Here. We. Go.
If you’re a “general sports fan,” and not a hardcore college basketball enthusiast, the start of the season can easily sneak up on you. Complaints about the College Football Playoff rankings light up twitter each week, courts have resuspended and un-suspended an NFL star about six times over now, another NBA season has people wondering if Lebron is any good anymore, and we’re not even two weeks removed from the end of a pretty good World Series.
College basketball always languishes in obscurity during its opening phase even though the argument can be made that this is when the sport is sometimes it’s most fun, especially for smaller teams. The first few weeks are their chance to take down Goliath, to play great non-conference rivals, or put up 105 against a hapless NAIA team. It’s when games can make great distractions during working hours, when rivals are playing every day, and when you learn that Tennessee Wesleyan is actually a real school with real basketball players.
Conference play may be where things get serious, but November is where every team has the hope that this is the year. SIUE isn’t 6-24, they’re the same 0-0 as Murray State, Belmont, or even Illinois. And who knows — we’ve seen strange turnarounds before. Just ask Dana Ford at Tennessee State, who took a team coming off back-to-back five-win seasons to a 20-11 record in 2014-15. Or you could ask Ray Harper and the defending OVC Tournament champion Gamecocks, who had three straight losing seasons before making the big dance.
By the end of the month, hope may begin to fade for some programs. But today, the sky is the limit.
11 OVC teams take the floor tonight, with the 12th opening their season tomorrow night. For college fans, it’s our first real taste of basketball. Savor it, for as long as the wait to begin the season has seemed, the season always goes by in a flash.
Morehead State at No. 17 Xavier
6 p.m. CT (Fox Sports Regional Networks)
This is a game that feels like it should be played more often than it is. The schools are separated by about a two-hour drive, but they’ve only met nine times, the last coming in 2013.
Morehead State enters the season as one of the hardest teams in the league to peg because we know the least about their roster. Three of their starters from the Eagles exhibition game against Cincinnati Christian did return from last year — but all three were just freshman, none were starters at any point, and only one, Jordan Walker averaged more than 10 minutes a game. The other two starters? A true freshman and a junior college transfer in his first year with the Eagles. In fact — there are no seniors on the Eagles roster at all, and only one junior that played with Morehead State last year. This team is a complete wild card entering the season.
Junior Lamontray Harris will almost certainly be back in the starting lineup tonight. Harris started in the Eagles exhibition game against Kentucky and played well in both contests. He’s the lone experienced junior I mentioned a moment ago and was a solid player last season, averaging more than nine points and five rebounds a contest. The Eagles need an anchor, and Harris is the most likely candidate to fill that position. At 6’7, 240, he’s got the size to play inside and a bit more range than you might expect, although he was a sub-30% three-point shooter last season.
Xavier is not the most experienced team with one notable exception: their starting backcourt. Senior guard Trevon Bluiett is widely considered one of the top guards in the nation, and joining him in the backcourt is All-Big East honorable mention senior guard J.P. Macura. The two combined to average more than 32 points and ten rebounds a game last season. The frontcourt, while younger, features forward Sean O’Mara had a breakout NCAA Tournament for the Musketeers.
Missouri Baptist at Southeast Missouri
6:30 p.m. CT (OVC Digital Network)
For those of you new to the site, I have a long-standing rule where I don’t preview or recap games against non-Division I teams. But, as this is opening day, I do want to provide a small preview on the Redhawks.
Denzel Mahoney has all the skills needed to be one of the best players in the league. He can shoot, he can get to the free-throw line, he doesn’t turn over the ball, and with Antonius Cleveland graduating, the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year is undoubtedly the Redhawks leader heading into 2017-18. The bigger question is more about the supporting cast. Eight players on last year’s roster aren’t back this year, and the six returnees not named Mahoney combined for four starts. The Redhawks do get two guys back from season-ending injuries in Dondre Duffus, (groin) and Ray Kowalski, (knee) and role players like Milos Vranes, Jonathan Dalton and Daniel Simmons will all be looked to for a larger role.
APR punishments are stupid as current players get punished for the sins of the past.
I usually don’t read too much into exhibition games, but SEMO’s defense wasn’t exactly outstanding in either win against lower-level competition.
Final Thought: APR punishments are stupid as current players get punished for the sins of the past. Is SEMO a team capable of making the postseason this year if it weren’t for the punishment? Probably.
SIUE at No. 20 Purdue
7 p.m. CT (BTN Plus)
Where do you go from here if you’re SIUE? Tre Harris, the Kansas State transfer that fans hoped would help make SIUE a competitor is gone after what one would describe as a “tumultuous” year. SIUE returns three starters — but is that actually a good thing when that core struggled to get a single conference win?
