We haven’t done in this a month — and the start of conference play is a perfect time. One note: this isn’t my predicted order of finish in the conference. Think of it more as who has the momentum behind them heading into OVC play.
(1) BELMONT (8-6)
Last ranking: 1st
A lot of people expected the Bruins to enter conference play with a better record, but they have, arguably, the two best wins for the conference: at Marquette (106th in KenPom) and at home Monday against Valparaiso. (32nd) Add in narrow losses at Evansville (55th) and at Valpo — Belmont has played incredibly well against, by far, the toughest schedule in the OVC.
But the Bruins also have struggled against OVC level competition: Lipscomb put up 89 and 84 points in their two meetings, and Belmont lost on the road to a 5-8 Cleveland State team — on a day shots just didn’t fall. Bottom line: they’re not good enough defensively to run away from the OVC. No matter how good the offense is, unless the defense gets better, they could be vulnerable (ala Murray State last year) in the conference tournament.
The Bruins do have two near-lock for OVC first-team in Evan Bradds and Craig Bradshaw, and no other duo comes close. They should still be considered favorites to win the conference, but if Belmont takes three or four conference losses along the way, I wouldn’t be surprised either.
(2) UT MARTIN (7-7)
Last ranking: 5th
The Skyhawks will enter OVC play with the best record in the West, and barring a complete meltdown at home against non-Division I Boyce College on Saturday, will head to Eastern Kentucky next week on a six-game winning streak. Three of those wins are road wins, (at UT-Rio Grande Valley, St. Louis, and FAU) which is noteworthy for a team that plays five of their first seven OVC games outside of Martin.
Most surprising for the Skyhawks is the balance: five players are averaging nine points a game or more, three guys average five or more rebounds, four guys have more then 20 assists; this is a team that legitimately playing eight guys on any given night, and has gotten contributions from two more. Their inside play has been better as of late, and is nearing closer to what we expected this summer. The West is seemingly up for grabs — and UT Martin may have their best chance in years of toppling the Racers.
(3) TENNESSEE STATE (9-4)
Last ranking: 7th
Tennessee State entered the season last in our Power Rankings, and now have risen to their highest ranking in three years. They’re also guaranteed to finish the season with their best record in three years — and they’re halfway to their win total from 2012-13, their last winning season.
Two-game losing streak aside, I said a lot this week about TSU’s rise this season — most programs don’t go from where TSU was when Dana Ford took over to where they are now this quickly. They don’t have a premier win from non-conference play — but their play against higher tier schools like Middle Tennessee State and UT has been impressive.
Can they score enough points to get over .500 in conference play? If they can reduce turnovers on the offensive side of the ball, their defense could carry them into contention in the crowded East Division.
(4) MOREHEAD STATE (6-6)
Last ranking: 3rd
I wanted to put Morehead State higher on this list — but they enter OVC play by traveling to Murray State on Saturday having lost five of their last six. If they leave Murray with a win — it could be a major jump start for a team with a real chance to finally topple Belmont in the East Division, and possible win an OVC title.
In their recent losing streak, the Eagles defense has been a bit more suspect. At first — it was easy to blame the opposition: Indiana, (26th in KenPom) Pittsburgh (24th) and Davidson. (94th) But the defense couldn’t contain T.J. Cromer last night against East Tennessee State — and struggled shooting from three, and the free-throw line.
One thing that’s not struggling: rebounding. Morehead State is averaging 15 offensive rebounds a game, and is plus-70 in rebounds for the season.
(5) TENNESSEE TECH (8-5)
Last ranking: 6th
Yes, TTU has lost three of four, and they weren’t close losses — but all three loses were against top-100 teams, and TTU has protected home court this year, and won six straight earlier in the year. Of course — the Golden Eagles didn’t lose a home non-conference game last year, either, and went 4-4 in Cookeville in OVC play.
The schedule sets up in their favor through the first month: they host a struggling EIU and SIUE (meaning they don’t have to make the “new Death Valley” road swing) before traveling to Murray, AP, and UTM — three teams that haven’t quite figured it out, but might. Anything short of the OVC Tournament would be a major disappointment this year.
For the third straight year — Tennessee Tech just isn’t a three-point threat: they haven’t shot 33% as a team or better since the 2012-13 season.
(6) EASTERN KENTUCKY (9-6)
Last ranking: 5th
EKU fans have a lot of reason to be excited: the offense is impressive, Jarelle Reishcel is hitting 51% from three-point range, the Colonels get up and down the court. No team in the OVC is more exciting to watch.
Exciting doesn’t always mean great. Offensive turnovers are an issue — and teams are far too often shooting the lights out against the Colonels, if they avoid turnovers themselves. EKU has lost five of eight after a 6-1 start, and has just one win against a team ranked in the top-275. The don’t have any terrible losses, but their 1-6 road record is a bit concerning. The good news: six of their first nine conference games are in Richmond, giving EKU a good shot at getting off to a good start.
The OVC doesn’t have a lot of great offenses, which could allow EKU to simply outscore a lot of opponents. You can’t write off the Colonels given their ability to score — but they’ll need to get better on the other side of the ball if they want to consistently win over 16 games.
