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Tuesday night, the Ohio Valley Conference basketball end came to it’s final end. UT Martin, playing their fourth road game in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, didn’t have enough answers for Evansville’s sharp offense, as the Skyhawks fell in the tournament’s semifinals.

If you would have told me in November this is how the OVC”s season would end, I wouldn’t have believed you. Even though I picked UTM to contend in the West, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that could reach this level of success this quickly. In one season, UT Martin went from eight wins to 21. The Skyhawks went from 334th in KenPom’s ratings to 136th.

…and imagine if Myles Taylor didn’t get injured early in the year.

What head coach Heath Schroyer and his staff did in less than a calendar year is nothing short of spectacular: A home-run hire, the right guys brought in, getting the the best out of the guys who returned to Martin.

In fact, it’s the second-best one-year turnaround in the last 25 years:

  • 1992-93 Tennessee State: 19-9 from 2-23 (+17 wins)
  • 2014-15 UT Martin 21-13 from 8-23 (+13 wins)
  • 2009-10 Murray State: 31-5 from 19-12 (+12 wins)
  • 2011-12 Jacksonville State: 15-18 from 5-25 (+10 wins)
  • 1998-99 Morehead State: 13-15 from 3-23 (+10 wins)
  • 1987-88 Murray State: 19-9 from 9-15 (+10 wins)
  • 1986-87 Eastern Kentucky: 16-11 from 6-18 (+10 wins)

When the smoke settles, the Skyhawks season may be the most influential run of the year.

That’s not a slide to what Murray did. The Racers broke the conference record for most consecutive wins, breaking their own record, and completed just the fifth perfect OVC regular season in history. There’s not a lot that can compare to that. But Murray doing great things in the OVC…is almost expected.

If I would have told you that Murray State led the nation in road wins this season, which they did, would you bat an eye? Would you immediately pull out your phone to look that up because you just don’t quite believe me, or would you shrug and go, ‘Oh?’

What if I told you that they tied for most road wins in the nation with UT Martin? Because they did.

Look it up. I’ll be here.

UT Martin doesn’t have the history of Murray State, or Belmont. They don’t have the facilities, and there was a time they didn’t have the money. (Like, a year ago) After winning the OVC in 2008-09, (thanks in large part to a guy named Lester Hudson, who just signed a contract with the Los Angeles Clippers this week) UTM entered this year having won just 37 games in five years, an average of just above seven a season.

In just one season, the Skyhawks became competitors. They became a team that showed they could play with everyone in the conference. They overcame their own history: a program with just three winning seasons in their first 22-years of Division I basketball.

A home-run hire, the right guys brought in, getting the the best out of the guys who returned to Martin.

And what they’ve done is having a real impact across the OVC.

The OVC is in a period of growth. From a basketball point-of-view, the conference as a whole, is getting better, and looking for ways to take another step. That growth can’t only happen at the top; you can’t expect a team to go three calendar months without losing every season. All of a sudden, UT Martin and Schroyer have shown that not only can that growth happen, it can happen quickly.

Fans in Cape Girardeau and Edwardsville are taking notice, that’s for sure. And there’s little doubt both schools’ administrations are as well.

Now, that being said, not every situation is ripe for a one-season turnaround, and I don’t think UT Martin “caused” either firing. Schroyer didn’t inherit just one returning player, like Tennessee State’s Dana Ford, and both Dickey Nutt or Lennox Forrester struggled over a period of time, with the former facing two seasons of lofty expectations, and the latter having a mind-boggling home/road record split.

But at the most basic level, UT Martin has shown what support for a program, financial and otherwise, can do. They’ve shown that the gap at the bottom of the league isn’t so large that it can’t be overcome. If you want to have a great basketball program, you can have it in any city in this conference.

Schroyer has made UT Martin competitive. Jay Spoonhour has done the same in Charleston. They show there’s no reason programs in Jacksonville, Nashville, Clarksville, and Cookeville can’t do the same. Sure, four teams have to miss the OVC Tournament every year under the current format, and there will always been have’s and have-not’s — someone’s got to lose every game after all.

