Conference play really begins to heat up on Saturday, so no better time for our first Power Rankings of the season.
1. Tennessee State (9-3)
There hasn’t been an OVC defense that finished the season ranked in the top-100 nationally in defensive efficiency since the 2012-13 season. That streak will almost certainly end with this team, this year; TSU is currently ranked 49th. They can guard the three-point line. They can force turnovers. They can guard inside. About the only thing they can’t do is do all that without fouling; if those numbers come down, the Tigers defense could rank, statistically, as one of the conference’s best in recent memory.
Wayne Martin is a legitimate candidate for conference player of the year. He’s averaging a double-double this year (12.3 points, 10.1 rebounds) even though he averages just 29 minutes a contest. Tahjere McCall is one of the league’s best defensive players, averaging nearly 3 steals a contest.
If there’s going to be a year for the Tigers to win the OVC, this has to be it. The Tigers top three scorers (Jordan Reed McCall and Martin) are seniors.
2. Belmont (6-4)
This is where things already get quite a bit hard. Yes, already. This year’s Bruins’ team is the most flawed I can remember in recent history, lacking a serious true three-point threat to run their three-point heavy offense, (yet they’re taking more than ever, despite having Evan Bradds inside) and their record, on face, seems lacking.
The Bruins schedule only makes their true place even more puzzling. Belmont is 0-4 against teams in the top-75, and 6-0 against teams ranked 225 or higher. They haven’t played a team in-between those two marks, where OVC contenders like Tennessee State, Jacksonville State, and Murray State live.
Belmont’s defense, a weak-point a season ago, does appear quite improved this year. Other than their lack of turnovers, the Bruins are quite effective at keeping teams from scoring, which can be help carry the team on nights their shots aren’t dropping.
3. Jacksonville State (8-7, 1-0 OVC)
How are we feeling about Ray Harper, Gamecock fans? Harper never had a sub-500 team during his time at Western Kentucky (other than his interim season) and it’s looking like he could keep that streak alive at Jacksonville State.
The Gamecocks are still a work-in-progress, but as they showed in their conference opener against UT Martin, when they’re on, they can challenge just about anyone, despite not having a “go-to” on offense. It’s all about the balance: guys like Erik Durham (46-82 from three-point range, 56%) and Malcolm Drumwright (28-62, 45%) can challenge teams on the perimeter. Greg Tucker isn’t shooting the ball as well, but he’s shown he can get hot as well. Inside, Christian Cunningham is shooting 68.8% from the field.
If they beat Eastern Illinois Saturday, it may be time to start putting JSU in the East title discussion.
4. Eastern Illinois (8-5)
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite a strong showing early, our first West Division team doesn’t come until fourth on the list, and if you’ve been reading this season, the first team off the list may be a surprise.
I still think EIU’s non-conference schedule was incredibly weak, and I still think Murray State may win the division at the end of the day. (Although that margin may be closer than I initially thought) But the Panthers have one thing the Racers and Skyhawks don’t: momentum. EIU has won three of their last four, including a win at Missouri, (who everyone seems to be beating) with their only loss coming in double overtime against a talented Indiana State squad on the road.
They’re going to be a difficult team for opponents majorly for one reason: they force a lot of turnovers, 9th most by percentage nationally. Ray Crossland is a big reason for this success, netting three or more steals in five of the Panthers 13 contests. (And an amazing six against Western Illinois) Four other Panthers have double-digit steals this season as well.
5. Murray State (6-8)
The last few weeks haven’t been kind in Racer land. Murray State hasn’t beaten a Division I team since December 3rd, and don’t have a single two-game winning streak this season. Conference play starts out tough: hosting Tennessee State, and traveling to a surging Jacksonville State team.
If this team is going to return to the top of the West, their defense is going to have to get better. A lot better, especially on the interior. The Racers defense really helps drive an offense that can struggle in the half-court.
