December is (almost) over, and with it ends most team’s non-confernce slate. So what have we learned? Here’s 10 things:
1. The OVC is (mostly) as we’ve come to know it
Belmont? Still really good. Murray State? They’ve rebounded from their November slump. Eastern Kentucky is proving to be giant killers. Tennessee Tech has a tough defense, EIU is winning “ugly,” and the bottom of the conference is still…not great. This feels like last year.
…And the year before.
There’s also a pretty big gap between the have’s and have not’s, which is also fairly regular. Six teams are ranked in the RPI top 190, five of which are mentioned above. The seventh best team? 297th, (SEMO) meaning six teams are ranked in the bottom 55.
1a. UT Martin (positively) and Morehead State (negatively) are bucking that trend.
The two teams that have stuck out are the Skyhawks and Eagles. UT Martin is ranked 133rd in the RPI as of this morning, fourth best in the league, and have already exceeded their total road wins the past two seasons. The Eagles? 302nd, and if they don’t win on the road tonight, will go winless in December.
2. It’s still Murray and Belmont’s divisions to lose
Over a 16-game schedule, no other team has won either divisions since they were created. They’re both still the favorites this year, although the margin for error might be smaller than it’s ever been, especially for the Bruins. Craig Bradshaw is the lifeblood of that team right now, and he’s already missed a few games because of injury. Neither team is a great defensive team right now, meaning if shots don’t fall, things get a bit sticky. But…
3. Forget defense — the best teams in the league are the ones who can score.
The numbers are pretty clear on this: The teams with the best offensive efficiency numbers are the teams winning basketball games right now. Here’s your top-5:
- Murray State (9-4) 1.10 Offensive Points Per Possesssion
- UT Martin (7-4) 1.05 OPPP
- Belmont (8-5) 1.01 OPPP
- Tennessee Tech (7-5) 1.00 OPPP
- Eastern Kentucky (6-5) 0.99 OPPP
From there, there’s a pretty significant drop off to the field. So what about defensive numbers? Good numbers help, but it’s far from definitive:
- Eastern Kentucky (6-5) 0.98 Defensive Points Per Possession
- SEMO (6-7) 0.99 DPPP
- Morehead State (4-10) 1.00 DPPP
- Eastern Illinois (6-6) 1.00 DPPP
- Belmont (8-5) 1.00 DPPP
Murray State? 11th defensively, ahead only of Tennessee State. (Who have the dubious distinction of ranking last in both categories) Part of the reason is that the OVC is much more even defensively. The difference between the best in the league, EKU, and the worst, TSU, is just 0.08 DPPP. Offensively? The difference between Murray and TSU is 0.29 OPPP.
4. UT Martin is benefiting from their schedule
So, just how good is UT Martin anyway? After getting run at Butler, this is a pretty legitimate question. They’re 8-4, which most teams would love to be, but none of those wins are especially noteworthy. Here’s the current RPI for all of UTM’s wins against Division I teams:
- Arkansas State (271st)
- Bethune-Cookman (344th)
- Northern Kentucky (190th)
- Longwood (317th)
- Illinois-Chicago (276th)
- Presbyterian (334th)
All but the win over Presbyterian were on the road, which does add a degree of difficulty to the schedule, but UT Martin will have seven OVC games against teams tougher than their best non-conference win.
Right now, Kenpom.com (which is much more negative on the Skyhawks, ranking them 218th) has them projected to go 8-8 in conference play, which safely would put UTM in the OVC Tournament.
4a. UTM’s depth could cause problems in February / March
One other issue here: UTM is 344th (of 349 teams) nationwide in bench minutes, and this month they lost Dee Oldham to transfer, and Myles Taylor to injury. We saw this last year with Morehead State — they weren’t at their best at the end of the year, and part of the reason is they were spent. I worry that UT Martin will have a similar issue.
4b. UTM is a contender
…which is why we’re not idly praising their 8-4 start. Sure, we could just saw “look how great UT Martin is doing” and leave it at that, but that shouldn’t be good enough for UTM at this point. Yeah, the Skyhawks much better than last year, but looking at the talent on this squad, and their successful start, we’re looking at UTM from the viewpoint of a team that can win, and maybe even make a March run, not one that should be simply happy to be above .500.
5. Morehead has a few issues, and fouling is again the biggest one
Before the Christmas break, I looked at some of the numbers behind Morehead State’s struggling offense, and wondering why the Eagles were playing so much slower this year, given their relative ineffectiveness of their half-court offense. But the Eagles free-thow disparity is also proving quite troublesome.
