paper tiger n.
One that is seemingly dangerous and powerful but is in fact timid and weak.
We’re into the second month of the season right now, and the best record in the conference is currently owned by Tennessee State. The Tigers are one of four teams with seven or more wins; this from the same program that has combined for seven wins against Division I competition in the past two seasons.
Make no mistake, TSU 7-2 record should be celebrated. The Tigers are on a five-game win streak, and are likely favorites Thursday night when they face cross-town Lipscomb at home.
So, why would I call them a paper tiger? Here are the Ken Pom rankings for TSU’s five wins against Division I opponents:
- Loyola MD (271st)
- Kennesaw State (331st)
- Stetson (308th) — twice
- Grambling State (350th)
Now it’s very much worth noting that TSU hasn’t exactly been a lock against teams with similar Ken Pom rankings over the past two years: Against teams in the bottom 100 (ranks 251-351), the Tigers went a combined 5-10 between 2013-14 and 2014-15. 5-0 this year is much better. Their two losses are, also, respectable: Ohio (ranked 148th) and Middle Tennessee. (Ranked 123rd)
When you look at the East Division, five teams are above .500. (compared to none in the West) But it’s mathematically improbably that all five teams can finish above .500 in conference, unless they can earn a near-sweep of the West. (Which may or may not be out of the question…) And it’s possible that one of those teams might miss out on a trip to Nashville as a result.
So, the question in the headline is simple: which team is most likely to stumble once conference play begins?
Spoiler: I don’t think it’s Tennessee State
Strength of schedule is still rather fluid, but three of those five teams currently rank last in SOS — one of which is a change from when we last looked two weeks ago.
One note about the chart below, I’ve taken out non-Division I wins, which don’t really count:
|Team||Record vs D-I||SOS Rank (Conf.)||Change Since Dec. 4|
|Austin Peay||3-7||65th (1)||+50|
|Morehead State||4-3||76th (3)||+222|
|Murray State||4-5||95th (4)||+14|
|Eastern Illinois||2-6||178th (8)||-51|
|Jacksonville State||1-9||292nd (9)||-83|
|Tennessee Tech||5-4||293rd (10)||+49|
|Eastern Kentucky||7-4||322nd (11)||+21|
|Tennessee State||6-2||340th (12)||-120|
- The East looks a bit more tame when you take out non-DI wins for a simple reason: they have seven to the West’s three. No team has lost a regular season game against a non-Division I opponent.
- Morehead State’s SOS has skyrocketed in large part due to their last two opponents: Indiana (26th) and Pittsburgh (27th). The Eagles best win remains at St. Louis (191st).
- TSU’s schedule is the weakest in the OVC, but it will get stronger over the next few weeks, with Western Carolina (195th) Davidson (64th) and Green Bay (160th) as upcoming opponents. Only the game against Davidson is on the road.
- EKU’s schedule still has one heavyweight on it: West Virginia (15th). But it surrounded by two teams in the bottom-100 of Ken Pom rankings in East Tennessee State (253rd) and Manhattan (292nd)
- Tennessee Tech’s super-heavyweight bout comes in five days when they travel to Iowa. (13th) They have just one other non-conference game left, against Miami OH (209th)
- All four of Belmont’s losses are against teams in the top-75: Arizona State (51st), Evansville (63rd), BYU (71st) and Valparaiso (30th). Their best win? At Marquette (76th) It’s safe to leave them off the paper tiger list.
So, that’s the five teams that are all above .500 in the East. Assuming the West Division can find four teams to get to 7-9 or maybe 6-10 in conference play, (again…not a given, but they will beat up on each other some) one of these teams doesn’t go to Nashville this year.Baring injury, it’s not going to be the Bruins. But, I could make a case for each of the other four teams falling short:
In three of their five wins this year, the Eagles have been held below 65 points. Tempo is a big reason why: this year’s Eagles play more like a team from the Donnie Tyndall days than the Sean Woods era to this point. One thing that hasn’t changed? The fouls. Oh the fouls.
The offense isn’t quite there, either, struggling with shooting and turnovers, but their insane rate of offensive rebounding has made up the difference. Keep Morehead to one shot, you’ve have a good chance to shut down the offense. Of course, most teams haven’t done that.
