As we reach the halfway mark of the conference season, there are a few things that are pretty clear:
- Murray State is pretty good.
- Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech, Tennessee State, and Jacksonville State likely aren’t making the OVC Tournament.
- The rest of the league is fun, entertaining, and a complete mess.
I can’t really emphasize that third one enough. Case in point: Morehead State swept the Tennessee Tech / JSU road swing. Eastern Kentucky got swept the same weekend on the same road swing. So, of course, EKU beats Morehead State in Morehead on Saturday. Why wouldn’t they?
Eastern Illinois swept the East Division, but is 2-3 against the West, and will likely be without Chris Olivier for a couple more weeks. But they beat SIUE at home exactly one week after losing to Austin Peay at home.
Speaking of SIUE, the Cougars are 9-13 this year, and 5-5 in the conference, but have just a single road win, which they got this past week at Southeast Missouri, a team that has done a 180 from their days of all offense and no defense to being all defense…and very little offense.
Belmont couldn’t buy a three-point bucket for three weeks, yet in their last two games have hit 28-50 (56%) from behind the arc, and are now a comfortable two-games up on the division for a double-bye in March.
…and we haven’t even mentioned UT Martin, who were the latest team to push the Racers to the wire, and make the turn at 5-3, and have a more than reasonable chance of earning a bye in March, despite losing their three-time all-conference forward in Myles Taylor to injury and a sixth man to transfer since the season began.
I can’t figure out this league.
…and I absolutely love it.
So, who’s the second best team in the league? There are two notes here: 1) I’m not asking which team will be the No. 2 seed. Baring what could only be described as an ‘epic’ collapse, Murray will be the top seed, meaning the two will have to come out of the East. 2) The second best team isn’t necessarily the team that matches up best against the Racers, or the team most likely to meet the Racers in the final. The bracket will have a lot to say about that.
Let’s go team-by team and discuss some bright, and not so bright points:
- Pro: They’ve found their three-point shot again. Offensively, they lead the league in eFG% and are currently second in efficiency.
- Con: Defense, mostly in general. It’s the “EKU defense” to a lesser extent: forces turnovers, struggles almost everywhere else.
- Pro: The defense is still quite good, and teams are still struggling to hit shots against them on the perimeter.
- Con: Olivier’s out, rebounding remains an issue, and they just lost by 30 at UT Martin.
- Pro: Turnovers, steals, they take a lot of threes.
- Con: …which is only good if you hit them. (EKU 7th in league play in 3pt%) Opponents shoot quite well if they can avoid turnovers.
- Pro: Rebounding, and inside play in general. Good free-throw shooting team. (75% in league play)
- Con: The same as it’s always been — fouls.
- Pro: The league’s top defense. No, really. They lead the league in defensive efficiency in OVC play.
- Con: They’ve only beaten conference teams with worse records. Just one road win this year.
- Pro: Great interior defense.
- Con: Surprisingly poor rebounding. Free-throw shooting.
- Pro: Balanced — solid offense and defense. Leads league in 3pt%.
- Con: Forces very few turnovers. Doesn’t get to the foul line.
So, which team do I pick as second-best?
At the moment, I choose the Skyhawks. I feel like they’re the most versatile of the group. Teams like Belmont and EKU don’t feel like they have the defense to overcome poor shooting nights, while teams like SEMO, Morehead State, EIU, and SIUE don’t have the firepower to overcome nights when their opponents are lights out. UT Martin can compete in the 80’s, they can compete in the 50’s, they have a go-to guy when they need a bucket, (Deville Smith) and they have enough weapons that he doesn’t have to carry the entire load.
The one big question I have about them, and have had for quite some time now, is depth: No team in the conference (and just a baker’s dozen nationally) plays fewer bench minutes than the Skyhawks, and that an wear on a team over a long season.
But that’s who I pick now. Next week, I may completely change my mind.
I already have at least twice.
Are the “wheels wobbling” in Murray?: I was asked this question this morning on the Jeff Bidwell Show (you can listen to that here) and Racers head coach Steve Prohm was asked that same question on Saturday after the Racers third straight narrow win. I think it’s easy to come to that conclusion, but at the same time, all three games being close are easily explainable. This next week, I feel like we’ll get a better picture. Murray hosts Southeast Missouri on Thursday, before traveling to Austin Peay on Saturday. Murray will be heavy, heavy favorites in both. If they come down to the final minute, then it might be time to talk about the pressure the ever-growing win streak in placing on the Racers. Right now, though? They’re still playing confident, they’re making big plays down the stretch, and they still seem loose on the floor. I just don’t get the impression that this team feels the pressure.
Is there any chance the Racers can earn an at-large?: Um. Well. See, here’s the thing: The infamous season where Missouri State was No. 21 in the RPI and was left out of the tournament always pops into my mind here. In addition, Hofstra was left out in 2006 at 30th, same for Air Force in 2007. Right now, Murray State is ranked 75th. No team outside the top-70 in RPI have ever earned NCAA at-large bids, and all of those teams in the 60’s were power conference teams. A 27-win Drexel team and a 27-win Oral Roberts team were both left out in 2012. Since 2005, 11 teams with 25+ wins have been left out of the NCAA Tournament.
So, let’s assume, for argument’s sake, Murray State runs the table to the conference final. They will be…27-4. Their RPI? Does anyone think it rises about 50th, given they don’t play another top-100 team? If they lose that conference tournament final, they’ll be 27-5, and their RPI will certainly drop, maybe 5-10 ranks.
Do I think they should be in the conversation? Sure. They haven’t lost since the month of November, after all. But history is not on the Racers’ side.
Are you done saying Tennessee Tech will rally to make the OVC Tournament: Yep.