The “second season”, also known as Ohio Valley Conference play, is less than a week away now, but there’s one thing that can be said about the league as they get ready for the most important time of year:
It’s wide open.
Belmont — who everyone all but handed the OVC trophy back in October, myself included — is reeling, following their latest loss at 4-8 Cleveland State. Teams with better records like Tennessee State (9-3) and Tennessee Tech (8-5) boast woeful strength of schedule rankings. Then there’s the West Division — where every team is at least two games under .500 with just four days of non-conference play remaining.
You could say the OVC isn’t all that good.
Only, the conference ranks 23rd in KenPom rankings — which is more-or-less in line with where the OVC has ranked every season, dating back to 2008.
History is sometimes easily forgotten, and it’s worth noting that the conference was in a similar place entering conference play last season:
- EKU was 8-5, and although everyone remembers their road win over Miami, the Colonels also lost at Florida Atlantic, who finished the year 9-20.
- Belmont lost four of their last five non-conference games, and was swept in a home-home by 11-20 Wright State.
- Murray’s 24-game win streak was in it’s infancy — the Racers started the year 2-4 before streaking.
- Morehead State had a six game non-conference losing streak, including losses to East Tennessee State and Northern Kentucky.
Non-conference play in Division I basketball is all about who you play — the difference in talent between at top-100 team and a team at the bottom of the nation is a chasm; We get caught up in the upsets, while often ignoring the other 99% of those games that are lopsided before halftime. This year, that gap feels especially wide: maybe it’s the talent, maybe it’s the new rules, but the game feels less about “anything can happen” and more like “the rich get richer.”
The conference ranks 23rd in KenPom rankings — which is more-or-less in line with where the OVC has ranked every season, dating back to 2008.
…and while the OVC has had moments, and teams, and players: from top to bottom, the OVC has never been one of the rich.
Here are a few storylines to pay attention to as OVC play gets underway
Two Team Race?
On Thursday, 12 teams will get a fresh slate. A new 0-0 record, and a chance to leave the taste of non-conference play behind them. But — according to both the RPI and KenPom rankings, two teams enter with a leg up on the league:
Belmont — almost a given.
…and Morehead State.
Sure, neither team sports a gaudy record. But in the RPI: the Bruins and Eagles are the only OVC teams in the top-100. In KenPom, they’re the only teams in the top-200. (The RPI, which doesn’t factor in scores of games, is much kinder to the conference overall)
They don’t meet until February, and then play twice in 11 days.
These two teams are Yin and Yang: the Bruins are scoring in bunches behind an up-tempo, three-point heavy offensive attack. The Eagles hardly look recognizable from recent years, slowing down the game and relying on stout defense, forcing turnovers, and rebounding to overpower opposition.
If the rankings are to be believed — these two teams are the only ones with a reasonable chance of winning the conference over a 16-game grind. Not the nine-win Tigers. Not the hot-shooting Colonels. Not the historically favored Racers, or the upstart Skyhawks.
A New Favorite For Player of the Year
Craig Bradshaw may have been the OVC Preseason Player of the Year, but I’m not sure he’s even the POY on the Bruins right now. He’s still a top-five candidate, but here’s where I handicap it heading into OVC play.
- Evan Bradds (Belmont) — Bradds leads the Bruins in scoring, (16.9 ppg) rebounds, (8.8 rpg) field goal percentage (71.1%, 4th nationally) and is third on the team in assists. (29) He’s become a complete player, and has provided the Bruins with a threat inside that can help pull defenders off three-point shooters.
- Jarelle Reischel (Eastern Kentucky) — His 19.8 ppg is 38th nationally, he’s pulling down 7.8 rebounds a game, and has more assists than Bradds. (48) So, why second? EKU’s schedule hasn’t been the hardest, and I’m not sure if he can keep up his torrid 52.6% three-point shooting over a full season.
- Chris Horton (Austin Peay) — Horton is second in the nation in rebounding per game, (13.5 rpg) currently ahead of Ben Simmons of LSU. Typically, POY honors go to one of the teams at the top of the league standings, and that may hurt Horton if other players have similar profiles.
- Craig Bradshaw (Belmont) — He hasn’t seen a major jump in production from last year, but Bradshaw is shooting 39.8% from three-point range against defenses that are mostly better than the one’s he’ll face in OVC play. Everyone knows his name — which will keep him in the running throughout the year.
- Wayne Martin (Tennessee State) — Keron Deshields may lead the team in scoring, but Martin is a bigger contributor overall, posting 13.4 points per game, and 11.1 rebounds.
- Corban Collins (Morehead State) — He’s the scoring leader for a talented Eagles team, but the numbers just aren’t flashy. His 2.35 assist-to-turnover ratio stands out more than his scoring (11.8 ppg) or his shooting. (35% FG)
- Keron Deshields (Tennessee State) — There’s something to be said for a 16-point per game scorer that’s shooting 40.7% from three-point range.
- Torrence Rowe (Tenenssee Tech) — The Golden Eagles senior is a solid scorer (16.7 ppg) but doesn’t standout in other areas of his game through the first half of the season.
- Wayne Langston (Murray State) — The OVC doesn’t have a “most improved” award, but if it did, it would almost assuredly go to Langston. He leads the team in scoring (13.8 ppg) and rebounds (6.3 rpg) and is shooting a solid 68.9% from the field.
- Trae Anderson (Eastern Illinois) — I’m not sure the Panthers are going to put up enough wins to even make Anderson a serious POY candidate, but the EIU forward is averaging nearly 15 points a game, despite not having hit a single three-pointer (0-12) yet this season. He also leads the Panthers in rebounding at 5.2 per game.
West vs East starts the year
The conference’s scheduling this year is a bit different, as most of the league’s inter-division games will be played in the first three weeks of conference play, leaving divisional games for the end.
This has the benefit of getting more divisional matchups in late February — which could mean big games with big division title implications. But tiebreakers for some OVC Tournament seeds (the first tiebreaker is head-to-head wins) for teams between divisions will be determined quite early.
More so than usual, it’s important for teams on the conference tournament bubble, or bye-line bubble to get off to a good start in OVC play.
The West will be…entertaining?
Everyone in the West is vulnerable. The Racers are relying on their defense to win games as their offense continue to find consistency. The three-point shot isn’t falling, they lack depth, and they’ve lost five in a row for the first time in over two decades. UT Martin’s recently found their winning ways, but their interior defense and lack of a go-to scorer are stress-inducing. Austin Peay looks like a threat again for the first time in years: not only is Horton playing to his potential, but the Governors are getting significant contributions from the backcourt — except when it comes to defending the three-point arc.
Then there’s there’s the rest: it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s gone wrong in Charleston, Edwardsville, or Cape Girardeau, but all three fanbases can be boosted by the fact that the top of their division isn’t likely to runaway in any game — and the first two of those locations are always good for a few upsets.
In other words — the West has that “anything could happen” feel. On the flip-side, if any team gets it going in the next few weeks: the West could be a runaway, without anyone to provide significant opposition.
Two out of Tennessee Tech, Eastern Kentucky, and Tennessee State could be playing on the OVC Tournament’s opening day
Think about it: these three teams are the only teams in the league currently with eight or more wins, but if Belmont and Morehead State are as good as expected, two of these teams will, mathematically, fall to the fifth and sixth seeds. (Reminder: the West winner will be automatically given a double-bye as well.) All three teams have have encouraging starts to their years, and all three fanbases have to think they have a legitimate chance to break up a potential Belmont-Morehead State power struggle.
If they can’t — they might be seeing the back end of the OVC’s current tournament structuring.