Life is a journey, not a destination
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
In October, if you asked coaches or fans where they hoped to end the season, the CollegeInsider.com Tournament wasn’t coming out of anyone’s mouth, and not just because no one calls it anything but the CIT. While giving regular season conference champions an automatic bit to the National Invitational Tournament was a nice gesture, no small-conference team entered their conference tournament thinking about the NIT as a safety net.
While it’s not the ultimate March destination, these tournaments, two of which didn’t exist a decade ago, (CBI and CIT) allow the season continue for more than just 68.
As the field expands, so does the Ohio Valley Conference’s footprint in it. Five OVC teams are playing in this postseason, including three in the CIT looking to pick up where Murray State left off last year.
For each team’s seniors, it’s one final push: one more tournament, one more trip with his team. For those returning, next season in a way starts now, as a foundation begins being built well before tip-off in November. And for the fans, it’s one more chance to show their appreciation to the players and coaches who dedicate much of their lives to this competition.
For the five teams still alive, it’s the hope of extending the season
Even if just for one. more. game.
NIT: (6) UTEP at (3) Murray State
Line: Murray -5.5
Let’s get this out of the way: UTEP is big, but they’re not a stereotypical big team: They have great shooters, but they don’t rebound particularly well. Where that size really comes into play is on the defensive end. Three of the Miners starting five is 6’8 or taller, and they’ll bring in a fourth guy off the bench that’s listed at 7’1. They’re long, they can clog the lane, and put a lot of pressure on team’s backcourt to produce.
…which really isn’t an issue for Murray, if we’re being honest.
This is a game of strength against weakness: UTEP’s depth in the frontcourt against Murray’s depth in the backcourt. The Racers haven’t really played a team like this since December, as the Miners don’t really have a similar profile of any OVC team. We saw during the season when the Racers bigs, namely Jonathan Fairell, got into foul trouble, the Racers could go small. When 6’10 Cedrick Lang or 6’11 Hooper Vent is playing the four for the Miners, (which will likely happen) how small can Murray really go?
The Miners aren’t a deep team — the question is, how deep is Murray going to play? The Racers didn’t get a point off the bench in the OVC Tournament until well into the OVC Tournament final, and Steve Prohm went down swinging with his starters, only really playing six guys and getting a total of 15 minutes off his bench against Belmont, and 25 against Morehead State. They’ve had more than a week off, but expecting 34 minutes from Fairell and 35 from Jarvis Williams against the UTEP bigs may be a lot to ask.
UTEP’s had a lot of good wins this season, and a few equally head-scratching losses. (Southern Miss?!?) The link — they were great at home this year, and less so on the road. Murray only has the lower bowl available, but it’ll be a hostile 3,800 fans for the Miners.
The New Rules: Will have almost zero impact. The NIT is experimenting with a 30-second shot clock, and a larger restricted arc. Murray, especially, doesn’t play deep into the shot clock very often, and doesn’t draw a lot of charges in the paint. UTEP is a similar tempo team to the Racers, so the overall impact will be minimal.
CIT: Eastern Illinois at Oakland
Line: Oakland -7
Let’s ignore Oakland’s 16-16 record for just a minute. The Grizzlies started off the year 4-10, before going 11-5 in the tough Horizon league. They want to get up and down the floor, and put 80 points on the scoreboard, something they did eight times in conference play.
Eastern Illinois did it once.
The matchup at point guard will be quite interesting: 5’7 Cornell Johnston against 5’9 Kahlil Felder. Both will play almost the entire game, but are very different in style. Johnston led the OVC in three-point shooting, but is generally a pass-first point. Felder can pass, but he wants to get to the rim, and the free-throw line.
We’ve talked a lot about EIU’s first-shot defense this year, and it’s been strong more often than not. It gets a big, Murray State-like test against Oakland.
(That’s not lip service. Oakland led the Horizon in offensive efficiency, and was 54th nationally)
CIT: Norfolk State at Eastern Kentucky
Line: EKU -10
The first number I always look at when a team faces EKU is turnover percentage: EKU’s defense in second nationally in forcing turnovers, and that spells bad news for a lot of teams.
Like Norfolk State. Who struggles with turnovers anyway.
When the Spartans can hold onto the ball, their offense is pretty solid, thanks to healthy doses of Jeff Short and RaShid Gaston. Short averages nearly 20 points per game, Gaston 15; Short shoots 49.5% from the field, Gaston 62%. And if those two happen to have an off game, there’s also D’Shon Taylor, a 13 point-per game scorer in his own right. Those three make up the majority of the offensive threat, and they do the bulk of their damage on the inside; The Spartans rank in the bottom-50 nationally in three-point shots taken.
…unlike Eastern Kentucky. Norfolk State was especially solid against the three in MEAC play, holding opponents to 28.5% shooting, but they struggled to do the same earlier in the year in non-conference play.
EKU’s 53-point abberation in the OVC Tournament aside, (it was their lowest scoring night of the season…by seven points) the Colonels finished the season fairly strong. Their defense improved, even when they weren’t forcing turnovers, and their offense, which was already pretty good, shot the ball better down the stretch. One thing that didn’t improve: rebounding, and that bit them in a big way in Nashville. Norfolk State is strong on the glass, which could create a challenge for the Colonels defense — if they’re not turning over the Spartans every other possession