Other games of note:
- Saturday: Eastern Illinois at SIUE. It’s not quite last year all over again: SIUE is in regardless this time. But Eastern Illinois punched their ticket by beating the Cougars in Charleston last season. Can they do it again in Edwardsville?
- Wednesday: Belmont at SIUE. This is interesting for two reasons: an SIUE win keeps hope alive of getting the five-seed (and an easier first round opponent) and the Cougars have been quite good at the Vad Pad, 9-2 on the year. Murray State will be watching, and hoping the Cougars have some more home magic.
- Thursday: Tennessee Tech at Eastern Kentucky. The Golden Eagles still have a chance at the first-round bye, and could sweep the season series against EKU. The Colonels have had a disappointing season, and trailed virtually the whole game in Cookeville just two weeks ago.