Murray State hasn’t beaten a Division I team since December 3rd, and don’t have a single two-game winning streak this season
Simply put, Jonathan Stark can’t do it alone. Terrell Miller may be the Robin to Stark’s Batman, but there’s not really a strong third option. Defenses can do a lot to make it hard on two guys, but not usually three, and they need more consistent play from guys like Bryce Jones or Brian Sanchious (who is averaging 3.5 points and 4.4 rebounds a game…as a starter)
6. UT Martin (10-6, 0-1 OVC)
I may be suffering from a bit of recency bias, but the Skyhawks lackluster second half against the Gamecocks raises a few questions about UT Martin. Is their defense really that bad? Can they score effectively out of the half-court?
On paper, the Skyhawks have one top-200 win, but that came against a Canisius team that probably actually wasn’t that good when they played. Take out that game, and UT Martin is 0-3 against other 100-200 ranked teams, with a 15-point average margin of defeat — and two of those games were on their home floor!
The Skyhawks have nice offensive pieces in Jacolby Mobley, Kedar Edwards, and Matthew Butler, but 79 points don’t do you any good if you allow 80.
7. Eastern Kentucky (7-8)
Three weeks ago, I though the Colonels might be a dark-horse to challenge in the East Division, due to a spectacular November offensively. That offense has soured a bit since then. EKU’s last Division I win came way back on December 7th, and since then they provided Norfolk State their only D-I win of the year.
It’s worth remembering, this is a young team. They’re led by a sophomore (Nick Mayo) and a freshman, (Asante Gist) so there’s probably going to be some more ups and downs than most OVC teams. If they can keep it all together, though, the next two seasons could be quite bright.
8. Southeast Missouri (5-10)
The Redhawks have already match last year’s win total, and it’s not even New Year’s yet!
Sadly, SEMO is entering conference play on a down-note. The Redhawks have lost seven of their last eight, with their only win coming against a non-Division I team. Defense has been an issue: Southeast is allowing more than 77-points a game over that same stretch. Another issue: Opponents are shooting better than 40% from three-point range against them on the year.
The Redhawks offense has improved from last season. Now they just need the defense to match.
9. Morehead State (4-9)
The good news is that the Eagles have won two of their last three, in games where they put up 111 and 120 points, their second and third triple-digit performances of the season. Opponents aside, that’s impressive.
The bad news is that the Eagles defense (are you noticing a trend here, by the way?) isn’t impressive. Division I opponents are shooting 42.2% against Morehead State from three-point range, and the Eagles still haven’t broken that terrible fouling tendency they’ve had over the last four years.
10. SIUE (5-9)
It’s almost weird to think SIUE was, at one point this year, 4-3, with wins over IUPUI (ranked 160th) and Grand Canyon. (Ranked 166th) Since then? The Cougars are 1-6, with bad losses to Stetson by 8, (ranked 306th) St. Louis by 14 (ranked 300th) and a non-Division I team, in a game where the Cougars put up just 44 points.
So, if November SIUE makes another appearance, they could be a good team. If December SIUE continues their roll…well, the players will have some extra free-time in March.
It’s almost weird to think SIUE was, at one point this year, 4-3
11. Tennessee Tech (4-11)
Tennessee Tech has two Division I wins, against the same team: Alabama A&M.
…Alabama A&M is 0-11, and just two of those losses were by less than 15! One of those was to TTU.
Unlike a lot of other teams on this list, it’s really hard to point to one area that the Golden Eagles are struggling in. They’re not a great three-point shooting team. (32% on the year vs. Division I teams) They foul more than they should, their defense isn’t great, they turn the ball over too much. Alone, none of these things is deadly. Together? You have a team that struggles to post more than 70 points in a game, and can’t hold teams under that number.
It also doesn’t help that they play in the East.
12. Austin Peay (4-10)
Eight straight losses is bad. Giving up more than 95 points in seven of those losses? I’m not sure if there’s a word strong enough to describe impressive(ly awful) that is. The Governors aren’t defending. They’re not rebounding. They’re not forcing turnovers. It’s not a pretty picture.
So, are there bright points for the Governors? Josh Robinson is quite good. He probably won’t get a lot of looks for player of the year, unless Austin Peay can turn it around over the next two months, but he’s a one-man scoring machine.
Seriously though, that defense…