(7) MURRAY STATE (6-7)
Last ranking: 2nd
It took a non-division I opponent to snap the Racers worst losing streak in more than two decades, and the Racers enter OVC play with, statistically, their worst offense since former head coach Billy Kennedy’s first season in Murray — 2006-07, when the Racers finished 16-14. Their long record of straight winning seasons probably isn’t in jeopardy, but their streak of conference or division crowns might be: the Racers have won the West every season since the league was split, and won at least a share of the OVC title the two years before that.
Wayne Langston‘s improved play this year has been a pleasant surprise, and JUCO transfer Bryce Jones is a nice fit in the offense, but a lack of depth and three-point shooting are troublesome. The Racers haven’t broken 80 points in regulation against a Division I opponent, and their defense isn’t spectacular enough to handle that kind of load right now.
If you’re handicapping the West Division, the Racers are probably still narrow favorites: they have three wins against teams ranked in the top-150 of KenPom, (compared to two for the rest of the division combined) and history is still well in their favor.
(8) AUSTIN PEAY (7-8)
Last ranking: 10th
It may be too soon to say Austin Peay is “back,” but the Governors may have their best chance to .500 or better in conference, a feat they haven’t matched since the 2011-12 season. The guard play has been better than expected, Chris Horton is a legitimate OVC player of the year candidate, and at least to this point, the Govs have avoided bad losses — all eight losses came against teams ranked in the top 200 of KenPom.
They also get their first three conference games at home — where the Governors lost twice by a combined seven points in non-conference play.
Much like last season, the defense is a mixed bag: Horton is a enforcer on the inside, but the Governors perimeter defense has been quite soft. For the most part, teams are avoiding the inside, and finding success shooting three’s. The flip-side of that is, Austin Peay hasn’t struggled with fouls, for the most part. Only one team in the West is even “alright” from three-point range, which the Govs might be able to manage that weakness for much of conference play.
(9) SIUE (3-9)
Last ranking: 8th
Much like how I said you can’t judge Dana Ford on his first year at Tennessee State, head coach Jon Harris wasn’t handed the best situation at SIUE. But there’s already a sign of progress: the Cougars won at (rival?) Southern Illinois, their first road win since February 15th…of 2014.
Putting it bluntly: the offensive talent just isn’t there this year. (A lot like TSU last year) C.J. Carr is a solid point guard, but the Cougars don’t have a single three-point shooter that gives teams a reason to do anything but collapse in the lane. That means guards can’t drive, forwards don’t have room to work — and for SIUE, that they don’t score a lot of points.
They’re also playing a bit fast for their offense: they’re mid-pack nationally in possessions per game, and they’d probably benefit, in the short term, from pulling an EIU and slowing down the tempo. Although, I’d be willing to bet Harris is more concerned about developing a long-term strategy.
(10) EASTERN ILLINOIS (3-9)
Last ranking: 9th
Indiana State is a solid mid-major team, who EIU beat in Charleston earlier in the year.
North Carolina Central isn’t, and EIU lost to them just over a week ago on a neutral floor, on a day they put up a season-low 52 points.
The Panthers have the dubious distinction of being one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the nation, allowing opponent to rebound nearly 40% of their misses — and before you decry the transfer of Chris Olivier, it’s worth noting EIU has a similar problem last year. They’re first shot defense isn’t quite as good, at least by the numbers, this season, but it’s mid-pack in the OVC. Only — one-and-done possessions are far too rare.
Lost in the Panthers struggles? Trae Anderson is having a solid senior season.
Hmmm. So after a pretty undesirable non-conference campaign, JSU wraps it up by taking in-state Alabama (who is 8-3, to boot) to overtime on their home floor, outrebound them by four, and nearly overcome a 35 free-shot attempt difference.
I was asked on twitter if this was more of a flash-in-the-pan or an emerging trend, and while I’d love for it to be the latter, there’s not a lot of evidence to support it. Somewhat like EIU, JSU’s defense struggles to finish plays: they defend well against the first shot, but give up way too many rebounds. That free-throw disparity against the Crimson Tide is a trend, and a bad one: the Gamecocks don’t get to the line (because they take far too many long jumpers) and foul far too much.
JSU has always, to a point, felt like a victim of the uneven divisions since the split, but it’s worth noting that last year, the Gamecocks were just 1-5 against the West, and 4-6 against the “tougher” East Division.
(12) SOUTHEAST MISSOURI (2-10)
Last ranking: 12th
After 10 straight losses to start the year, SEMO’s on a two-game win streak entering conference play, and it feels like the Redhawks may have turned a corner. So, of course, they get Belmont, Tennessee State, Morehead State, and Eastern Kentucky to start conference play: and the last two are on the road. (Death Valley!)
So, what are the positives? Well, I’d wager we now have the team that will finish the season (I can’t imagine more suspensions…) and, somehow, the defense is holding opponents to sub-30% three-point shooting, (Which, if it continues, could make today’s game against Belmont somewhat interesting. Maybe.) and they’re no slouches at forcing turnovers. Of course — when you’re shooting 26% from three-point range yourself, and 53% from the free-throw line, it’s a problem.
Four or five wins for the Redhawks isn’t out of the question: the West isn’t exactly running away from them. Hopefully, the lessons Rick Ray is clearly trying to impart on the team this year have long term benefits for the Redhawks.