Last year, someone finally broke up the Belmont / Murray State dominance. Heading into last season, only the Racers and Bruins had won their divisions, and the OVC tournament title. But last year, two teams put a stop, UT Martin winning the West, while Austin Peay made the most improbable OVC Tournament run to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Hope everyone enjoyed last season.
…because we’re going back to the way things were. My predictions for the 2016-17 season begin with the media’s favorite to win the league.
1. Belmont will be better on defense this year
The Bruins, by their standards at least, were terrible defensively in 2015-16, which is the biggest reason behind their inconsistency throughout the season, and their OVC Tournament loss in Nashville. You think head coach Rick Byrd is going to let that happen in back-to-back seasons? Dylan Windler and Evan Bradds will lead the Bruins rejuvenated defense following a year the Bruins finished in the bottom-100 nationally in defensive efficiency. (Their worst season since 2002)
2. …which is why they’ll win the top overall seed in the OVC Tournament
We know the Bruins can, and will, score. They scored at will against virtually everyone last season — they just couldn’t stop anyone. That changes this year, and will make the Bruins a more consistent strength in the conference, which will help them win out over a 16 game season.
3. Evan Bradds will be named the OVC player of the year
…and not just because he’ll be the best player on the best team. It’s because he’ll be the best player. He led the nation (!) in effective Field Goal percentage (eFG%) last year, and while the Bruins don’t have Craig Bradshaw anymore, the Bruins will hit more than enough threes to keep teams from being able to double Bradds in the paint.
4. Murray State won’t have a dominant leader, but that’s okay
Murray State fans are very high on Tulane transfer Jonathan Stark, a 6’0 junior who sat out last season due to his transfer. The issue is that the Racers are extremely deep in the backcourt, with Stark joining Racer returnees Damarcus Croaker, Bryce Jones, and Gee McGhee. There’s only so many minutes to go around, and both Croaker and Jones showed flashes of great play last season. There’s no clear No. 1 in Murray, which makes it harder to single one out for the league’s top individual award.
5. Either Austin Peay or UT Martin won’t make the OVC Tournament
The Governors and Skyhawks broke through where others have not — with UT Martin winning the West, and Austin Peay winning the OVC Tournament. This year one of those teams won’t be making a trip to Nashville in March.
6. The Skyhawks will fall. It won’t be Anthony Stewart’s fault
Poor Anthony Stewart. The Skyhawks head coach is in an unenviable position — this isn’t a guy that made a conscious choice to take over a struggling program to get his foot in the door, so-to-speak. This more fell in his lap. Now, he’s an interim coach (which may or may not be a year-long interview for the job, being the school doesn’t have a full-time Athletic Director at the moment, so there’s no way to tell) who is taking over a team that lost their three top scorers. It could be long season in Martin
7. Southeast Missouri will jump the Skyhawks to make the OVC Tournament
Let’s call last year a mulligan. A terrible, no good, very bad mulligan. But Rick Ray‘s second year should be much more prosperous. The Redhawks return Antonius Cleveland, (BONUS PREDICTION: Cleveland will be an all-OVC first teamer this season) and Joel Angus III, which make a great inside-outside combo. Last year’s disaster had as much to do with what happened off the court as what happened on it. That trouble should be in their past, and this team has too much talent not to finish in the top-8.
8. Jacksonville State won’t finish last in the East
Ray Harper is in a better position in his first year in Jacksonville than former head coach James Green was in his final season. The Gamecocks return their top three scorers from a season ago in the hands of a head coach who never finished under .500 in any of his seasons with the Hilltoppers. (Harper was 11-8 after taking over his first season, despite the team finishing 16-19) This is a team with experienced talent combined with an experienced head coach. They’re not finishing last.
9. …in fact, they’ll finish ahead of two teams: Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee Tech
I love the energy that Dan McHale brings to the conference and to the Colonels, but I just don’t see the firepower on this roster. It’s very young: eight guys are freshman or sophomore, and only one senior (that has seen significant playing time) returns for the Colonels. It’s a similar story for Steve Payne‘s Golden Eagles: replacing Torrence Rowe and Ryan Martin will be no easy task.
10. SIUE won’t be as bad as you think
They’re not going to be contenders, but the Cougars. CJ Carr is the only departure of real note for Jon Harris‘ squad, and the backcourt of Carlos Anderson and Burak Eslik has the potential to be strong. Their defense has to get better this season, but SIUE will be more competitive against the conference as a whole this season.
11. Eastern Illinois and Austin Peay will both finish 7-9 in conference
The East shall continue to rise over the West. And Eastern Illinois will continue to perplex and confuse fans of all schools about whether they’re actually any good.
Austin Peay was really an 8-8 team last season, that caught fire at the right time. It’s hard to make that fire last four days. It’s much harder to make it last four months.
12. Morehead State will (finally!) learn how to defend without fouling.
Because, after four seasons of being in the bottom of the nation in defensive free-throw rate, after losing an OVC Tournament game in which their opponent shot 20 more free-throws than them, at some point Sean Woods will stop figuratively banging his head against a wall and realize you can’t win consistently this way. Not in 2016, not with the rules being so anti-contact to begin with.
I have zero reason for believing this. But, seriously dude, can you please make this one adjustment? Just this one time?
CORRECTION: Morehead State will continue their impressive streak of fouling more than almost any other team in the nation for a fifth consecutive year.
13. Tennessee State will win a lot of games, but never seriously threaten to win the East in Dana Ford’s final year in Nashville
I would be shocked to see Dana Ford at the helm of Tennessee State in 2017-18. That’s because the Tigers will put up another winning season behind a stable of senior talent, and Ford’s amazing quick turnaround of the program will put him on the radar of larger schools.
As for this season? The Tigers defense will continue to carry the team, but the Tigers don’t have the scorers to compete with the Belmont’s and Murray State’s of the conference. That unbalance will land TSU in that 10-6 conference record range, a few wins below the Bruins in the East’s final standings.
14. The top two seeds will make the OVC Tournament final in Nashville
Cinderella does not make a repeat stop in Nashville. In fact — the only team that will win two games will be the conference champions
15. Belmont will edge the Racers for the crown
Murray State and Belmont will be clear step above the rest of their divisions, and both will win their respective divisions by at least two games. There won’t be any surprises in Nashville either — the Bruins and Racers will return to being the clear class of the OVC and meet in the tournament final. All things being equal (and I think the two teams will be rather equal) — I’m betting on the Rick Byrd led team in a one-game winner-take-all scenario.
16. 2 to 2.5 these predictions will actually be right
…and I’ll act like the others never happened.