2012 really isn’t that long ago. The iPhone was already a thing, T-Swizzle was pumping out hits, and the Avengers was a huge hit in theaters. In a lot of ways, not much has changed.
Except in the world of collegiate athletics, five years is a lifetime.
Following the 2011-12 season, things were looking quite rosy in the Ohio Valley. Murray State had just completed a historic season, and with a first-round win over Colorado State marked the fourth straight season the conference earned a win-share in the NCAA Tournament. Belmont, the powerhouse of the Atlantic Sun, was ready to make the jump to the OVC, as the conference swelled to 12 members for the first time in it’s history.
In the summer of 2012, the Ohio Valley Conference distributed the first cash in it’s annualized “Basketball Enhancement Plan,” with the largest share going to the very Racers who had propelled themselves into the national spotlight just months ago.
From almost every point of view, it looked like the OVC was gearing up for a Golden Age of basketball, possibly propelling themselves into a true “mid-major” conference, like the neighboring Missouri Valley had done a decade prior. We’re in the midst of the fifth summer since that very moment.
Not only did the Golden Age never come, the OVC now looks on the precipice of change.
It was virtually impossible to avoid the news of Murray State actively seeking out membership in the Missouri Valley this summer, and while they remain in the OVC for now, you can’t simply choose to ignore the magnitude of the moment. Not with Belmont’s stature always making them the target of expansion rumors, not with SIUE’s soccer program heading to the MAC. The OVC has been by-and-large been the beneficiary of the ever evolving conference landscape across college basketball, but now appears they may be the next target ripe for the picking.
No offense to football fans, but basketball still presents the largest opportunity for the conference’s growth as a whole. One NCAA Tournament win alone is worth nearly $1 million dollars over a six-year span, and no amount of dominance in FCS can match that. That flow of money is how the Basketball Enhancement Plan came to be, and how it still exists today.
But that well is running dry. Without more success on one of the biggest stages of collegiate athletics, that money will go, which means 25, 50, or maybe even $100,000 less for member schools annually. Without more success, the OVC continues to fade into the background, which means a harder sell to sports television networks hungry for inventory, but worried about the ever-increasing cost of licensing, which has, in part, been a huge catalyst in the gutting of major names from networks.
And with less money, the economics of schools moving to another conference become that much more palpable.
In a lot of ways, what the conference is facing as a whole was already faced on a smaller scale in one of it’s own institutions. Just over two years ago, Steve Prohm left a Murray State program he led to it’s best season in history, and a program that churned out two NBA draft picks just years apart. Iowa State was offering much more than the Racers ever could have, and Prohm was stepping into a team that was built to win on that national stage immediately — but ever since that decision, there’s always been a lingering cloud. “What if,” fans would say.
What if Murray State, a 5-loss team that ran undefeated through the OVC up until the tournament finals, got an at-large bid that year? What if the OVC was stronger, and lifted the Racers resume instead of being the weak link? What if Prohm saw another path to success at Murray State, success measured by NCAA Tournament appearances, that could exist through long-term performance, not a short-term must-win blitz? Would it had made a difference? Would Prohm have chosen to stay?
It’s very similar to one thing I asked myself earlier this summer: What if the OVC was better? Would Murray State really be looking to leave the conference they helped found if the conference began winning?
Murray State’s, or Belmont’s, or SIUE’s, or any other school’s exodus from the Ohio Valley Conference may be unstoppable. The college landscape is far from settled: The Big 5 conferences continue to seek autonomy, threatening the future of the NCAA itself; both major and mid-major conferences continue to grow in size; and TV dollars continue to grow at exponential rates, which only widens the gap between the haves and have-nots. Economics, not pride or even success, will be the overwhelming deciding factor for where many institutions ultimately reside, and that’s not a switch that can just be turned on by having a good team, or even a good year.
But success is a starting point for growth, and that’s where the OVC is struggling. It’s also hard to solve.
In theory, the conference’s current OVC Tournament structure, which grants much shorter tournament runs to better teams, should have helped launched their best teams on the biggest stage, but in the past five years just one No. 1 seed won the OVC Tournament. (Belmont, 2013) Since then? A Three-seed, two-seed, eight-seed, and a four-seed have come out of Nashville, and while each were amazing stories at the time, all four put the conference at a distinct disadvantage when hundreds of thousands of dollars relied on a single game. The decision to get rid of divisions, which twice put teams with worse records on the two-seed line, could provide some benefit, but the conference’s No. 1 seed has been one-and-done each of the past two seasons.
