One of the things that makes college basketball, and sports in general so great, are nights like tonight. After four months, 30+ games, the entire season comes down to one game, one half, and often one play. An entire season of joy and hope, of pain and struggle, all to play for these 40 minutes and emerge victorious.
The emotions of the night, among players, coaches and fans knows no equal.
Until it all happens again.
For the next four night, seven dreams will be shattered, and just one will survive. Grown men, and some less grown men, will be reduced to tears, as others have a night they’ll remember and talk about for years, nay, decades to come.
The emotions on the court spread throughout the crowd who often take off work, and travel hours for a shot to feel the same joy and pain as the guys battling for that last board, or pulling up for a jumper as the buzzer sounds.
For some, it’s their first ever trip to this magical, and often heartbreaking place. For others, it’s a yearly ritual renewed.
For all, there’s almost no place they’d rather be.
College basketball has a power to elicit emotions like almost no other sport. A feeling that no matter the night, no matter the odds, your team could pull off the impossible. You’re lifted before tip with feelings of hope, and you always return, even when that hope comes crashing down.
Tonight, eight teams stand. Tomorrow, it will be just six.
Soon, there will be just one.
And right now, there’s not a single person who, at least once over the past few days, hasn’t imagined what it would be like for that to be their team.
That’s the magic of this place. Not of the building itself, but of the game we love so much.
11-20 (7-9 OVC)
(5) Tennessee Tech
17-15 (9-7 OVC)
(7) Eastern Illinois
11-19 (7-9 OVC)
(6) Southeast Missouri
18-13 (8-8 OVC)
(8) SIUE vs (5) Tennessee Tech
TTU won season series 1-0
In the short, three-year history of the new OVC Tournament format, no team from the first round has ever made the tournament finals. I’m not sure a team has yet had a better path to do so than Tennessee Tech.
In a way, the Golden Eagles are built for Nashville: they’re a defensive-minded team that can withstand games where shots don’t fall, which have always seems more common in Municipal Auditorium, for whatever reason. They’ve also in a half of the bracket with three teams they’ve all beaten, with two teams entering the tournament on losing streaks, and with an overall No. 1 seed who was almost swept. And to wrap it all up in a bow, their journey begins against a team that won just two games away from home all season.
It’s almost too perfect.
In their only matchup of the season, SIUE furiously rallied from a 21-point deficit, but a finger-roll and putback both missed in the final seconds, as the Cougars fell by one. TTU held SIUE to 5-18 shooting from outside the arc, and both teams shot terribly from the free-throw line in a offensively challenged effort.
Of course, that’s somewhat been the mark of the Golden Eagles all season: a team that’s 11th in the league in offensive efficiency. SIU Edwardsville? Middle of the road, in 7th.
Both teams have their strength’s on defense: The Cougars are the best team at defending the arc in the conference, while Tennessee Tech leads the league in blocks, despite not having what many people would consider a dominant big-man.
In a way, it’s what makes this game particularly hard to predict. SIUE is strong in the backcourt, where Tennessee Tech is a bit weaker, and TTU is stronger in the frontcourt, where the Cougars aren’t. But we can get some clues of each team’s other efforts against similar teams.
SIUE has struggled in games against teams with either a) great inside players or b) great guards that can get to the basket. Eastern Illinois, who swept the Panthers, has the second. When they beat Murray State, they kept the Racers out of the paint, not so in their loss. Belmont got to the basket with ease against the Cougars, as did the Redhawks in their win over SIUE.
Tennessee Tech has struggled against teams that can shoot the three, (famously their blowout loss in Murray) but they’ve struggled more often when teams got into the paint and scored. If you look at recent losses to Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State, it wasn’t three-point shooting that sunk the Golden Eagles, it was their inability to keep those teams from driving.
If the game comes down to frontcourt play, the Cougars could be in trouble, as that’s an area they’ve struggled with all year. Their guards will have to be explosive and drive to create plays on the inside to challenge the Golden Eagles interior defense.
But also, if they get to the free-throw line, SIUE will need to shed the title of worst free-throw shooting team in the league.
This has every markings of a close, tight, likely low scoring affair. One would think that favors the team that’s been playing that way all season long.
(7) Eastern Illinois at (6) Southeast Missouri
Teams split season series 1-1
There’s no first round team generating more buzz right now than Southeast Missouri. Winners of four straight, the Redhawks rallied to finish second in a down West Division, matching their conference record from a year ago. Of the ten players to make the OVC All-Conference teams, Southeast Missouri is just one of three teams to have two of their players named.
But part of me feels some are giving SEMO too much credit for the past few weeks. Yes, they beat Murray State in a double overtime thriller on Saturday, but the rest of the win streak is far from impressive: beating three teams that didn’t make the OVC Tournament, and doing so primarily at home. And that win streak began after losing to another team that didn’t make the tournament on the road. Is what they’ve done to close the season truly fantastic, or just the result of a favorable schedule.
Eastern Illinois is in a similar boat, although to the opposite end. EIU lost four of the final five conference games heading into Nashville, but didn’t play an OVC opponent at home from February 9th on. Two of those losses? The top two overall seeds.
Both teams won on their opponents home floor this year, and both games were quite different. In Eastern Illinois’ win over SEMO, the Panthers shot the three exceptionally well, and outrebounded the Redhawks in a game with few live ball turnovers. In Southeast Missouri’s win, the Redhawks shot the three better, edged the Panthers on the boards in a game with 14 combined steals. Even player efforts were all over the place: Sherman Blandford had a great game in Cape Girardeau, but was held to just nine points on his home floor. Jarekious Bradley pulled down 10 rebounds in Charleston, just three at home.
Consistency has been a concern for both teams throughout the year, especially on the defensive end of the ball. When the Redhawks lose, their opponents consistently score in the 80’s. (Or higher) It’s the same for Eastern Illinois, who have seen opponents hit 80 in seven of their nine conference losses.
From a matchup point of view, though, it’s hard not to favor the Redhawks. SEMO’s defensive concerns are primarily on the perimeter, where Eastern Illinois isn’t the strongest. EIU is last in the league at forcing turnovers, a weakness of the Redhawks offense.
Yet, the Panthers have already taken one of two from the Redhawks this year. They’ll likely need a big night from Blandford and Reggie Smith to make it two against the heavily favored (in Vegas, and in the minds of many fans) Redhawks.