But every team can compete. Every team can go win big games outside the OVC. There’s no limit.

The Skyhawks have shown that the bottom of the Ohio Valley Conference can rise. And this conference can become a true multi-bid conference…

Sooner. Not later.

 

Payne’s big decision: A report from Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski on Tuesday says that Murray State sophomore and OVC player of the year Cameron Payne is leaning towards entering the NBA draft. His stock appears to be rising, and there appears to be a growing chorus in NBA circles that believe Payne could rise to a mid-first round pick by the time the draft rolls around.

There is no wrong answer here.

There are so many unknowns, so many possibilities that there’s no way to assume that there’s a right or wrong path. He could choose to go to the NBA, and be great. He could choose to go, and ride the bench. He could stay, and become a top-10 pick. He could stay, and get injured. He could stay, and fall into the second round.

I could easily come up with 10 more scenarios.

Putting this decision on 20-year olds, especially with a point-of-no-return just weeks after the end of the season, is ridiculous, outdated, and unfair to the players. Every player in college dreams of playing in the NBA.

Payne has a chance right now to make that dream a reality.

Hard to turn that down.

 

The best coach opening available: …is in Edwardsville. I’m not saying that you can’t win in Cape Girardeau or Richmond, you absolutely can. But SIUE is well positioned to be a Belmont-like team in the OVC in the future. They’re located 30-minutes from St. Louis, don’t have a football program, and have one of the nicer, if small, arenas in the league. They also have something Belmont doesn’t — a contract with the local Fox Sports affiliate to air additional home games. They’re still shaking off their Division II boots, but both their finalists are coaches who spent last year as a Division I assistant, which should help continue pushing the transition forward.

 

The half-million dollar man: …still isn’t a lock to stay in Murray, but it’s looking better and better. Alabama seems to be targeting Gregg Marshall and Richard Pitino to fill their coach opening, Tennessee took Texas’ former man, and the “big school” openings for this season are quickly dwindling.

One thing Steve Prohm‘s new payday does do is raise the stakes, a bit, this summer. It’s not just Murray spending money: as I mentioned earlier, UT Martin is spending money. Belmont is still a big spender in the OVC, and we’ve yet to see what SIUE, SEMO, or EKU will do to hire a new coach. With this money being spent, it’s more important that the OVC get wins in the NCAA Tournament — because that creates revenue to return to those schools. This year’s spring meetings (which usually happen in May) could be interesting: is the OVC willing to legislate changes to better their league? Incentivize stronger scheduling? Conference tournament changes? Murray will almost certainly be pushing for some kind of change.

Whether other schools will listen? That’s yet to be seen.


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  1. semosupporter:
    Martin should have had a good year. They got exactly what they paid for and I'm not talking about the coaches salaries. Just wait till you see what they have coming next year.
  2. I mildly made fun of your bracket a week ago. But your bracket aside, I want to thank you for your thoughtful commentary and analysis of OVC basketball this year. I've really enjoyed and looked forward to your columns. Thank you!
    • OVC Ball:
      Thank for the kind words
  3. Ovcdadky:
    Would it be possible to do a story that doesn't involve you kissing Murray's behind? Martin will be under NCAA investigation within the next two years if not sooner. They are doing some shady things down there.
    • OVC Ball:
      Thanks for reading.
      • Ovcdadky:
        As a parent of an OVC player that doesn't live close to my sons school I depend on sites like this to follow his team and the conference. The story focuses more on Murray than Tennessee Martin even though the title is about Martin. It is frustrating not to have some objective coverage like other conferences do. There are other teams than murray in this league.
OVC Ball
Predicting the OVC race…in mid-December

2016-17 Basketball Standings

OVCOverall

EAST

Belmont8-014-4
Morehead State6-310-12
Tennessee Tech5-39-14
Jacksonville State5-413-11
Tennessee State4-413-8
Eastern Kentucky2-69-14

WEST

UT Martin5-315-8
Murray State5-311-11
SEMO5-310-13
Austin Peay3-57-15
Eastern Illinois1-79-12
SIUE0-85-17
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