One of those lower seeds, in particular, show why the OVC is in an especially rough position. The OVC’s four-year run of NCAA Tournament wins featured three wins in the round of 64, but the first, Morehead State in 2009, came in the “Play-in” game, which would eventually become the “First Four.” When Austin Peay completed their miracle run two seasons ago from the lowest seed in the tournament to champions, many thought they’d be shoe-ins for the First Four, and face a much easier opponent for the same first-round win share that others earn for wins in the Round of 64.
Instead, they were sent to play Kansas, little reward for the Governors nor the OVC.
The fact is that the OVC has improved since 2009. No longer is the OVC regularly ranked amongst the bottom as a league, as regularly happened in Ken Pom’s rankings in the 2000’s, but they’re a regular solid competitor. The conference’s perception isn’t that of a First Four league, even when the lowest possible seed breaks through.
The OVC is too good to be ‘bad,’ but not good enough to be ‘good.’
That’s why I feel this season is an important crossroads for the league. One of your conference’s bellweather programs has been floundering. The new kid on the block has yet to break through. The up-and-comers cause chaos in early March, but then go far too quietly into the night.
This summer showed us that other leagues are always looking to pounce, and no single change is without repercussions that can easily recoil throughout the nation. This summer, a $500,000 payout will remind us that just one win can have a big boost that benefits not just the team involved, but the entire league.
The OVC is too good to be ‘bad,’ but not good enough to be ‘good.’
One NCAA tournament win might not be a salve the cures all woes. But it could be a spark. It could be a moment of respite from the forces, both internal and external, looking to tear the conference apart.
Coaches often lament that their season comes down to one tournament. One four-day stretch that seemingly makes the previous four months meaningless.
For the conference, it comes down to just one day. One game that means so much — too much. One win that could change the future.
This article is meant to serve as a relaunch of sorts for this site. As I’ve mentioned previously, my career path took me out of OVC territory and into the great, sometimes quite cold north where I still currently reside. But after spending two years more-or-less keeping the site in maintenance mode, I’ve decided that I do still love the work I’ve done here, and that I want to continue honing my own craft here.
This will likely be the first of several more long-form articles I write this season, something that doesn’t really exist inside this conference. I’m not in anyway trying to throw shade on the great writing done by many of my friends throughout the league, but due to time and business constraints, they’re generally not given an opportunity to write in the same style as this.
This isn’t even something that will appeal to every Ohio Valley Conference basketball and football fan, but I do know there is a hunger for more. I know that because I’ve felt it myself each of the past two season, trying to follow the sport as best I can from inside the snow globe known as a Buffalo winter.
If you want to support this kind of writing, please consider donating to my Patreon. Running this site does have a financial cost that I’ve paid for several years now, and while I do so happily, I would love any support you’d be willing to offer. (There are even some rewards in it for you.) Anyway, on with the writing.
There’s no ‘correct’ answer about one-and-done
One of the bigger stories coming out of this summer so far was that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would consider changes to the NCAA’s extremely controversial one-and-done rule. Based on his comments, Silver would likely seek eliminate the rule altogether, despite his previous announced intentions to possible extend the rule to require players to be even older.
If you look at the different professional sports, there’s never really been a consensus on how college players should be handled. College baseball players can leave for the Major Leagues straight out of high school, but if they choose to go to college they’re required to remain there for three years. Football players don’t have a choice — it’s three years out of high school before the NFL can come calling. Basketball sits in the middle, without the choice that baseball allows but also without the length of stay that football requires.
Silver was quoted as pointing to the story of Ben Simmons as his reasoning for a change of heart. Simmons, as has been widely reported, essentially ‘quit’ school after his first semester, since his eligibility was no longer of any concern to him. While there’s a lot of debate about whether this is the exception or the rule, but it’s a story that made national headlines; and that is likely more of the impetuous behind this potential change than the actions of Simmons himself.
The problem here is that there are pros and cons to every potential solution. Why not let kids go pro whenever — it’s up to teams to determine whether their ready after all. Except what do you do if that 17-year-old proves to be a bust in two years? Baseball offers a choice, but becomes equally restrictive as football’s rule once you enter college. Why not allow a kid to leave after two years? Is that third year really the difference between a kid finding success in life outside baseball if being a professional doesn’t pan out?
