Today is start of Week 2 of Ohio Valley Conference play, and it’s far too easy to overreact to what we’ve seen so far. Eastern Illinois isn’t going to comeback from double-digit second half deficits all season, (we think…) SIUE’s offense will take a step back towards the mean, and Tennessee Tech will hit a three or two, eventually.
But there’s one theme that’s not new to the past week, although the past two games have brought it into stark contrast. Belmont looks…
There are worst things that could be said about the Bruins; some schools would love to be called average at this point in the year. But the two-time defending OVC regular season champions look, for the first time since joining the conference, vulnerable of being knocked from their perch.
The big question though — by whom? More on that below.
We saw shades of this as far back as the Bruins’ opener, the uncharacteristic loss at Wright State. There’s nothing wrong with losing at Wright, but the way in which they did, just five assists (their fewest in a game since 2004-05) and a late-game meltdown, weren’t what we’re used to seeing from Rick Byrd-led teams.
The Bruins, now 10-5 and 2-0 in the OVC, entered league play with the top RPI rating for a conference team, which given they were without Craig Bradshaw for an extended stretch, is a solid accomplishment. And they have found ways to win their two conference games, after all.
But when you go from beating SEMO by 13, and SIUE by 19 at their place a year ago, Belmont’s struggles against the same teams on their own home floor are noteworthy. Sure, SIUE and SEMO both seem improved, but that’s a big jump in one year.
What makes this even more interesting is this isn’t a team seemingly with a “fatal flaw.” Against the Redhawks, it was turnovers (which is a bit of a recurring theme) and fouls that let SEMO stay in the game — but the Bruins were sharp from deep (45.2% 3pt) and edged the Redhawks on the offensive glass. Against SIUE, it was the Cougars winning the battle on the boards, and Belmont couldn’t buy a shot from behind the three-point line (21.1% 3pt) but didn’t send SIUE to the FT line, and only committed 12 turnovers. Every game it’s something — but it’s something different.
They have a star again this year, seeming passing the torch effortlessly from Ian Clark two years ago, to J.J. Mann last year, to Craig Bradshaw this, who is averaging 25.5 points in those two conference wins.
So, why do the Bruins seem so…normal?
Depth is as big of a reason why as any. Against the Cougs, Belmont went to the bench for just 29 minutes…combined. Given there are 200-minutes to dole out in a college basketball game, (40 minutes x 5 players) 29 is a very small number. Against SEMO, Nick Smith saw more significant minutes, (18) but again, the starters bared the brunt of the work. Over a season, that’s going to take a toll.
But, we’re just in January, and thanks in part to Bradshaw’s injury earlier this year, the Bruins used their bench much more liberally in non-conference play.
The Bruins are ranked in the bottom-25 nationally in offensive rebounding, but that’s been an issue for three seasons, and mitigated by how well Belmont is shooting on the year. And some of the SIUE game can be explained away by poor shooting: Belmont missed open looks from deep, and their four made three’s are the fewest since that loss at Wright State to start the year.
Until someone actually goes and beats Belmont, (which might not take that long — their next two games are against the surging Panthers and Racers) we’re not writing off the Bruins from a three-peat. But it’s hard not to look at this year’s team and, for the conference’s elite, seeing a great opportunity to end Belmont’s reign atop the OVC.
Who is actually capable of beating Belmont over 16 games: Here’s the thing: Belmont isn’t the only team that looks average, especially in the East. Tennessee Tech is already behind the eight ball with an 0-2 start, and are underdogs tonight against Murray State. Eastern Kentucky has that big win over a ranked Miami team, but no other quality wins from their non-conference slate. Morehead State can’t find the basket. In the East, it still looks like Belmont’s to lose, even if they’re not as dominant as the past two years. Murray State is, without a doubt, a real threat to end Belmont’s championship streak, though. The Racers have rebounded amazingly from a slow start to the year, and have won nine straight heading into tonight’s bout in Cookeville. The Bruins and Racers meet one week from today. If Murray wins that game, they have an inside track to the conference tittle.
Eastern Illinois improbable 3-0 start: For the first time in school history, the Panthers are 3-0 in conference play, and just how close they were to 0-3 is amazing. Their first week now includes two comebacks from 12-point second half deficits, and that insane final 17 seconds against Tennessee Tech. KenPom tracks win probability throughout games, and here’s how low it got for EIU in their first two wins:
- vs Tennessee Tech: 4.9% (down 59-55, :17 left)
- vs Jacksonville State: 7.5% (down 40-28, 7:33 left)
The number wasn’t yet posted for Tennessee State, but given a similar 12-point deficit, and that they were on the road, I can’t imagine the number is much higher than 7.5%. We’ve seen “second-half” teams before: Murray State during the famous 31-2 year comes to mind. But the way EIU is continually pulling these out of the fire is something.
It’s also going to cost them at some point, and my guess is sooner rather than later.
SIUE is a threat in the (mostly) wide-open West Division: Murray still appears to be the class of the West, but the battle for second stacking up to be quite the four-way race, and there’s little doubt after last night that SIUE has a chance to be a part of that battle. The team from Edwardsville was with Belmont throughout the entire game, (evidenced by the 18 lead-changes and 17 ties) despite shooting just 39.1% from the field, their worst shooting night since their win streak began. They struggled to keep Belmont out of the lane, but allowed just four three’s on the night. The big question about SIUE was how they would perform against quality competition on the road. They might have lost the game, but they showed that they’re ready to take the next step forward this year.
Eastern Kentucky at UT Martin is an undeniably interesting matchup tonight: I don’t think there are two teams in the conference that feel like they could either way right now, partially because they haven’t played a conference game yet! UT Martin is struggling over the past two weeks after a great start to the year, (injuries are playing their part) and Eastern Kentucky has one great win, but few other tests in non-conference play. Given the start EIU and SIUE have had, UTM needs to find a way to pull out a win, especially given this game is in Martin.
TTU can’t afford an 0-3 start: Any hopes of an OVC title have already taken a pretty big hit, and losing tonight at home against the favored Racers may be an early death sentence to that goal. But there’s a bigger picture here as well: if TTU falls to 0-3, suddenly getting to that magical seven-win total just to make the OVC Tournament looks challenging, given that TTU would still have six games against Belmont, EKU, and Morehead State on their schedule. I can’t imagine that the Golden Eagles miss out on going to Nashville, but they need to end the skid sooner rather than later.