Need to pick an OVC regular season champion? Choose the best offense. Over the past six seasons, the team with the best statistical offense, according to KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, has won the league.
But what about defense? Last year, the league’s best defense, statistically, was Tennessee State. They finished 8-8. TSU was also the best defense statistically the year before. They went 11-5, finishing tied for second in the competitive East. In fact, to find the last time the best defense won the OVC you have to go back to the 2012-13 Belmont Bruins.
They also had the best offense in the league that year, too.
This turn of events, this offensive explosion, can be heavily contributed to the Bruins addition to the OVC. Since joining, the Bruins have won the regular season title four out of five times, with the lone loss coming during Murray State’s perfect conference campaign. (Of course, Belmont got the last laugh that year, beating the Racers in the OVC Tournament and sending Murray State to the NIT.) The Bruins, under head coach Rick Byrd, are well known for their offensive firepower: Since the 2010-11 season, the Bruins have finished in the top-40 nationally for offensive efficiency five times, never falling lower than 65th — that’s seven straight years in the top 20% of teams in Division I. Even more impressive, during that same span, the Bruins have never finished worse than 15th in effective field goal percentage, a measure that counts made three-point fields goals more, because they’re worth more.
Over the past six seasons, the team with the best statistical offense…has won the league.
But for a team so dominant across a 16-game regular season, the Bruins three-point friendly, unselfish, spread-the-floor, move-the-ball offense has hit a wall the last few years: it hasn’t been enough to get Belmont past their first game in the OVC Tournament. Despite being overwhelming favorites, despite playing a de-facto home game, despite sweeping their opponents in the regular season, Belmont is one-and-done in each of the past two trips to the “Muni.”
This season, the OVC Tournament may be moving from the Bruins backyard. But no team may be more excited for the change in scenery than Belmont. And that leads off our five burning questions about the OVC this year:
How will the OVC’s gambit of moving the OVC Tournament to Evansville work out?
Attendance has been down in Nashville in recent years, but much of that is explainable: neither Belmont or Murray State, the league’s two biggest draws, have played in the final in either of the last two seasons, and it will always be hard to match seasons like the Racers’ 31-2 year or winning 22-straight entering the tournament without similar storylines. Evansville will provide a more neutral ground for a conference tournament, and a much nicer venue than the oft-maligned Municipal Auditorium, but which schools fans’ will be willing to travel, and does Evansville have enough to do outside the tournament to draw fans?
The novelty of moving the tournament should provide a bit of a boost and any OVC fan that’s been to the Ford Center in Evansville can testify that it’s a great looking arena to host a basketball tournament. Some fans have lamented that the OVC shouldn’t be playing “in another mid-major’s gym” but I sincerely doubt that’s really going to impact anybody’s decision whether or not to travel.
There are obviously a few factors that the OVC can’t control: who’s playing when, the weather, (which has been a factor in years past) but the biggest issue is that Evansville isn’t really that close to anyone. Using Google Maps as a guide, here’s the average drive time for schools to Evansville vs the Muni in Nashville.
|Drive-time to Evansville||Drive-time to Nashville|
|Austin Peay||1h 51min||53 min|
|Belmont||2h 23min||11 min|
|Murray State||2h 16min||1h 57min|
|Tennessee State||2h 17min||8 min|
|Eastern Illinois||2h 33min||4h 47min|
|SIUE||2h 44min||4h 37min|
|UT Martin||2h 46min||2h 33min|
|Southeast Missouri||2h 52min||3h 25min|
|Eastern Kentucky||3h 20min||3h 31min|
|Tennessee Tech||3h 28min||1h 16min|
|Morehead State||3h 50min||4h 11min|
|Jacksonville State||5h 40min||3h 25min|
From a competitive balance point of view, Evansville really works. The travel difference between the closest school and the 8th furthest school is just about an hour, and only four schools are more than a three-hour drive, compared to half the league when the tournament is held in Nashville.
But instead of having four schools within 90 minutes of the conference tournament, you now have none. So while in the past fans of a 9-7 Tennessee Tech or Austin Peay, for example, might make the trip to Municipal even if they’re not fully confident their team will win — will those fan bases, plus the fan bases of Belmont and Tennessee State located in Nashville, make the 2-3 hour drive north? And, again, is Evansville enough of a draw in itself to get fans to commit to a night stay — many head to Nashville and stay overnight win or lose to be in Nashville.
At the end of the day, you always follow the money, and from an attendance standpoint that is a hard sell. But there are also other factors at play: how much is the conference paying to use the Ford Center vs. Municipal Auditorium, for example, and would schools push for the ‘nicer’ venue if the money is close. Could the conference rotate between the two cities?
Can the best team in the league finally get to the NCAA Tournament?
For a conference tournament format set up to give the best team a huge advantage, we’ve gone four years since the OVC’s No. 1 or 2 seed won the OVC tournament. Each of the past four years, only one of the top 2 seeds have managed to win their opening game, despite getting extra rest and playing a team coming off a game the night before. That’s supposed to be the big advantage in getting a double-bye, right?
