Between now and November, there’s always more questions than answers. Who will lead your team? Which teams are set up for a major rise, or fall?
We’ve taken some of the top questions facing the league, and try to come up with the answer.
1. Can the OVC resume their NCAA Tournament winning ways?
Eastern Kentucky’s game against Kansas was dramatic, wildly entertaining, but it ended in another loss, the second straight year the OVC was bounced out of the tournament without a win. There’s little doubt that had the Colonels earned a higher seed, they had the talent to pull off an upset, but they simply had too many loses during the regular season, before turning it on at the end.
EKU’s run of winning three games in three days is the first time in the new OVC Tournament format that the champion wasn’t one of the top two seeds, which goes a bit against the design of the tournament format. There’s little doubt that having a top seed win is in the best interest of the conference in this regard, as that means higher seeds, and a greater chance to win.
The thing is, though, it was a down year. From a talent standpoint, EKU was believed to be best in the conference when the year began. Belmont would have likely gotten a 13 (or 12, if lucky) seed, but Murray would have likely pulled a similar draw to the Colonels. I’m not certain a tournament last year was much more likely if one of the top seeds won.
The OVC had a down year, overall, after sending out one of their strongest graduation classes ever. The thing is, this year’s class was pretty strong as well, although there’s not quite the NBA Talent. Of the contenders, only one really returns the majority of their core from last year, and that’s…
2. Is Murray State the overwhelming favorite?
At this point, yes. They lose just one starter, and you could make the argument that Dexter Fields was at most the third-most important of the starting five: Eastern Kentucky loses most of their team, Belmont loses JJ Mann among others, Morehead State much of their rebounding from the previous year. Murray doesn’t appear to be in ‘elite’ territory like three years ago, but looking at how strong they were in the last half of the season, and how much talent they have returning, it’s hard to make an argument against them.
Unless you just don’t like the Racers, i.e., a fan of pretty much any other team. Then I’m sure there’s plenty you can make.
3. Will the new…er…old block/charge rule have a major impact?
Assuming they’re approved, the block/charge rule will change again next season, more-or-less going back to way it was previously. Meaning drawing a charge might actually be physically possible. While this is positive development, I’m sure how major a change it really is. The majority of those calls are, and will remain blocking fouls. We’re probably talking on average one to two charge calls a game, which is a two to four point swing, unless it’s one charge each way, which basically cancels each other out. So, it’ll be less frustrating. A few less free throws. But impact on the game? Minimal.
4. How about the ‘point of emphasis’ on post fouls?
One thing the men’s basketball committee wants officials to focus on is calling fouls in the post properly, both on offensive and defensive players. After last year’s rule changes led to more free-throws, (especially in the first few months of the season) seeing referees being asked to essentially call more fouls can’t exactly be comforting to most. It’s not new rules, just better enforcement of rules that already exist.
This might actually be a good thing for smaller schools. When you think about post play, the problem is generally that smaller schools have more finesse forwards, whereas larger schools have more physical, larger guys in the front court. These rules are meant to dial back the physicalness, to a point, which puts the smaller guys at a bit less of a disadvantage.
That being said, without a doubt these calls are going to vary widely between officiating crews, and it’s another thing players and coaches will have to adjust to. If called tightly, there’s little doubt it will increase scoring, as defenders are forced to ‘back off’ somewhat and there will likely be another small uptick in free-throws.
5. Does UT Martin or Tennessee State make the biggest leap forward?
Both teams have new coaches coming off miserable seasons, and both rosters are undergoing major shake-ups. But the Skyhawks do return Myles Taylor, and some decent role players like Dee Oldham and Marshun Newell, who averaged double figure scoring last season. Tennessee State, on the other hand, loses by far their two best players, and doesn’t return a single double-digit scorer, much less two. Both teams recruits will have an opportunity to make a major impact, and if Tennessee State puts together a very strong class, they could leapfrog UT Martin. But from what we know, I’d say the Skyhawks have more playmakers for the immediate future.
