Tonight, Eastern Illinois host Evansville to become the third OVC team in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament quarterfinals. Murray State is in Tulsa, as they look to send the OVC to the NIT quarterfinals for the second straight season.
So, everything’s great, right?
Except where it really matters. Once again, the OVC was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, where a win equates into about three-quarters of a million dollars for the conference over the next six years. A NIT or CIT championship? Nadda, at least in the financial department.
…and that’s where we’ve hit a crossroads: In the best postseason in Ohio Valley Conference basketball history (at least, in the short history of the current postseason setup, with four tournaments) the conference is coming away empty handed. We’ve now gone three full seasons since the conference’s last NCAA Tournament win — following the four-season winning streak that ended with Murray State’s loss to Marquette in the round of 32.
But there’s a difference between that Murray State team, or the Morehead State teams before them, and the best in the league now:
Those teams played defense.
That’s not hyperbole. That’s not overreaction. By almost any metric, those teams were better defensively then the top of the league now. And when you look at the teams in the Sweet 16 this year, and even the teams that were beating the round of 32 this weekend, there weren’t a lot of great offenses on display. But there was no shortage of great defense.
There are two charts that demonstrate the difference. First, let’s compare the defensive efficiency numbers for the teams in the Sweet 16 this season, and the top three defenses this season in the OVC:
The best defense in the OVC all season long, Eastern Kentucky, falls 17th on the list, behind every Sweet 16 team. While you don’t expect the Ohio Valley Conference to compete with the Sweet 16 in every category, at least one should be in the same neighborhood defensively. Murray State, 25-game win streak aside, had a DPPP of 1.035: only four NCAA Tournament teams were worse, and all were conference tournament champions receiving auto-bids.
And if you compare the OVC’s NCAA Tournament representative the last three seasons versus the four where the OVC earned wins, there’s a similar pattern.
|'12 Murray St.||0.915|
|'10 Murray St.||0.934|
|'11 Morehead St.||0.974|
|'09 Morehead St (16 seed)||0.999|
This year’s Belmont team, and last year’s EKU team, performed worse statistically on defense, than the 16-seed, play-in game Morehead State team from seven years ago. Even if Murray won the OVC Tournament, or any team for that matter, they’d slot in where Belmont is, behind the 16-seeded Eagles. If Belmont, the top seed two years ago, won the OVC Tournament that year, they would be ranked behind that same Morehead State team.
I think it’s safe to say: the OVC, as it’s constructed right now, doesn’t play a lot of defense. And with five of the top seven defenses nationally still dancing, 12 of the Sweet 16 ranking in the top-50, and just one team outside the top-100 (Notre Dame) in defensive efficiency still alive, defense is still pretty important in college basketball these days.
And Belmont’s loss to Virginia fits squarely into this narrative. The Bruins posted 67 points, and scored more than one point per possession, which is a solid number, especially against Virginia: only ten teams posted an OPPP greater than one against the Cavaliers this season, less than a third of their opponents. But Virginia put up 79 points, tying their third highest scoring output in a game this season.
When we go back, and deconstruct what happened this season, we see an OVC capable of winning quality games. We see that the top of the conference is quite solid, and maybe even better than their collective records show. We see an OVC ranked 21st in KenPom’s conference rankings, which is more-or-less par for the course dating back to 2009: Every year since then, the conference has fallen between 20th and 24th. Dating back to 2002, the oldest data available, the conference has never finished higher than 20th.
But we also see an OVC that can’t quite show how good they are on the biggest stage: and this isn’t limited to Belmont’s loss Friday. We see an OVC that’s inconsistent in November and December, when conference strength is truly determined. And an OVC that, through no one’s fault, isn’t challenging each other defensively.
The saying is as old as time itself: defense wins championships.
Well, it should, at least.
Evansville a big test for Eastern Illinois: The Aces lost their final four games of the regular season, but all were to the Missouri Valley’s heavyweights: Wichita State, Northern Iowa, and back-to-back losses to Illinois State. Their offense struggled against the might of the MVC, as teams were able often able to lock down D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius, or at least one of the two. Balentine is still quite capable of having big nights, as his 35-point performance showed in Evansville’s CIT opener against IPFW. When Evansville offense clicks, they’re a team that’s capable of beating anyone in the tournament. But if EIU’s defense can lock down one or both of those guys, the Aces have struggled to find other guys to score.
Tulsa is the best defensive team Murray State has played all year: …and it’s not close. The Golden Hurricane are the third-best defense, statistically, not playing in the NCAA Tournament, and the 15th best defense overall for the season. They were stronger inside than against the three, which does play somewhat into the Racers offense. Offense has been a struggle at times: they were bounced from the American Conference tournament after posting just 42 points against Connecticut, who only managed 47 themselves.
SIUE hopes to have coach in place by signing day: SIUE athletics director Brad Hewitt told The Telegraph that finalists could be chosen as soon as Wednesday, and interviews could take place this weekend.