Their “best” win is against a 5-4 St. Louis team that just fell at home again to a struggling UT Martin squad. (Although, rankings aside, that Marshall win is looking a lot better, given their recent performances against EIU and EKU)
All in all, the Eagles look pretty strong. Only three teams have a better ranking than St. Louis, and one of them is Morehead.
Chance they fall out of the OVC Tournament: 2%. You basically have to assume the Eagles will stop rebounding. Based on their history under Woods, that’s not a good bet.
Let’s actually put the SOS aside for a second: at this point, you can only play the teams on the schedule, and they’ve done quite well. Their defense is above average (against mostly below average offenses, but that statement describes a lot of the OVC) they’re a strong rebounding team, and they’re shooting 76.5% from the free-throw line. Looking for weaknesses? Turnovers, and fouls. (That sounds familiar…)
Schedule wise, TSU catches a break: They get Murray State and Austin Peay at home, who currently rank 1 and 2 in the West. (We’re turning back the clock)
Sure, they haven’t been “tested” but they performed well even in their two losses. Three of their seven wins came on the road, and a fourth was a neutral court.
Chance they fall out of the OVC Tournament: 18%. Recent history may not play to their favor. But they’ve played well enough, consistently, to think they’ve got a chance to stay competitive in the West.
We can talk all day about how fun EKU is to watch, and how their 42.5% three-point percentage is great. But why is a team that shoots so well only ranked 95th in offensive efficiency? We’re not even to the defense, which is really good at forcing turnovers, and not a whole lot else.
Let’s assume their 24-point loss to Marshall was more of a glitch. The Colonels have still held just three teams under 80 points, which isn’t so good. And their three-point percentage has been dropping as of late.
Even more concerning: the Colonels are just 1-3 on the road, with that win being by just three points against a not-so-good Savannah State team. Of course, EKU also has a quality win against Ball State at home.
A team that struggles defensively and make a lot of jump shots is rarely consistent. On their good days, EKU can beat anyone in the conference. On their bad, they can lose to just about anyone.
Chance they fall out of the OVC Tournament: 20%. EKU’s first five conference games are against the West. If the Colonels win at least three, their odds of missing at are cut in half.
TTU has just one road win – at Lipscomb. They’re not particularly great on either end of the ball statistically, and somehow their opponents have only shot 60% from the free-throw line this season. None of their wins at home is particularly strong, with their best coming in overtime against Jackson State. (213th)
But they’ve beaten the teams they should have beaten. They’re still getting to the free-throw line, and hitting an insane 71% from the line. They do the little things well, like protecting the basketball.
Have they done anything impressive? No. But they’ve done enough to win seven of their first 11 games.
Chance they fall out of the OVC Tournament: 25%. Their first conference road swing will be telling: at Murray State, Austin Peay, then UT Martin.
Chance all five teams make the OVC Tournament (meaning only three make it out of the West): 35%.
Maybe I buried the lead a little.
Sure, we can argue about paper tigers in the East. But the West is….
Well, it’s not very good right now. For the four teams above, I’m mostly parcing apart wins: which wins really matter, which one’s don’t. But at least they’re beating teams. This is an actual list of teams against which teams in the West Division have lost:
- at home vs Bethune Cookman (336th – UTM)
- at UT Rio Grande Valley (342nd – SEMO)
- at Alabama A&M (267th – SEMO)
- at home vs Campbell (264th – SIUE)
Maybe I buried the lead a little.
Under this scenario, I only need three teams that don’t get to seven wins. SEMO looks like a strong candidate. While SIUE’s win against Southern Illinois is quite impressive, they still rank in the bottom 100 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. (Despite a weaker than average SOS)
Let’s assume those two teams miss the tournament. How much confidence do you have that all three of Austin Peay, UT Martin, and Eastern Illinois are 7-9? (Generally speaking, 7-9 is a good bet to get in to the tournament. 6-10 is likely on the bubble.) No matter what the SOS, those three teams are a combined 11-21 at this point in the season. Can all three really get to seven wins in conference, knowing that one or two will likely lose to SEMO or SIUE?
We’re still a few weeks from conference play, and things will continue to shake out. But if you’re asking me today — which teams are the most likely to miss out on Nashville. I’d think long and hard before putting a fourth team from the West over the fifth best team in the East.