Former Murray State head coach Mick Cronin put it like this. “It hints at racism,” Cronin said to CBS sports. “Basketball players are black. Baseball predominantly white. Just how I see it. Why can one group be trusted to make decisions and the other is being regulated? No matter what the rules, people will make mistakes. That has been proven for both sports.”
Whether or not you agree with the overarching point on racism, the last two sentences of that quotation are spot on. You can’t use rules to protect kids from making mistakes. Some 17-year-olds are going to get decisions about their life spot on. Some 21-year-olds are going to make poor decisions. There’s no perfect rule that can prevent this.
“No matter what the rules, people will make mistakes. That has been proven for both sports.”
From the college sports point of view, there are a lot of people who say getting rid of one-and-done would be a major blow to NCAA basketball, but I find it hard to believe that. How many players are we really talking about this rule change affecting? One dozen? Two? Out of the 352 Division I basketball teams, you’re telling me that we’re going to stop playing because of a few handfuls of players.
And don’t forget, Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, didn’t even lead LSU to the NCAA Tournament that year. But we still watched.
In a lot of ways, that’s the difference between the college and pro games. Nothing is bigger than the players in the NBA. But that’s not the case in college. Coaches get the lion share’s of praise (and blame), and we follow schools because that’s where we were raised, or that’s where we attended. No one player is going to change that.
In a lot of ways, one-and-done has worked for college basketball. It’s kept the sport, which often goes unheard of until January, in the national debate. It helps create great drama at schools like Kentucky and Kansas — and it gives us a foil when they play teams like Creighton, Wichita State, and Butler, whose players grow for years. In a lot of ways, it may have helped create the parity that the college game has today.
But, let’s be honest — these rules aren’t really about protecting students, anyway.
This Weekly List: The Hot Seat
I’m not going to lie, part of me hates doing this — but I do think it always sparks a very interesting discussion: What programs could be looking to take a new direction after this season. I’ll start with the football side of things today, which is mostly positive if I’m being honest, and move on to basketball, which is less so, next week.
As per past seasons, my hot-seat grade goes from 0-10, with a 0 being ‘it’s not happening’ (Unless you’re under investigation for hitting a student-athlete) to 10 being ‘do you need help with those boxes?’
John Grass, Jacksonville State
Hot seat score: 0
Last year’s FCS playoff disappointment aside, Jacksonville State has been the poster child for how to build a powerhouse program over Grass’ tenure. Grass has already been mentioned in the rumor mill as being a candidate for one FBS job in the past year, and I only expect that to continue to grow over the next few years. This could be Grass’ toughest year yet, as he has to find the replacement for Eli Jenkins under center.
Jason Simpson, UT Martin
Hot seat score: 0
Simpson’s Skyhawks haven’t broken through to win a league title since 2006, but his teams are consistently good year-in and year-out; UTM has finished in a tie for 3rd or better each of the past five seasons, but somehow hasn’t earned a single FCS playoff birth during that span. With Chattanooga on UTM’s schedule this year, the Skyhawks could have an opportunity to end that drought with another good season.
Marcus Satterfield, Tennessee Tech
Hot seat score: 0
Until last year’s 5-3 OVC campaign, the Golden Eagles hadn’t been above .500 in league play since 2011. The offense averaged more yards per game since 2012 in Satterfield’s first year, and that’s something that had hit some real low notes in recent years.
Mark Elder, Eastern Kentucky
Hot seat score: 1
It’s only his second season, so it’s probably unfair to even give Elder a 1. But expectations are high at EKU, so high in fact that in his profile on the official EKU website they mention that they’ve won 21 OVC titles before saying anything about him! He still needs time before we can really evaluate him.
Mitch Stewart, Murray State
Hot seat score: 1
It’s actually somewhat hard to fathom that the Racers went 3-1 on the road in league play, beat two top 25-teams…and finished at .500 in the OVC. But, .500 is as good as the Racers have been in the OVC since 2011, and they have a defense, which is new. His deal runs through 2018, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see him get an extension with a successful year.