Since the inception of the double-bye in 2011, teams with the double-bye are 9-5 in their opening round game all-time — and as mentioned a moment ago 4-4 in the past four seasons. While Austin Peay and Jacksonville State were great stories, neither team put the OVC in a great spot when it comes to winning an NCAA Tournament share and the $1-plus million dollars over six years that comes along with it. (Although in almost any other season, Austin Peay would have been in the play-in game, which counts for a win share just like a first-round game.)
Since the inception of the double-bye in 2011, teams with the double-bye are 9-5 in their opening round game
Perhaps as surprising as the record itself is that Belmont has been the top-2 seed to fall each of the past two seasons. Rick Byrd is widely considered one of the best tournament coaches in the league, but despite being a top-2 seed four times in five years in the OVC, Belmont has won just one of those tournaments. Parity is fun, (especially for the fans of those schools) but the OVC could use a dominant team, any dominant team if they want to get back to winning in mid-March at the NCAA Tourney.
…and can that team win?
I’m not just looking squarely at Belmont here, (who have been to the NCAA Tournament seven times since 2005-06 and are without a win) but also other OVC champions whose offense has been their shining star. I alluded to this in the open of this article and I’ve bemoaned in previous years how defense (and lack thereof) has been the Achilles heel for the OVC come tournament time, and it’s high time that an OVC defense really stands out.
Only twice in the last five seasons has an OVC team finished in the top-100 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency compared to nine offenses ranking in the top-100 in that same span. It’s worth noting here that while getting in the top-100 is difficult, that encompasses 28% of all Division I teams. We’re not looking for miracles here.
Obviously, there are factors completely outside the conferences control, including getting favorable matchups in March or fair seeding, and it’s not like coaches aren’t trying to have a stellar defense. Of course they are — and they usually have plenty of stellar offenses (cough Belmont *cough) to test their defenses against. So I’m basically presenting a problem with no obvious or easy solution. You’re welcome, everyone. I’ll be here wishing for the moon all year!
How many third-year coaches will get a fourth year?
Look, I hate speculating on the future of head coaches, but let’s be honest here: this is a major question entering the year whether I decided to write about it or not. This season there are three coaches, all in their third year with their respective programs, that could be considered on the hot seat — although contracts could play a small part in determining whether these coaches get a fourth year if on-court success doesn’t.
Let’s start at SIUE, where there might be some longing for the days of Lennox Forrester? Okay, maybe not, but Forrester was let go after three years in which he improved from 5-11, 7-9 and 8-8 in conference play; new head coach Jon Harris has won just four conference games in the two years since combined. Harris’ teams have lacked any kind of three-point threat, essential in today’s game, and their inside scoring hasn’t been much better.
Harris is under a four-year contract worth $180,000 a year, and although it’s unclear what Harris would be paid if terminated, he has the lowest contract of the three on this list.
While the win total hasn’t been as grim, Dan McHale‘s Colonels have missed the OVC Tournament in each of his two seasons. To his benefit, he does like likely OVC player of the year candidate Nick Mayo entering his junior season and it’s worth noting that EKU had plenty of close calls last year, with four of their final five conference losses coming by less than 5 points. But given the success of the Colonels under former head coach Jeff Neubauer, at least in his later years with the program, I don’t think that I’d want to be McHale if the Colonels miss out on the OVC Tournament for the third time in a row.
McHale is under a four-year contract worth $300,000 a year according to his contract that is weirdly available in full online, and his buyout would be the full remaining salary if terminated.
Then there’s Murray State. The Racers three-decade-long winning season streak came to an end last year, and the Racers are now five years removed from their last NCAA Tournament berth, their longest such streak since head coach Steve Newton led the Racers to the NCAA Tournament in 1988, in a lot of ways kicking off the Racers modern era of dominance.
Matt McMahon, who like the other two coaches enters year 3 of a four-year contract, makes a reported $375,000, the largest value on this list.
What major questions are each team facing?
So, you’re actually getting 12 questions for the value of 1! Here are some team-by-team thoughts, although I fully note that these are not the only questions these schools are facing.
Austin Peay: What does the new face of Governors’ basketball look like? I obviously don’t mean literally, but Dave Loos’ signature style is gone and although he struggled through his later years, there was a time when the Governors were among the league’s elite with their up-tempo style. The increased dominance of the three-point shot and rule changes that give the ball handlers more freedom has in a lot of ways negated the value of up-tempo basketball, and so it will be interesting to see how the philosophy changes under new head coach Matt Figger.
Belmont: How does the offense change without Evan Bradds? I like Amanze Egekeze but I’m not going to act like for one minute that I think Egekeke can replace the production of Bradds. Here’s the thing: for as much as Belmont is known for their three-point shooting (and rightfully so since they shoot more three’s than almost anyone) they’re consistently among the most efficient teams at scoring on the inside. Bradds was a big reason for that over the past few years, and without a strong inside game, it’s a lot easier for defenses to sell out on three-point shooters. Of course, the Bruins were effective before Bradds and likely will be after him if Byrd continues recruiting players that fit his system so well, (And why wouldn’t he?) but until we see what it looks like, it’s easy to question just how effective they’ll be inside.