I promise I’m not going to harp too much on SIUE’s past, but the key to the future is grounded at least partially in the belief that the Cougars core players, guys like Jalen Henry, Christian Ellis and Keenan Simmons are going to play better. Henry has the physical size, but he doesn’t always play physically tough. Ellis is a 6’2 point guard who hasn’t shown he has any range to stretch a defense, while Simmons is a bruising rebounder and defender that has a great touch but hasn’t been used well within the offense.
Yes, SIUE needs those guys, or at worst at least one of those guys, to take the next step, but none of those guys excites me if I’m a Cougars fan. Now Daniel Kinchen, a JUCO transfer from Alabama Southern Community College…that’s a different story. The guy is a shooter, something SIUE has desperately needed, although he might be a bit small for the Division I game. (not in height at 6’3, but he’s just 155 pounds) That can be easily fixed.
Kinchen was a 26-ppg guy in JUCO and a 45% three-point shooter, but it’s different from competition like the Cougars face in their opener against Purdue. Henry and Simmons will likely have their hands full defensively with Vincent Edwards, one of 50 players named to the Naismith Award watch list yesterday. Fun fact: Edwards is the only active player in Division I with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 300 assists.
Fun Fact No. 2: Purdue has won their last three season openers by 40, 41, and 44 points.
Brescia at Murray State
7 p.m. CT (OVC Digital Network)
Again, I will slightly break my “no non-Division I previews” rule to talk a bit about the Racers who, on paper, could very well be the most talented team in the OVC.
Emphasis on ‘could.’ Because here’s the thing: how much more can you expect from the core of this team? Jonathan Stark, the OVC preseason player of the year, averaged 21.9 points a game, was a 42.5% three-point shooter, and also led the team in assists for good measure. He and Terrell Miller, in my opinion, are the best 1-2 scoring combo in the league.
But they were that last year, a year Murray State finished sub .500. And much of the supporting cast of that team, from Bryce Jones to Damarcus Croaker are gone, and that’s where questions begin. Past Miller, there’s not a second offensive option in the frontcourt, baring some major improvement from Jalen Dupree or Brion Sanchious. The backcourt may have more depth, but we need to see more of JUCO transfer Shaq Buchanan and Towson transfer Byron Hawkins before we know for sure.
Do I think Murray State turns it around this season? History says it’s more likely than not, but I’m just not sold on whether the Racers have the depth, at least not at this point.
UT Martin at Marshall
7 p.m. CT
Without question, the Skyhawks three-year run of 20+ win seasons has been quite impressive. To make it four, they’re going to be relying on a whole lot of new faces: UTM returns just four guys from last season and a single starter: Matthew Butler.
Last year, Butler was a solid hybrid point guard who could just as easily hit a pull up jumper as find an open guy for an assist, but he’s not that aggressive at driving the ball inside and he wasn’t the best at creating turnovers on the defensive side. But they didn’t need him to be a player that could do everything last year, not with guys like Jacolby Mobley, Javier Martinez, or Kedar Edwards around him. Now, with all three of those guys gone, Butler is going to be asked to do even more, and we’ll see if he’s up to a, frankly, lofty task.
UT Martin didn’t play a game in the preseason, (other than an intrasquad game) so there’s even less to go on when it comes to the mostly new supporting cast.
Marshall is coming off their first 20-win season since 2011-12, but they’ve lost quite a few key cogs of that team. Leading scorer Jon Elmore is back though, a player who will have the ball in his hands on virtually every possession: he led the team in scoring (19.7 ppg) and assists (5.9 apg) last year. The Thundering Herd are coached by Dan D’Antoni and, yes, he is the older brother to NBA head coach Mike D’Antoni and, yes, they play a similar style of offense, which is to say they rarely ever see the shot clock fall into single digits if they can help it: Marshall was third in the nation last year in most possessions per game.
Tennessee Wesleyan at Jacksonville State
7 p.m. CT (OVC Digital Network)
Ah, another non-Division I opponent on opening night. At least we’re getting these games out of the way? Breaking my “no previews for non-Division I opponents” rule for a third time now…
Here’s my deeply philosophical question about the Gamecocks: were they an outstanding team last year or just a team that got hot at the right time? This is actually a relevant question for this year’s Gamecocks squad because a lot of the pieces from last year’s squad return this year. (At least, comparatively speaking, a lot return)
Norbertas Giga is probably one of the only true centers in the league and in my opinion that makes him quite valuable. (I say that even though he’s listed as F/C, but he plays like a center, so that’s what I’m going with) He’s a strong rebounder, has a great touch at the rim and if he can work on the fouling (he fouled out seven times last season) he’s a great inside anchor alongside Christian Cunningham who is more defense to Giga’s offensive leanings. And maybe it’s just me, but it feels like Malcolm Drumwright has been in the league for a decade now, but I’m told it’s only his fourth year. He’s a consistent guard that could stand to be a bit better shooter but he’s not a guy you want to leave open either.