Per 100-possessions, the Eagles send opponents to the free-throw line 23 more times then they get there. Given an average game (we’ll say 70 possessions, and 70% free-throw shooting to keep the math neat) the Eagles are likely to be outscored by 11-points at the free-throw line alone. A great offense (which the Eagles don’t have) would struggle to overcome an 11-point disparity at the free-throw line game-in and game-out.
In the past two seasons, the fouls, while annoying, weren’t as big an issue because Morehead State also got to the line. This year, they’re not.
We also went back and looked at their 10 losses, and found six of them were by less than the point disparity at the free-throw line:
- UNLV (Morehead lost by 1, -6 at the FT Line)
- Cincinnati (Lost by 8, -10 FT)
- Louisiana Tech (Lost by 9, -15 FT)
- American (Lost by 5, -8 FT)
- ETSU (Lost by 4, -12 FT)
- UAB (Lost by 10, -4 FT)
- Oakland (Lost by 2, -6 FT)
- Ohio State (Lost by 16, -11 FT)
- Green Bay (Lost by 16, -8 FT)
- Northern Kentucky (Lost by 23, +6 FT)
Kenpom projects a 7-9 OVC record for Morehead State, a team expected in October by many to upend Belmont in the East.
6. The East gets a lot more interesting if Cameron Biedscheid becomes eligible
The former Notre Dame guard who has transferred to the Gamecocks would provide an instant boost to Jacksonville State, and suddenly you have four, maybe five if Morehead State can right the ship, teams in the division that could reasonably contend to win the East. We still haven’t heard whether he’ll be granted a waiver, but if he is, Jacksonville State immediately becomes part of the discussion.
7. SEMO has a fight on their hands for the second-best team in the West
Jarekious Bradley is still a star, the defense is as good as it’s been under head coach Dickey Nutt, but the Redhawks haven’t looked consistently strong in non-conference play. The Redhawks don’t have a single top-200 win, and their strength of schedule, according to both BB State and Kenpom, ranks as one of the easiest 50 nationwide. While they finished with a big win, SEMO even struggled early to pull away from non-Division I Harris Stowe.
The front-court isn’t as fearsome as it’s been in the past few years, the team i s struggling to hit shots from deep, and injuries have played a part. The Redhawks aren’t getting worse — but the rest of the West is getting better (EIU and UTM, notably) and SEMO isn’t making the same jump.
8. Eastern Illinois doesn’t have any top-200 wins either…
Which is why I’m far from ready to write off the Redhawks. The West is better, no doubt, but no team other than Murray has really separated themselves from the pack. But whereas SEMO is just outside the 300’s in RPI, Eastern Illinois and UT Martin are inside the top-200.
UTM has a bunch of road wins, which is a big RPI boost, but EIU has just two to SEMO’s one. Why does EIU get the big boost? Simple: Not all non-top 200 wins are created equally. Let’s compare SEMO’s Division I wins in the RPI to EIU’s wins:
- Cleveland State (Away, 207th)
- Southern (Neutral, 256th)
- Ball State (Home, 278th)
- Northern Illinois (Home, 283rd)
- Indiana State (Away, 294th)
So, to recap, SEMO has just one top-300 win, none on the road. EIU has five top-300 wins, two one the road, one on a neutral court. There’s your RPI difference.
Either way, the West could be quite interesting.
9. The usual suspect is flying under the radar
We’ve barely mentioned 7-5 Tennessee Tech at this point. The Golden Eagles are a scary team…that plays unsexy basketball. That’s not a slam against the Golden Eagles: they’re a team built on substance, not flash. Their interior, made up of Dwan Caldwell and Charles Jackson comprise the best front-court in the league. No OVC team is better on the glass, and Tech has two top-200 RPI wins. They’re really good.
…and again, we’re not paying enough attention to them. They don’t shoot the three well, they defend the three-point line so their opponents don’t either. They score in the 80’s fairly often, but do so two at a time.
Tech could very well be Belmont’s biggest threat, because they do well what Belmont doesn’t.
10. A long OVC road trip is the top game of the week ahead
OVC play starts with the new year, but a lot of the matches aren’t all that sexy. One that is: Tennessee Tech traveling to Eastern Illinois. Both teams want to take that next step forward this year, and it should be an interesting, if low scoring, matchup in Charleston.
The best of the rest:
- (Wed) Kennessaw State at Tennessee State: TSU has their best chance yet to notch their first win over a Division I team
- (Thu) Southeast Missouri at Belmont: Want to prove me wrong, SEMO? Go win in Nashville.
- (Thu) Jacksonville State at SIUE: One, or both, of these teams could be left out. Only chance to get the tiebreaker over the other.