Eastern Illinois: Is EIU a top-4 contender? No, seriously. I’m not kidding. Let’s forget for a second that EIU missed out on the OVC Tournament last year. Instead, I want to focus on two points: EIU finished the year winning five of the final eight games and that EIU only lost one player of major consequence. Sure, it was their leading scorer, Demetrius McReynolds, but they return four starters, three double-digit scorers, and a really good big in Mussa Dama. EIU could (and possibly should) compete for a top-4 spot in the league this year given the talent they have returning.
Eastern Kentucky: Where will the offense come from? We knew heading into last year there would be a dip in offensive production: they lost Jarelle Reischel and Javontae Hawkins after all, and even the quite talented Nick Mayo couldn’t be expected to replace their numbers on his own. The larger problem was, though, he didn’t get a lot of help at all outside of Asante Gist. (especially after Jaylen Babb-Harrison‘s arrest.) Mayo has Player of the Year potential and Gist returns as well, but it’s the supporting cast that will likely determine whether EKU can compete in the mid-pack or upper tiers of the OVC.
Jacksonville State: Will the Gamecocks have to pick up the tempo? Ready for a strange stat? After an 86-79 win over Tennessee State on January 21st, the Gamecocks didn’t score 80 in any game the rest of the season. That’s 13 straight games under 80 points for a team that would go to the NCAA Tournament. It’s wasn’t that their offense was bad, it’s just that it was slloooowww. Case-in-point: they averaged just 59 possessions per game during their OVC Tournament run. The NCAA average was 68 per game. It worked, obviously, but is that the key to long-term success for Ray Harper‘s bunch?
Morehead State: Is this the rebuilding year it looks like on paper? With Xavier Moon, Dejuan Majero, Miguel Dicent all gone, among others, there are a lot more questions than answers surrounding head coach Preston Spradlin‘s first official season at the helm of the Eagles. There’s not a single senior on the roster and just a trio of juniors. Spradlin may not want to call it a “rebuilding” year, but it sure looks that way from the outside.
Murray State: O’Defense, where art thou? Quiz time: before last season, when was the last time that Murray State finished lower than 3rd in defensive efficiency in conference play? Here’s a hint: Mick Cronin was the head coach. Every season since 2004-05, the Racers finished top-3 in the league until last year when they finished 9th. The Racers have a lot of offensive talent in the likes of Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller, but if the Racers don’t improve on the other side of the ball they’ll finish mid-pack yet again.
SIUE: Can they just make the OVC Tournament? That’s a pretty low bar but given that the Cougars only conference win came on the final day of the regular season last year, it’s not an improper one to ask. It feels like we’re always asking if this is the year we see Jalen Henry match his potential and it’s the last chance for the senior to do so. Obviously, when you go 6-24, you have issues all over the court, but the offensive execution has been dreadful in head coach Jon Harris‘ two seasons with the program. You won’t win many games if you can’t score in the half court.
Southeast Missouri: How do the Redhawks replace losing four of their top five scorers? It’s not just Antonius Cleveland. Trey Kellum, Tahj Eddy, and Jamaal Calvin are gone as well taking a big portion of the Redhawks offensive production last year with them. The good news: Denzel Mahoney looks like the real deal and hopefully Dondre Duffus is healthy after last year’s hip injury five games into the season.
Tennessee State: Will TSU lean on their shooters on offense? I really thought last season would be the year they break through — and I still contend they were closer than their 8-8 conference record showed. But the Tigers lose their two top scorers, both strong inside presences, but they do return their best two three-point shooters in Darreon Reddick and Delano Spencer. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings to see TSU take a more perimeter-oriented approach on offense: they shot more than 200-fewer three-pointers than their opponents last year.
Tennessee Tech: Will they bounce back to being an OVC Tournament team again? Here’s your weird Golden Eagles stat: Since 2012, TTU has finished over .500 in every season that ended in an even year. (2011-12, 2013-14, 2015-16) Every season that ended in an odd-numbered year? Under .500. So, based on that history, we should expect a good season out of TTU in 2017-18. A better reason to bet on a bounce-back: Aleksa Jugovic and Kajon Mack are back.
UT Martin: Has the Skyhawks window closed? (At least for now?) While I still contend divisions were terrible, they weren’t for the UT Martin. The Skyhawks, thanks to the divisional split, were twice given a two-seed and double bye that they didn’t “deserve” (based on overall record) but couldn’t turn that advantage either year into an OVC Tournament championship. The Skyhawks lost five seniors from last year’s squad, and while they do have some talent coming back in guys like Matthew Butler they won’t have the advantage of a ‘weak’ division any longer, at least not from a standings point of view.