We’re six-months away from the tip-off of the 2016-17 season, but that’s never stopped us before from looking ahead to next season. This summer, we’re renewing our ridiculously early look at the Ohio Valley Conference, starting with an overview of the conference.
Depending on your perspective, the OVC both took a step forward and a step backward last season. On one level, Austin Peay’s postseason run, and the general parity of the league throughout the year, made for an exciting conference race and great local storylines. But on a larger scale, the top of the league proved less competitive against the mid-major top tier, and March upsets left the conference with a terrible NCAA Tournament matchup.
Some of this was expected. One of the league’s perennial contenders, Murray State, lost a first-round NBA draft pick and their head coach in the summer before. Only one of the five members of the OVC first team, and two of the second team returned from the season before. In all, four new coaches had just taken over programs, representing one-third of the league.
But not everything could have been predicted. Belmont’s brought back the majority of their conference championship-winning team from the year before, and while they repeated as conference champions, their path, and their defense, was much choppier than many thought it would be. The coaching change in Cape Girardeau ended with more suspensions than wins, and that magical run over four days in Nashville may not be repeated in our lifetimes.
We can’t see the future, but here’s why we’re a bit bearish on the upcoming season.
On a larger scale, the top of the league proved less competitive against the mid-major top tier
Where has all the talent gone?
It’s no surprise that the majority of the league top players would be seniors, but once again, more than two-thirds of the league’s (now expanded) all-conference teams aren’t coming back to the OVC next season. Just three of the 10 players on the OVC’s first-team, (Evan Bradds, [pictured above] Tahjere McCall, and Nick Mayo) and one of the five on the second-team (Josh Robinson) are expected to be back with their respective teams next season, and they’re spread between four different teams. It’s great for parity, but not a great sign that the league can be dominant against mid-major teams.
Uncertainty in the West
Since the Division split, the East has seemingly been the deeper division each year, and that could be the case again. Murray State is losing their senior leader and had little depth last season. This year’s ‘division leader,’ UT Martin, has a new untested head coach with a year-long interim tag, amidst an administration shuffle. Austin Peay’s head coach, wildly thought (by the general public, at least) to be coaching his last games in March, enters yet another season in the final year of a contract. Neither new coach in the West showed signs of an immediate turnaround.
That leaves Eastern Illinois, a team that has had one winning season since 2010, as the most ‘stable’ team in the division.
It’s not that the West will be bad. There’s just not a lot of reason, six months out from the season, to expect any team to be great.
Belmont likely to remain the class of the league, with one major caveat
The best player in the league (Bradds) returns to the best team in the league, and that’s reason enough to pick Belmont to win the OVC, as if we really need a good reason given their history. But there is some question about who will replace Bradshaw. He wasn’t just a shot taker, Bradshaw was second on the team in assists, had more than double the steals of any other Bruin, and got to the free-throw line more than twice as often as the next best guard. Taylor Barnette was almost exclusively a jump-shooter last season (202 of his 272 shots were three-point attempts) and Austin Luke, who will certainly run the point, averaged just six points a game. Can Belmont’s offense be successful running through only Bradds?
Can the OVC remain strong mid-pack?
Despite not having a ‘dominant’ team, the OVC finished 22nd overall (out of 32 conferences) in KenPom’s conference ratings, the fifth straight season the conference finished outside the bottom-10. For such a small conference, it’s significant to see this consistent level of success.
One reason the conference was able to sustain their ranking last season is because the middle of the conference was so strong. Six teams (Belmont, Morehead State, Tennessee State, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, and UT Martin) finished the year inside the KenPom top-200, the most in one-year since the 2004-05 season. Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay were 202nd and 206th, respectively.
It’s been a theme throughout this article, but that kind of parity, historically, is rare in the OVC.
I ruffled some feathers last year when I suggested that the conference’s defense in the 2014-15 season wasn’t very good.
Compared to the numbers for this season, though, that season was fan-tastic.
In the 2015-16 season, just two teams (Tennessee State and Morehead State) finished the season ranked in the top-200 in Defensive Efficiency. That matches the 2012-13 season, a year that featured current NBA players like Isaiah Canaan, Ian Clark, and Robert Covington.
There were not three NBA-caliber players in the OVC last season.
The OVC has historically trended towards offense over defense, which is typical among smaller conferences, given the general talent pool available to smaller schools. But as has been established in the past, teams with great defense have typically had more success in March than teams without great defenses.
It’s time for the OVC to have a great defense again. It’s past due, in fact.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll go more in-depth into the league next season, looking at the schools, impact players, and any rule changes that could be heading our way. (It’s an off year for major rule changes, but tweaks for ‘player safety’ are still possible.)
Is there something you want to see this summer? Let me know in the comments!