The basketball story today can be summed up in three words, if one so chooses:
Top seeds advanced.
Of course, that would make for a terrible story, so I’ll choose a few more.
The second game inside Municipal Auditorium was almost spooky at times. Not only did you have two teams from the far reaches of the conference, especially in relation to Nashville, you had 6-10 inches of snow between their fans and the Music City, and deteriorating conditions once you got here. Attendance was light, and completely understandably so, even on school’s band didn’t make the potentially perilous journey.
There were at least two to three moments of complete silence. Not just the silence after a hard foul sent a player awkwardly into his bench, but moments after timeouts were called, before the one band could strike their first note. You could hear players react after calls, hear the congratulations between one teammate to another after a great play. You could hear one coach screaming at his team as they slowly walked into the huddle.
(Although, to be honest, you might have heard that last one if the arena was full.)
For a event that’s the culmination of a long season, a team’s final chance to punch their ticket, there was a certain eerieness to the night’s proceedings.
…and the snow hadn’t even started falling yet. At least, not in Nashville.
Before I continue — anyone taking this as a slight against the fans of Eastern Illinois and SIUE are way off base. This isn’t a condemnation of their fan bases for not risking their well-being to make a five to six hour drive to Nashville. This is simply an observation; A description of the unique environment in which this conference tournament is being played in.
Today could not only be more of the same, it could be even quieter. Four men’s teams, and four women’s team could be playing for their proverbial lives in front of, literally, fives upon fives of fans. Fans that could afford to spend the entire weekend in Nashville, and already made the journey.
As temperatures begin warming up, crews begin clearing the roads, the tournament could slowly return to normalcy ahead of Saturday’s championship games.
But this tournament has already made itself memorable. Not just for what happened on the floor: three close games on the tournament’s opening day, but for what’s happening outside. What the teams and fans have to fight through…
Just to get a chance to play, and see the game that they love.
An expected end for SIUE: We’ve made a big deal out of it all year, and I’ve heard the yearning from Cougars fans for SIUE to get a win outside of Edwardsville. (They had just one all season) For the first few minutes last night, it appeared SIUE might shake off their road demons, but when the ceiling fell, it fell hard. SIUE hit just one of their last 12 field goal attempts of the first half, and shot just 38% for the game in an twelve point loss to Eastern Illinois, by far worse was their defense. EIU hit 62.5% in the second half, nearly scoring 50 points. C.J. Carr was excellent, more so, in my opinion, than his stat line showed. I know his numbers were up and down this year, but I’m really excited to see what the freshman can do with another year of development.
While the NJIT’s of the world are wrecking the curve, SIUE’s growth in three full seasons in Division I is more on par with what’s expected of a team making the transition. The road woes this year, while making for great twitter fodder, is probably more of a fluke than a long-term issue. The biggest issue, in my opinion, is the lack of clear on floor leader. There are always close games, and going forward the Cougars need to find that go-to guy in late moments. That’s one thing that was missing this year.
If SEMO played like that all year, they might not have been an eight seed: Inconsistency plagued the Redhawks all season, and turnovers aside, SEMO played about as well as I’ve seen all year. The offense was sharp, especially in the first half, they hit free-throws, and Nino Johnson was an enforcer in the paint defensively. The turnovers, though, were bad, highlighted by a 10-second violation against zero pressure, and numerous throw-aways. Had Morehead been able to better take advantage, the game likely wouldn’t have been that close in the end.
SEMO is at an interesting crossroads. Each of the last two seasons, expectations have been high in Cape Girardeau, but there’s few that would say they met them. This year was a senior-led bunch, and the Redhawks lose a lot of production heading into next year. Antonius Cleveland, though, is the kind of player you can build a team around, and he’s got two more years left to continue to grow.