6. Which coaches are on the hot seat entering the season?
Oddly, the first one that comes to mind is one that just got a contract extension: Dickey Nutt. A two-year extension doesn’t exactly scream that the administration has a lot of faith in Nutt, and after this season he’ll be down to just those two years remaining. A bad year, and it’s not out of the question he never makes it to that extension, although he’ll likely make it at least through the 2015-16 year.
James Green is another that might be running thin. In 2008, he was made the highest paid basketball coach in school history, but since then he’s had just one winning season. According to the Anniston Star, this season was his ‘contract year,’ with this upcoming season being his last under the current deal. It’s odd to see a lame duck coach, and it’s seemingly far too late to let him go, so one would expect some kind of deal, even if only for a single year, this summer. Either way, the lack of a new contract this late can’t be seen as good news.
One name that has to come up is Austin Peay’s Dave Loos. It’s a much more delicate situation when you’re talking about a longtime coach and the school’s former athletics director, but with three straight losing season under his belt, his seat can’t exactly be comfortable.
7. Which coaches are likely to look at other jobs next summer?
It’s the same bunch as this year. Regardless of who you believe in the back-and-forth over the Marshall job, there’s no denying that Eastern Kentucky head coach Jeff Neubauer did speak to the school about their opening, but he has a new four-year extension. While that doesn’t preclude him from taking an open position, I’d say it’s more unlikely to happen this upcoming summer. Morehead State head coach Sean Woods will complete his third season with the Eagles this summer, and I fully expect his name to pop up for more than a few openings. There’s always Murray State’s Steve Prohm, who is very much waiting for a great opportunity (*cough* Alabama* *cough*) to come his way.
8. How long will the “OVC Basketball Enhancement Plan” last?
A few years ago, on the heels of a streak of NCAA Tournament wins, the Ohio Valley Conference decided to use that money to create the OVC Basketball Enhancement Plan. Essentially, the conference splits half-a-million dollars annually between the 12 schools based on a range of factors surrounding the performance of men’s basketball: More wins, more challenging schedule, more home games, etc. The money comes from those NCAA Tournament wins, which are given to the conference over a six-year rolling period. Meaning, any wins in the past six years earns money.
The first of the streak, Morehead’s State’s win in the “first round” (i.e. play-in game) was six years ago, and it will fall off next year. (This year will be the last year it counts) Over the next three seasons, the rest of the wins will fall off. The OVC makes about $250,000 extra a year per win. (The actual number is recalculated every year, and tends to rise slowly.)
So, let’s do some math. This is the sixth year for the Morehead State win to count. By the time a win falls off, it’s worth about $1.5 million to the conference. At $500,000 a year, a single NCAA Tournament win can support the system for three years. There have been four wins, which means the OVC has already made enough money from NCAA tournament wins to support the enhancement plan for 12 years.
This summer will be the third payout under the program.
Even if the OVC doesn’t have any wins in the past six years, they still earn money from the NCAA for participation, (more than $1 million a year) but I would wager that ‘base” level of money is already allocated in a different way.
Ultimately, it’s up to the school Athletic Directors to determine how long the program lasts. Murray State athletic director Allen Ward told ‘The Jeff Bidwell Show’ two weeks ago that the AD’s are dedicated to keeping this program running. Even if the dry spell continues, there’s no reason they can’t, unless they’ve spent some of that ‘extra’ money for more than just the enhancement program.
There’s some question how effective the plan is. The idea is to encourage teams to do the things that would help increase their RPI, and attendance, and in doing so the profile of the conference. But, the difference between first and last each of the past two years is easily overcome by adding a single money game, which generally really doesn’t help either RPI or attendance.
9. Does the OVC start getting poached by other conferences?
The Horizon League wants Belmont. (We think) If SIUE starts to rise, conferences will want a piece of the St. Louis media market. Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State are both looking to make a move to the FBS. The OVC has avoided the fate of many other mid-major conferences in the latest round of conference musical chairs, but the NCAA landscape is widely expected to go through major changes over the next few years. Stipends for players? Another division? Separate rules for the big five? Realignment appears to be slowing down, but with so much money at stake, and everyone looking for their piece, I’d be amazed if the OVC escapes the next round unscathed.