But here’s the thing: Do any of these guys really scare you as an opponent? They’re all solid, which isn’t bad, but I don’t expect any of them to go off either. JSU was much better defensively in conference play than offensively a season ago, and I get the feeling that will need to be the case again if JSU wants a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Eastern Kentucky at Rice
7 p.m. CT
For those of you who are reading every game preview, you will recognize the conundrum I’m about to present: on paper, EKU could very well be the most talented team in the OVC. But, much like when I said this with Murray State just a few games up, the emphasis and concerns are similar.
Nick Mayo is great. Asante Gist is great. I know this because both were great last year. Yet, EKU didn’t make the OVC Tournament a year ago. If Stark and Miller aren’t the best 1-2 scoring combo in the league, then Mayo-Gist are. Now, again if you read my Racers preview, you’re probably expecting me to ask how much better Mayo and Gist can be expected to be. Except…I actually have an easier time imaging these two getting better than Stark and Miller because there were more issues with both.
Gist, for example, was not a great shooter. Far from it: 37% from the field, 34% from three-point range a season ago. He still managed more than 15 points a game. Imagine if he was just an average shooter given the volume in shots he took. Mayo is a great shooter and defender but probably turned over the ball more than you’d like and wasn’t a dominant rebounder, although he was quite good. These are areas of opportunities for both guys to improve, which is a really dangerous thought.
Nick Mayo is great. Asante Gist is great. I know this because both were great last year.
They may also have some great support. Zach Charles was a strong role player last year and slides naturally into a starting spot. You probably don’t remember Dujuanta Weaver; he hasn’t played in more than a year since getting injured in January of 2016, but he shows flashed of being a great point guard in his freshman year. (And he has plenty of threats to pass the ball to as well)
EKU’s opening opponent is probably not the most difficult team on their non-conference slate, but it’s a game on the road, which is always tough. You may look at last year’s 23-win season for the Owls and wonder why I would say Rice isn’t all that tough of an opponent and the reason is simple: only one starter is back, (and it’s not one of the two 18+ ppg scorers) they have a new coach, and KenPom has them ranked at 271st entering the year out of 351 teams. In short, this team bares little resemblance to last year’s squad. The Owls have 10 underclassmen (freshman and sophomores) on the roster.
Midway University at Tennessee Tech
7:30 p.m. CT (OVC Digital Network)
Okay, you know the drill by now. I’m going to moan about how I don’t preview non-Division I games and then preview Tennessee Tech anyway. There, that’s out of the way.
Except, I have to copy this line from TTU’s preview of this game on their official site: “The Eagles boast a roster of 22 players… by far the largest Tech will face on the year.” Are all 22 going to play, because that would be impressive.
Anyway, about the Golden Eagles. If you’ve read through the game previews to this point, you’ve likely noticed a theme: The majority of the OVC is dealing with a youth movement and a lot of new players. Tennessee Tech doesn’t fit in that bubble. Aleska Jugovic, Kajon Mack, and Mason Ramsey, three of the Golden Eagles top four scorers a year ago, are back. So is much of the bench, including guys like Curtis Phillips, Stephaun Adams and Micaiah Henry, all of whom started at least five games last year. (To be fair, TTU started 11 different players last year in an attempt to find the right lineup. Not sure they ever really did.)
Experience is one thing, but as has been pointed out, you need your current guys to get better if you’re going to improve from your 12-win year a season ago, and namely, TTU needs to shoot the ball better. Jugovic was a sub-40% shooter as was Adams and that’s a place to start. In the OVC especially, with teams like Belmont that tend to be really good at scoring, 32.5% from three-point range as a team probably isn’t going to cut it either.
History is sort of on TTU’s side: Since 2012, TTU has finished over .500 in every season ending in an even number. They’ve managed just 12-wins each in every odd-numbered year in the same span.
Tennessee State at No. 4 Kansas
8 p.m. CT (ESPNU)
Nothing like starting your season against one of the top 5 teams in the country.
Sorry, correction: Nothing like starting your season against one of the top 5 teams in the country with a roster of seven newcomers and just two returning starters, neither of whom averaged double-digit scoring a year ago in a nationally televised game.