Kim Dameron, Eastern Illinois
Hot seat score: 2
I don’t think anyone expected Dameron to be as wildly successful as Dino Babers was, but it does feel like last year’s team underperformed relative to it’s expecations. Last year’s 4-4 conference campaign is the school’s worst wince 2011, but Dameron is 16-8 in league play in his three seasons with the program with one more NCAA Tournament appearance than Jason Simpson. Just saying…
Tom Matukewicz, Southeast Missouri
Hot seat score: 3
The biggest question here is simple: What’s the expectation is Cape Girardeau? The Redhawks have only had one winning season since 2003, and Matukewicz’s teams have been mostly competitive over his two seasons, but still sub .500. It’s his third season, which fair or not is generally when we consider a coach to have had enough time to have take ownership over the program. This year could have a big say on his short-term future with the program.
Will Healy, Austin Peay
Hot seat score: 3
If I said it was unfair to give Mark Elder a one because it’s only his second season, how is it fair I give Healy a three? Well, one coach went 3-8 in his first season, and the other went 0-11, and his program has not won a game on the football field since October 18th, 2014. He absolutely needs time, but former head coach Kirby Cannon was only given three years, so he probably doesn’t have an exceptionally long time to show at least some progress.
Rod Reed, Tennessee State
Hot seat score: 5
Reed’s current contract, best I can tell, runs through the 2018 season, but since signing that last extension he’s had two sub-.500 seasons out of three in conference play. Last year was a nice bounce-back from the 2015 campaign, but it’s worth noting that he was granted his last extension coming off his first FCS Playoff appearance with the program, and they’ve really not been in contention since. He could use a really good season this year.
So in preparing the title article from this post, one thing I tried to do was look to see if we should, or at least could, have seen the relative madness the past two OVC Tournaments has brought. And the short answer is…maybe.
Belmont wasn’t just a dominant No. 1 seed, winning the league by five games, but they led the league in both adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency in conference play, essentially meaning that statistically they were the best team on both sides of the ball.
What surprised me was how often this has happened in recent history — and how often it’s ended with the “best” team losing. Here’s the full list of teams that led the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency since the 2001-02 season, and how their OVC Tournament run ended.
|Season||Team||Conf. Record (Finish if not first)||OVC Tournament Result|
|2016-17||Belmont||15-1||Lost in Semifinals|
|2014-15||Murray State||16-0||Lost in Finals|
|2007-08||Murray State||13-7 (2nd)||Lost in Semifinals|
|2006-07||Austin Peay||16-4||Lost in Finals|
So seven times in 15 years a team entered the OVC Tournament as the best, statistically, in both offense and defense, and only three times won an OVC Tournament title.
There was at least one sign, though, that the league was primed for a crazy tournament last season: Only 7 of the league’s 96 conference games were blowouts (defined here as wins by 19 points or more), the second lowest percentage of any league in Division I. It was the fewest number of blowout wins since the 2007-08 season. It was also a big year for road upsets, as only 55% of home teams won during the conference play, the worst percentage since 01-02.
News and Notes from around the league
Congrats to Ian Clark, the first former OVC player to win an NBA championship since 1971. Clark is a free-agent this year, and is being widely sought after by NBA programs according to more than a few rumors around the league. The last OVC players to win rings? Dick Cunningham (Murray State) and Greg Smith (Western Kentucky) were both members of the World Champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Leasher goes to San Diego in the MLB first-year player draft after leading the OVC in wins this past season. He seems pretty happy about it
— Aaron Leasher (@aaronleasher_OP) June 14, 2017
Six others got picked up the next day: Eastern Kentucky’s Ben Fisher, Jacksonville State’s Justin Hoyt, Murray State’s Derrick Watson, Austin Peay’s Alex Robles, Belmont’s Tyler Walsh and Eastern Illinois’ Michael McCormick.
Why I should be banned from Twitter
At previous OVC Tournament’s, I have made my love for SIUE women’s basketball coach Paula Buscher and her very colorful antics very well known. I think I’m perfect for this gig, if I’m being honest.
— OVC Ball (@OVCBall) June 16, 2017
7 things I learned this week
- The coaches “boxes” will be larger next season. They’re being extended from 28-feet to 38-feet, after the realization that no coach ever stays in their coaching box to begin with. That’s probably not the real reason, but it might as well be.
- Other basketball rule changes are coming also:
- The shot clock will reset to 20 seconds following most defensive fouls if the shot clock is below that number, similar to how the NBA resets their shot clock to 14 seconds.
