Welcome to Nashville.
Weather forecast: rainy, with chance of snow, sleet, and come-the-hell-on-it’s-March-already.
The weather seemingly never agrees with this tournament. From snow and ice, to tornadoes bearing down on Nashville, the tournament has had more than it’s fair share of distractions outside in recent years, and this year will be no different.
But all that changes once you step inside Municipal Auditorium. In here, distractions are few. No video boards, no intro music. Just basketball.
Every year, on the first day of the tournament, I write about hope. How today represents a new beginning for 16 teams: eight men’s and eight women. How, by making it here, regardless of how you finished the season, how poor your team’s record is on the road, how many records you’ve broken, every team has hope of reaching the same goal: An Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Championship.
This year, more than last, that hope has spread through the entire field.
Sure the top three may have only changed seeds, but this season, a new team joined the top-4 on the men’s side, one who’s seen more bad years than good. The field in the first round may not have changed much, but two programs going head to head are not only making a return trip, but looking for a win, or perhaps two or three, to cap off an already successful year.
And all eyes are on the top seed. Two games from true OVC perfection, and two more chances for the field to usurp the conference’s king.
The weather, sadly, may mute the crowd somewhat. More may be enjoying the next four days from the comfort of their living rooms, instead of the thrill of courtside. But that’s doesn’t mute the excitement of this week.
Eight teams on each side.
(5) Morehead State vs (8) Southeast Missouri
Morehead won season series 1-0 (70-57 in Cape)
Both teams have gone in different directions the past few weeks: Morehead State has won three straight, while Southeast Missouri has lost three of four. But both come with caveats: The Eagles three wins all came against teams that didn’t qualify for the OVC Tournament, and one of the Redhawks losses was in overtime to Murray State, a game they had every chance to win.
What is impressive about the Eagles current streak is how they’ve won: Morehead State scored at least 86 points in all three victories, even though they continue to struggle in hitting three’s. When they’re able to keep opponents off the free-throw line, their defense is solid, (as they did against Jacksonville State to end the season) but as has been the case now for three season, that’s been few and far between. Only complicating matters this year: whereas in the past Morehead has also gotten to the free-throw line themselves, this year they haven’t, having only the 9th highest free-throw rate in the Ohio Valley Conference.
At one point this season, sending the Redhawks to the free-throw line might have been an effective strategy, but that’s one area the Redhawks have gotten much more efficient in. In those same last four game, SEMO went 60-81 (74.1%) from the free-throw line. There offense, as a whole, has been much better over the last half of the season, but as often happens, has come at a detriment to the Redhawks defense.
That being said, the Redhawks matchup well defensively. Their weakness has been defending the three-point arc, which Morehead State has struggled taking advantage of this year. Where the Eagles are strong offensively, the inside, is where the Redhawks are strong defensively.
How did the first game end up so lopsided, then? Morehead State forced 21 turnovers, a season-high for the Redhawks.
(6) Eastern Illinois vs (7) SIUE
Teams split season series (SIUE won 80-63 in Edwardsville, EIU won 57-54 in Charleston)
There’s been a tounge-in-cheek joke from some SIUE fans this past week that the OVC Tournament should be held in Edwardsville, (In all fairness, they probably weren’t joking…) and when you compare their home versus away record, it’s pretty clear why: SIUE is 11-3 in Edwardsville, and two of those losses came in the team’s first six games. Everywhere else this season: the Cougars are 1-12, and enter the Tournament coming off a loss at Austin Peay. Scoring has been an issue on the road: SIUE averaged 68.3 points per game at home against Division I competition, but just 62.6 on the road.
That’s an especially large difference with a team like SIUE, which relies on it’s defense to win games. The Cougars are second in the OVC in defensive efficiency, behind only Murray State. Eight of their 12 wins came with SIUE scoring under 70 points. Even with the second-highest three-point shooting percentage in league play, SIUE doesn’t want to get into a high scoring battle.
Luckily for them, neither does Eastern Illinois. EIU’s first shot defense has been excellent this year, but the Panthers have struggled to keep teams off the glass. (While that was an issue in their lopsided loss at Edwardsville, EIU’s first shot defense wasn’t all that good that day to begin with.) That’s why the lead the league in three-point percentage defense, are second in two-point percentage defense, but just fifth in overall defensive efficiency.
That’s not to say EIU doesn’t have offensive weapons, though. Cornell Johnston easily led the OVC in league play in three-point shooting percentage (32-55, 58.2%) and Chris Olivier is averaging more than 17-points a game since returning from illness.
The close game in Charleston is more representative of how each team has done throughout the year. Another low scoring battle could be on tap in Nashville, which, and I double checked this, isn’t located in Edwardsville.