Sorry for the lack of serious columns this week. They will return, but I wanted to get out a few notes heading into tonight’s games:
While last week was the showdown in Charleston, according to KenPom, tonight’s matchup between EKU and Murray State is the true matchup of the top two teams in the conference. It’s also a very interesting matchup of strengths: The best team in the conference at not turning the ball over (Murray) versus the best team at forcing turnovers. (EKU) Despite their penchant for turnovers, EKU’s defense hasn’t been all that good in conference play, currently ranking 7th in defensive efficiency, last in three-point percentage defense, and last in allowed offensive rebounds. The bad news for the Colonels is that Murray State is a great three-point shooting team, and a really good rebounding team. EKU, though, may be the one team that can score with the Racers. So, knowing how right I usually am about these things, I fully expect a 55-50 game…
For argument’s sake, let’s assume Murray wins tonight. (They are heavy favorites, after all) With a loss, EKU will fall to 3-4, and presumably be either seventh or eighth in the rankings. But the Colonels still have six home games left, giving them a better than even chance, in my view, of finishing at least .500 in the league. Last week brought some concern, but the defending OVC Tournament champs should, at the very least, earn a chance to defend their title. They just might be doing it from the first day…
I know I just won’t let this go, but part of me still thinks Tennessee Tech makes the OVC Tournament. Tonight is the first of two matchups against Tennessee State, and the still have two matchups against Jacksonville State. Assuming they win just three of the four, that puts TTU at 5-7. Can they go 2-2 against Morehead, Belmont, and EKU? That puts them at seven wins, which is likely just good enough to earn a seven or eight seed. They need to win tonight, obviously, against a Tennessee State team that is inching ever closer to getting their first conference win of the year.
So, if TTU can get into the top 8, who falls out? The loser of tonight’s SIUE – SEMO game is a serious candidate. The Cougars are starting a four-game road swing, and this is a team that, for some reason, is markedly worse away from the comforts of home. SEMO has more than their fair share of issues, and not all of them are on the court, (GO TO CLASS!) and they’ve lost two of their last three at home. The even worse news for the Redhawks is they still have both matchups against the Racers, and this year’s team currently looks much less poised for a major upset.
Tonight is an interesting game for Eastern Illinois. The Panthers loss Saturday, in my view, can be partially chalked up to Thursday’s night loss against Murray State: it was an emotional night, and the Panthers letdown against Austin Peay wasn’t exactly surprising. But the Panthers are at a really good UT Martin tonight, and a loss here puts the Skyhawks ahead of EIU in the loss column. I still have questions about the Skyhawks depth, but there’s no question that guard Deville Smith is among the best in the league. KenPom says EIU has been among the “luckiest” teams in the nation thus far. They may need more than luck to stay in second in the highly competitive West.
Belmont is just asking to lose. They needed late runs to get past Austin Peay, UT Martin and Tennessee State. If Eastern Illinois has showed us anything in the past month, it’s that eventually, you’re not going to be able to keep coming back. But if Belmont gets the two-seed, (which must go to the top team in the opposite division of the league champion) do you really want to play them in March? Even with their issues, do you really want to play a Rick Byrd coached team with an NCAA Tournament spot on the line? In conference play, the Bruins are shooting 31% from three-point range. They’re shooting better than 35% on the season. Law of averages says some three’s are about to start raining down from the Bruins.
Morehead State is getting healthy: LSU transfer Jalen Courtney played his first minutes as an Eagle last night, as Morehead State pulled away late from Austin Peay. The Eagles haven’t lived up to expectations this year, but if you wrote them off after their six straight losses, it’s time to start paying attention again. Their next three are at home, ending with a potential showdown for the East Division lead against Belmont. We saw EKU surge at the right time last year. Morehead may be doing the same this.
Is 5-4 out of the question for Austin Peay down the stretch?: I posed this question yesterday on twitter, and for the most part, the answer was yes. Two of those games are against Murray State, which doesn’t help the degree of difficulty here, and the Governors just can’t seem to get over the hump. If Austin Peay missed the OVC Tournament again, for a third straight year, questions probably need to be asked about the direction of the program’s future.