- More replay! Now officials can use replay in the final two minutes to look whether a player was in the restricted area. At least that review shouldn’t take all that long, right? …right?
- Players setting screen must keep their feet within shoulder-width. Can’t wait for that to be called for the first time.
- For women’s basketball only, there’s no longer a ‘use it or lose it’ timeout. All timeouts can be carried over to the second half.
- The Big 10 is considering a 20-game conference schedule for basketball. They play 18 now. It means less opportunities for ‘money games’ for teams from smaller conferences, like the OVC. Tom Izzo told ESPN it’s a matter of when, not if.
- Louisville Athletics are pretty shameless. I’ve worked in news professionally since I was in college, and dabbled in it for far longer than that. As a result, things don’t shock me all that often. That being said, the NCAA report on Louisville absolutely caused my jaw to drop. Here’s the thing, Louisville: What you did was wrong, and the least you could do is show a little shame. How? For starters, don’t argue that the punishment should be lessened because — and this is an actual argument they made — the monetary value of the prostitutes wasn’t that large. Friendly advice, is all.
- The NCAA is going after student-athletes with YouTube accounts now. The NCAA has told UCF Knights kicker Donald De La Haye that he needs to either shut down his YouTube channel, on which he posts a lot of fun videos about the sport, and just happens to have about 65,000 subscribers. He also makes money from this YouTube channel, which is where the NCAA sees a problem. So, are we just not allowing college athletes to make any money at all now? In a video posted this weekend, De La Haye says he’s going to keep updating his channel, and he’s not demonetizing his videos. Good for him. Hopefully the NCAA can be shamed into doing the right thing here. (History isn’t exactly on our side on that one, though…)
- Fifth graders are being offered college football scholarships. Let’s just not, okay?
- The best stories from my ‘real’ job:
- Most obvious news story of the week: Fried potatoes? Not the best thing for your health.
- Best news story of the week: U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch is being bombarded with emails…from Nickelback after someone signed him up for promotional emails. “To whoever just subscribed my email accts,” Hatch tweeted, “(family, work, obsolete) to multiple @Nickelback promotional & fan newsletters: It’s. Not. Funny.” I dunno about that…
Suggestion for the week ahead
If there was ever a week to get into NHL hockey, this might just be that week. While I don’t really follow hockey all that much, (there weren’t a lot of opportunities for ice skating growing up in Kentucky) the fact we’re essentially seeing the birth of a new team is really intriguing to me.
This week, the Las Vegas Golden Knights will pick their players in the NHL expansion draft, and while they’ve officially been a part of the league for some time…it doesn’t really count until you have players. There’s something cool about following a team from it’s beginning — it’s part of the reason I became a Jacksonville Jaguars fan way back in 1995. (It was between them and Carolina, and you can’t blame 11-year-old me for picking the Jaguars)
If you like hockey, and don’t really have a strong affiliation to any team in the league (which probably isn’t an issue for most people living near Nashville right now) you could do a lot worse than being one of the first to jump on the Vegas bandwagon. And hey — who doesn’t need an excuse to fly out to Vegas sometime?
So starting this in the middle of the summer may sound like an odd decision, and that’s partially because I’m an odd person. (I started this website on January 31st — three months through an already fairly short college basketball season.) But we’re going to start our ridiculously early 2017-18 basketball previews soon, and college football season isn’t that far off! I’ve actually been sitting on this idea for a few years now — to create something in the vein of MMQB or Tuesday morning Quarterback for the OVC, and it’s something I want to be able to create throughout the year, not just in season. The plan is to crank these out on a weekly basis — although that’s easier said than done- – and I fully expect these to get even larger when we have actual games to talk about. (Nerd note: I’m actually about 350 words short of my goal for an off-season post) There may be a gap here and there, but I’ve already got a few ideas on how to keep this going through July and into August, when we start getting some real football news to talk about.
One thing I’m absolutely looking at is getting (possibly weekly) interviews with major players and coaches throughout the league. It’s a little hard to coordinate from Buffalo, but if I can convince coaches to carry around an iPad at OVC media day to talk with me, I think I can handle something as simple as this.
But, I’d love to hear from you. Do you want to see more? Do you have ideas for what you’d like to see over the coming weeks? Would you rather me break this into five different articles, because why-oh-why would you put this all together? (We’re still doing other articles. Trust me.) Drop me a line in the comments or on twitter @OVCBall.