When the OVC expanded to 12 teams two seasons ago, and split them into two divisions, the somewhat controversial decision was made to forego a full round-robin for conference play, and instead play an SEC-like (at the time) schedule: two games against every team in your division, and one game against everyone in the opposing division.
The unbalanced schedule has been an issue of contention for some over the years, as some coaches yearn for the days of every team traveling to every arena every year.
One of those coaches who has expressed such a wish is Tennessee Tech’s Steve Payne. After this weekend, my guess is that’s only been strengthened.
Before the age of divisions in the conference, the OVC had a “Death Valley”: The road swing to Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State. It made sense from a travel standpoint that these two schools, which are geographically isolated from the rest of the conference, would make a good road swing. As was the case seemingly year-in and year-out, the trip always led to at least one loss for whoever was atop the conference, no matter how good they may be.
Since the divisional schedule was put into place, some of the West Division was given a reprieve, (Murray, UTM, Austin Peay, and SEMO) by either hosting one of the two teams each season, or having the games against them split. Eastern Illinois and SIUE still make the full Death Valley swing. Only, they’re seemingly creating a Death Valley of their own in the West.
Unlike the West, only two teams don’t make the full road swing to the two northern-most teams. (Belmont, Tennessee State) The other four do, and the results have been mixed:
- JSU (’12-13): W at EIU, W at SIUE
- TTU (’12-13): W at EIU, L at SIUE
- EKU (’13-14): W at EIU, L at SIUE
- Morehead (’13-14): W at EIU, W at SIUE
- JSU (’14-15): L at EIU, L at SIUE
- TTU (’14-15): L at EIU, L as SIUE
Some very quick math puts the East at 6-6 in their six road swings, which doesn’t seem all that bad. How has the West fared? Interesting you should ask:
- Murray State: 1-3
- Southeast Missouri: 0-4
- UT Martin: 1-3
- Austin Peay: 2-2 (2-0 in 2012-13, 0-2 in ’13-14)
The West is a paltry 4-12 in the same road swing, with only one team coming out with two wins in a single year. So, in the two-plus years this road-swing has existed, three teams out of 14 have come away with two wins on the trip north.
…against two teams who are a combined 29-39 in conference play over the same time span.
Part of the problem is the OVC’s scheduling since divisional play began — there’s only been one schedule, and every year, the home-and-away games are swapped, a few games are moved around, but the same teams are forced to make the same road trips. Murray State hasn’t had to go full “Death Valley” once, yet SIUE and EIU will make the trip for the second time later this season.
Tennessee Tech and JSU have already made their two trips to the new “Death Valley,” while Belmont enjoys hosting one of the two teams each season.
Maybe Payne is right, maybe a 22-game two-game round robin is the way to go.
It’s the only “fair” way, for sure.
Escape artists: This would be a very different post, of course, if Eastern Illinois didn’t miraculously pull off two come from behind victories in conference play already. Thursday, it was a four-point deficit with 17-seconds. Saturday, it was a 12-0 run by the Panthers, down 12 at the time, to eventually force OT against Jacksonville State. And in OT, it was all EIU throughout. There’s no doubt EIU is playing quite dangerously right now, and there’s little doubt that they’ll find they’re not always going to come back at some point in conference play. But these two wins could be big down the road: EIU now has a one-on-one tiebreaker against both TTU and JSU, and with the magic number to earn a tournament spot being “7”, the Panthers have a bit of early breathing room.
Another schedule gripe: During his weekly press conference last week, Murray State Steve Prohm mentioned that he didn’t see SEC teams having to play three straight conference games on the road like his Racers are doing to start conference play. He is 100% right. We checked the SEC schedule, and couldn’t find a single instance of a team playing three road conference games in a row. So we looked even farther, whether other major basketball conferences made their teams play three road games in a row:
- Atlantic 10: No
- ACC: Yes (North Carolina does it twice)
- Big 10: Yes
- Big 12: No
- Big East: Yes
- Pac 12: Yes
Does Prohm have a point? Maybe. But the Racers are far from alone: virtually every conference team plays three in a row at some point throughout the year, and EKU and SIUE both play four in a row on the road.
The SIUE conundrum: The Cougars have won five in a row, which is undeniably good. Thanks to TTU’s terrible weekend, none of those teams are in the top-200 of the RPI this morning, which is less good. All five were at home, but four of those five wins were by 15 or more points, and all five opponents were held to 62 points or fewer.
So here’s the question: is SIUE actually good, or just beating bad teams?
My gut tells me this recent win streak is more about SIUE than their opponents, but I’m still going to be just a bit cautious. SIUE’s defense has been top notch during this winning streak: all five teams were held under 38% shooting from the field and under 30% from three, both are amazing numbers over a five-game stretch. The down side is that none of the five teams are all that good offensively anyway, but another positive for the Cougars is that all five were held below season shooting averages.
The last two games, especially, SIUE’s offense has been on fire, and I actually have no caveat here. They’ve been more efficient than I’ve seen since the Cougars have joined the conference, against two teams that were solid on that end of the ball throughout non-conference play. They’re not just doing it with the three; they are better inside than they’ve been since joining the conference.
We still need to see the Cougars away from home: They’re just 3-30 the since the start of the 2012-13 season in true road games, and that has to change if SIUE is going to see continued success. It starts at Belmont this week, which is not an easy road game by any measure.
The key difference, at least so far, between this year and last (and even between this month and November): They’re consistently winning the games they should be winning, and decisively so. That makes me feel better about the Cougars odds of pulling an upset or two away from the comforts of the Vad Pad.
The Redhawks offensive resurgence: SEMO didn’t get the win at Belmont, but their offense played better than it has all season. That success rolled over into the Redhawks game against Tennessee State. Jarekious Bradley was spectacular against the Tigers, hitting 10-12 from the field on his was to a career-high 29 points, and their defense, which has been much improved this year, held TSU to 37% shooting. I felt like the Redhawks traded defense for offense a bit in their gameplan against Belmont, but that wasn’t the case against Tennessee State. If the offense can stay at this level, and SEMO can score it without sacrificing on the defensive end, the Redhawks may be a threat.
UT Martin, Austin Peay, EKU come on down: How did three teams get the entire first weekend of conference play off? Let’s get it on!