#HugASpoonhour: …will continue tonight, in case there was any doubt. I thought, mostly, Eastern Illinois played well last night in their OVC Tournament win since 2010. I don’t know if head coach Jay Spoonhour necessarily agrees, based on the copious amount of yelling at players last night, but he seemed plenty
happy sarcastic in the post game presser. Chris Olivier continues to be their workhorse inside, and I think showed there’s no issues with him being back in the starting lineup. But when they needed big buckets, it was the small fry, Cornell Johnston hitting five three’s in a row (5-6 from deep on the night) that helped propel the Panthers in the second half. He wasn’t great defensively against SIUE’s Carr at time, but he was an absolute spark…even if Spoonhour thinks he can beat him in a shooting contest.
I would pay to see that, by the way. Seriously, name the time and date.
Never change, Morehead. Except the fouling thing. Change that: SEMO shot 35 free-throws last night. They lost, in the end, but still. 35! Morehead played far from a perfect game, but their defense gave the Redhawks fits in stretches, Billy Reader was highly efficient on the inside, hitting 8-11 from the field, the Eagles hit outside shots, (6-13, 46.2%) which isn’t their strong suit, and the guard play was very solid. You get the feeling there still might be another gear for Morehead to shift into, and that’s a scary thought for UT Martin tonight. (More on that to follow) Their guard play is going to be key to making a deep run: Angelo Warner had 16 points last night, seven coming from the charity stripe, just the second time he’s broken the 15-point barrier since the end of January. You’ll also take Corban Collins five assists and zero turnovers any day of the week, much less the 12-points the guard added.
(5) Morehead State v (3) UT Martin
UT Martin won season series 1-0 (75-72 (OT) in Martin)
Strangely, the Eagles are favored by those in the gambling business, but have a bit of history to contend with: the first round winners are 0-8 in the second round since the OVC moved to the double-bye format. While I don’t want to continue harping on it, the first meeting between these two teams was weird because Morehead State only sent the Skyhawks to the line for 14 free-throws. (UT Martin is the worst team in the OVC at getting to the line) Both teams has little trouble scoring, rebounding was even, and neither team had more than 10 turnovers. It was also Arkeem Joseph‘s highest scoring night of the season for the Skyhawks, with the big man putting up 18 points on 9-11 shooting against the Eagles.
Despite being the third best team in OPPP in the league, UT Martin is much more at home when the game is in the 60’s than the 80’s. They take their time on offense, but that patience has mostly paid off for the Skyhawks offense. This is a team at home in the half court, which could create problems for an aggressive Morehead State defense if they can’t force steals; over 35 seconds, they’re likely to leave someone open. The problem comes if they are sped up — their defense has been better over the past month, but they’re still last in the league in steals and blocks, against an Eagles team that would love nothing more than to get the ball inside on every play.
Morehead State has won four straight, and their offense is as good, if not better, than it’s been all season. They want to use their defense to create the offense, but they’re finding more ways to score out of the half-court, which has been a major issue at times. Rebounding is going to be key here: both teams have been solid on the boards all season, and if the game is anything like last night’s, there’s going to be opportunities on the boards.
(6) Eastern Illinois vs (3) Belmont
Eastern Illinois won season series 1-0 (84-73 in Charleston)
In case you’ve forgotten, their first meeting was the stop me before I shoot it again game. Belmont went 7-43 from three-point range, convincing themselves that the next three was surely going to go down, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I don’t think we’ll see Belmont take 43-three pointers again. We might. It’d be entertaining. But, somehow, I doubt it.
This is a matchup of strength against strength, and weakness against weakness. Belmont’s struggles aren’t on their offense, they’re on the Bruins defense, which struggled mightily all season to stop teams on the inside. While Eastern Illinois has Chris Olivier, the Panthers offense hasn’t exactly been a juggernaut at times this year. The Panthers do enter the game as the best in the conference against the three, and solid on the inside, assuming they can pull down a rebound, which isn’t exactly the Bruins forte either.
So, the question is, would you rather have a potentially explosive offense and no defense? Or a more muted offense, and a better defense? To me, this comes down to EIU’s defense. Last night, and their first meeting not withstanding, EIU probably doesn’t want another game in the 80s against the Bruins, especially coming off playing a game the night before. We’ve seen it far too often here, jumpers seem to have a way to stop falling the the second half for teams coming off a game the night before.