While I decided to take a, let’s call it a “hiatus,” the OVC went out and had the best opening night in the conference’s recent history.
Since then…things haven’t gone so well for some of the conference. Here’s our first Power Rankings of the 2016-17 season.
1. Tennessee State (5-0)
Not only is TSU the only remaining OVC undefeated, they’ve done it without winning a single game at home. This is a team led by their defense, and it they can keep it rolling, it may be a refreshing change for the top-tier of the conference in recent years. Ford, which as a reminded had to bring in 12 new guys his first year in Nashville, has his most experienced squad yet, with seniors like Tahjere McCall, Jordan Reed, and Wayne Martin leading the Tigers charge.
This team reminds me of the 2011-12 Racers in the way they play: I’m not sure they have an NBA guy on the roster like that team, but this team will pressure you into turnovers, and offensively there are three or four guys all capable of having that “big night.” I’m not saying the Tigers are going to rise to that level, but this team bears a strong resemblance to one of the OVC’s best ever.
2. UT Martin (5-1)
The Skyhawks have won five straight, despite struggling mightily in the turnover department. They came back from 16 points down on Wednesday to get, probably, their best win of the season so far against Duquesne, and we can’t forget that the season started with the Skyhawks taking Ole Miss to wire. Like TSU above, the Skyhawks wins aren’t against top-100 level competition, but wins are wins, especially on the road. This team is a lot different from last year; they’re not going to run the shot clock down on you on every possession. This team wants to run, and they’ve got shooters like Jacobly Mobley and Matthew Butler that can make you pay in their transition game.
3. Belmont (1-2)
Okay, so Belmont’s 1-2 — if your team played Vanderbilt and Florida, you’d probably have two losses too. We all know how talented Evan Bradds is, but there are a few questions about the rest of the roster. The Bruins are shooting just 31% from three-point range this season, usually their bread-and-butter, (Taylor Barnette, especially, hasn’t found his shot on this your season, hitting 5-27 from deep) and they haven’t found a second consistent scorer. Once the Bruins get past #23 Rhode Island on Friday, the Bruins gets s little chance to breathe, with two games against Lipscomb within a week of each other.
if your team played Vanderbilt and Florida, you’d probably have two losses too.
4. Murray State (2-3)
The Racers have two very good wins against Illinois State and Green Bay, but they missed a few opportunities to really pad their non-conference resume. Jonathan Stark is showing he has the talent to be one of the best players in the league, and guys like Bryce Jones and Damarcus Croaker are good compliments. One minor issue: the Racers simply aren’t getting to the free-throw line, and their -4.6 rebounding margin per game is very un-Racer-like.
5. Eastern Illinois (3-2)
Ah, the offensively challenged Panthers. How some things never seem to change. That being said — the Panthers defense is creating an insane amount of turnovers through their first five game: they rank 7th best in the nation currently in defensive turnover percentage. The bad news is –it’s going to be much harder to force 20+ turnovers against better competition. The “best” team they played is St. Louis, ranked 255th in KenPom. Their schedule never really ramps up: there’s not a single team on the Panthers schedule ranked in the top-100 of KenPom, and only two in the top-150 until conference play begins.
6. Eastern Kentucky (2-4)
During the Jeff Neubauer era, EKU’s non-conference schedules tended to trend more towards the “how many wins can we rack up” end of the spectrum rather than the “let’s challenge ourselves” end. This year…has been the opposite of that. All four of EKU’s losses are against top-125 teams in KenPom rankings, and their two wins aren’t anything to scoff at. The Colonels don’t have the shooters they had last year, which is noteworthy, but it’s hard to ignore that Nick Mayo is averaging just shy of 20 points a game.
7. Austin Peay (3-2)
The two neutral courts wins at the Tarkett Sports Classic are encouraging for the Governors, and the team has adjusted to play without Chris Horton quite well: they’re still able to get penetration on offense, they’re still getting to the free-throw line; it’s not been the three-point fest that head coach Dave Loos hinted they might have to become. (Which is good, because Jared Savage hasn’t been OVC-Tournament-en-fuego through the first five games) Defensively is where they’ve really felt Horton’s loss — they’re struggling to keep teams out of the paint, and their rebounding numbers are not good. After a out with non-Division I Spalding on Sunday, things get rough: a home and home with Fort Wayne (that team that just beat Indiana) — and then Indiana later in December.
8. Jacksonville State (2-3)
Jacksonville State’s only home game of the season has been their most recent win against Dalton State — and they don’t play another one until CONFERENCE PLAY. In January. This is, without question, the worst fan friendly non-conference schedule I’ve ever, ever, EVER seen.
It’s tough, though. The Tulsa win to start the season looks decent after the Golden Hurricane win over Oregon State, and they competed well on the road against a good Western Kentucky team. The next four games will be a bit telling: all four are winnable, but, as previously established, they’re all on the road.
This is, without question, the worst fan friendly non-conference schedule I’ve ever, ever, EVER seen.
9. Southeast Missouri (3-2)
We’re two weeks into the year, and the Redhawks are already more than halfway to their win total from last year! I said it in my Redhawks preview: the schedule was friendly in the first month, and for the most part SEMO has taken advantage. Next month is a little less friendly: the Redhawks go to Indiana, have a home and home with Missouri State, and travel to DePaul. Antonius Cleveland is off to a decent start this year — but I think he has another gear we haven’t seen yet this year.
10. Morehead State (2-2)
This ranking isn’t completely about the “now,” — it’s about the Eagles murky near-term future. Things may be getting worse for the Eagles they get better; Morehead State faces Pitt and Purdue in their next three games, and we don’t really know what’s going on with the paid suspension of head coach Sean Woods. If the reports are to be believed, it’s not good news, and I’m not certain Woods survives it…not to mention if the players petitioning for transfer are granted immediate eligibility, and leave midseason.
On the court, things are as they always have been: The Eagles are forcing turnovers, but even more fouls. Offensively they can rebound, which is needed, because they’re not a great shooting team. So…more or less the same thing we’ve seen every season through the Sean Woods era.
11. SIUE (2-3)
Boy, that 2-0 start already seems like a distant memory. The Cougars defense has fallen apart in their last three games, most notably when allowing 101 points against a good, but not great, Southern Illinois squad. Offensively, it’s a mixed bag: the team can shoot the three, but has zero interior presence.
As weird as this sounds, this sounds like progress. Minor, quite inconsistent progress, but progress is progress. The most encouraging thing to me is the young talent the Cougars appear to have. Tre Harris is a great shooter who I can’t imagine will keep coming off the bench all season, and Christian Ellis is showing strong form for a freshman.
12. Tennessee Tech (1-4)
The East still looks quite strong this year: Belmont is, well, Belmont; Tennessee State looks like the best contender to the Bruins since Belmont joined the league, EKU appears on the rise. Tennessee Tech doesn’t appear to be joining that party.
We’ve focused a lot in this Power Rankings on strength of schedule, and TTU has played three teams in the top 200 of KenPom’s rankings. But the defense is an issue, as is the team’s 26.8% three-point shooting. (Why is it always feast or famine for Tech in this department?) The Golden Eagles will rack up some more wins before conference play: they still have two non-DI teams, they play an Alabama A&M team again they beat by 34, and they have a home and home with Lipscomb. But they’ve got some growing to do if they’re going to be competitive in league play.