TSU is one of those teams there’s really no consensus on. Case-in-point, the media picked TSU 4th in the OVC this year and someone selected TSU to win the whole league. (Wasn’t me…) The coaches/SIDs picked TSU 7th.
Hopefully, Christian Mekowulu can bounce back from a tough season a year ago. Mekowulu underwent knee surgery in 2015-16, and his numbers fell off pretty significantly from his freshman year where he showed quite a bit of promise. Dareon Reddick, the Tigers other returning starter, has been a starter for four years now but never had the “breakout” year some (read: me) hoped. Maybe this is that year?
The other returnees do show some promise: Delano Spencer could be a reliable three-point threat, Ken’Darrius Hamilton showed flashes of being a really solid forward, and Armani Chaney has to improve as a shooter because there’s almost no other option.
Kansas is that rare college basketball powerhouse not relying on one-and-done’s, at least this year. Senior guard Devonte’ Graham might be the best player in the Big 12, joined by Mississippi State transfer and former 5-star recruit Malik Newman in the backcourt. Oh, and Kansas is already warmed up as they’ve played three exhibition games, including one against Missouri. TSU has played…none.
The semi-good news? Kansas apparently only has 8 eligible players for tonight’s game, according to media reports. So there’s that.
Austin Peay at Vanderbilt
8:30 p.m. CT (SEC Network Plus)
Everything is new in Clarksville! The coaches are new. The players are new. It’s all new! Tre’ Ivory is even a scorer now if the Govs’ preseason game is to be believed.
So what does all the ‘new’ mean for this season? Well, it’s probably a good season to have so much new blood seemingly everyone else in the league is dealing with a youth movement of their own. (Not to the extent the Governors are, but still noteworthy.) It’s not all freshman: Zach Glotta and Chris Porter-Bunton are back for Austin Peay, and the Govs have a pair of intriguing transfers in Ed Stephens from South Carolina State and Averyl Ugba from Grambling State — both eligible to play this season for different reasons.
And then there are the freshman, namely Terry Taylor. He was an all-State player in Kentucky at Bowling Green High School and shot an impressive 9-9 from the field in the Govs’ exhibition win. #ItsOnlyExhibition, but he’s a guy worth keeping an eye on.
There are some pretty high expectations for Vanderbilt in head coach Bryce Drew‘s second season. Three of their top four scorers from last year’s NCAA Tournament team are back, and this is a senior-led team, something becoming more and more of a rarity. Matthew Fisher-Davis can be deadly in the backcourt for the Commodores, and Jeff Roberson is one of the more underrated forwards in the SEC. Govs open the season as big underdogs in Nashville.
Belmont at Washington
9 p.m. CT (Pac-12 Networks)
It’s just safe to assume that Rick Byrd figures it all out, right? He figures out how to replace Evan Bradds‘ almost automatic offense. He figures out how to replace Nick Smith‘s 42% three-point shooting. He figures out how to replace Taylor Barnette‘s…158 missed three-point attempts.
Okay, that last one might not be the best example. But the point remains: On paper, Belmont is not the most talented team in the OVC. I feel incredibly confident saying that, knowing everything that I do about the Bruins history in this league. But if you’re going to argue with me on this point, you have to make the argument that the combination of Austin Luke and Amanze Egekeze, two good players, are better than, say, Murray State’s combo of Stark and Miller or EKU’s combo of Mayo and Gist, or that somehow the Bruins bench — full of players you may have heard of but probably couldn’t name off the top of your head — outweigh the respective benches of those other programs.
Or, you just put your faith in Byrd that he figures this whole thing out anyway, because it’s just what he does.
I’m not arguing that Belmont will be bad because they won’t be. I’m not even claiming that the Bruins aren’t the favorite to win the conference because they are. But, boy, trying to verbalize why these things are true is really not as easy as it should be.
Belmont is a three-point underdog, according to early spreads, on the road against Washington, a team coming off a nine-win season a year ago. They’ve got a new coach in Mike Hopkins who is joining the Huskies after 22 years as an assistant at Syracuse, so, I’d expect to see some zone defense here and there. Or every possession possibly.
UW has their fair share of questions as well, as they were led by now NBA-er Markelle Fultz last season, and while much of the rest of the team is back, that’s not exactly a small hole to fill. Washington has a few three-point threats in David Crisp and Matisse Thybulle, and Noah Dickerson is a big guy that can rebound on the inside but past that we really don’t know much more about what to expect out of the Huskies. Which, also sums up how I feel about the Bruins, honestly…