No games have been played so there’s no way these can be the least bit controversial, right? Ready? Gere we go with the first Power Rankings of the season.
1. Belmont (0-0)
This is kind of the default position for the Bruins entering, and often ending every season, but this year the Bruins grip on the league seems more precocious than in past seasons. For example, the Bruins don’t have a bona fide “star” entering the year like Evan Bradds or JJ Mann or Ian Clark on previous teams. Maybe they don’t need that star, though — their offense is set up to spread the floor and give everyone a touch on offense anyway and the Bruins defense returned to being the league’s best last year after a year…er…off. The big question for the Bruins entering this year isn’t whether they can win yet another regular season crown, but rather whether they can turn that regular season success into a trip to the NCAA Tournament, and not the NIT.
2. Murray State (0-0)
If Murray State’s defense isn’t improved this year it’s entirely possible that another year of great offense from Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller could be wasted. But if that defense is improved, Murray State clearly has the talent to compete for a conference title. But, similar to the team above them on this list, regular season success and postseason success have not always come together: the Racers last won the regular season in 2014-15, but they haven’t been back to the NCAA Tournament since winning a game in 2012. The current five-year dry spell is already the longest the school has had since the 1980s and fans would like to see that end in a hurry.
3. Eastern Kentucky (0-0)
The similarities between EKU and Murray State are interesting, to say the least. Both have a dynamic duo, (Nick Mayo and Asante Gist for the Colonels) both are coming off disappointing seasons despite big numbers from their duo, and both have third-year coaches with a bit of mystery swirling regarding their futures. The difference, though, is that EKU wasn’t really a great offensive team last year as a whole, ranking 11th in conference play in offensive efficiency. Poor free-throw shooting (last in the league) and poor three-point shooting (2nd worst) hurt, as did EKU’s struggles rebounding. That’s a lot to overcome in just one offseason, but when you look at Colonels talent and just how young that talent was last year, there’s a reason EKU is generally a consensus top-4 pick heading into this season.
The similarities between EKU and Murray State are interesting, to say the least.
4. Jacksonville State (0-0)
Jacksonville State wants to prove last March wasn’t a fluke, and I don’t believe it was. But the Gamecocks have lost a few key cogs from that team and will likely have to rely on their stellar defense if they’re going to make a repeat appearance in the NCAA Tournament. That defense was good enough last year to carry a, frankly, ho-hum offense over the finish line and there’s not a lot of reason to believe, at least yet, that the offense will be much more explosive this year. A similar dose of ball-control offense, stout interior defense and good rebounding is likely in order for Jacksonville State this year.
5. Tennessee Tech (0-0)
In a year of change for many of the OVC’s leaders, Tennessee Tech’s experience may be their greatest strength, assuming those experienced guys have improved from last year. Tech’s offense was a bit of a conundrum last year: they were one of the quickest to shoot the ball (2nd shortest average possession length in the conference) but one of the worst shooting teams. (2nd worst eFG%) That’s, generally speaking, not the greatest combination. Defense was TTU’s strength, especially forcing turnovers, and given that the core of the team has returned it would be wise to expect similar, if not refined results this year.
6. Eastern Illinois (0-0)
There is a school of thought that three-point defense isn’t a real thing. The argument is that three-point shooters generally don’t shoot unless they’re open, so on most three-point attempts the defense is irrelevant. So these people would argue that opponents hit 40% of their three-pointers against EIU in conference play last year not because EIU couldn’t defend the perimeter, but because of ‘bad luck.’
But despite playing in five overtime games last season, EIU wasn’t a victim of some random bad luck; the Panthers rarely even played in a close game: just three of EIU’s 16 conference games were decided by single digits. But that makes sense when you looked at their roster: if the rest of the OVC is going through a youth movement this year, EIU hit theirs a year early. Four starters return to this year’s team including Montell Goodwin, and EIU could be well set up to take advantage of opponents inexperience.
7. Southeast Missouri (0-0)
From this point on, I might argue there’s a bit of a gap between the top half of the league because this is where we begin with “the great unknown;” teams that we just don’t know a ton about to really evaluate without them actually playing in a meaningful game. It doesn’t mean these teams won’t be good — we just don’t know enough to make a real judgment either way.
That being said, we are pretty sure that Denzel Mahoney is quite good, which is why I put Southeast Missouri at the top of this tier. He improved throughout the year last year and played arguably his best game in the OVC Tournament against Tennessee State when he scored a career-high 34 points. The difference from this year to last year: he’s the guy this year and I would expect opponents to pay a bit more attention to him defensively. I’m not sure it’s going to matter, though. He’s that good.
8. Tennessee State (0-0)
No matter how young TSU may be, no matter how many new players head coach Dana Ford brings in, it will never be as bad as his first year at the helm of this program. But since that year, this is the closest to that ‘rebuilding’ year as Ford and the Tigers have been. Interesting, the two returning starters on the team this year were also on that first Ford team, and both were arguably more effective that year than in the years since. Last season, TSU was better than their .500 record showed. This year? .500 is probably a good target.
9. UT Martin (0-0)
Yes, I know UT Martin has had three straight 20-win seasons and yes, I know they’ve made (and lost) the OVC Tournament title game each of the past two years. But this team is almost unrecognizable from those teams, so the Skyhawks recent history is mostly irrelevant here. Matthew Butler is a good player, but is he first-team all-OVC good? You’ll likely be hearing a lot of new names out of Martin this year if the Skyhawks are going to keep their successful roll going.
10. Morehead State (0-0)
What happened last season is mostly ancient history now, and it may be a good thing at the end of the day that the roster has turned over significantly from where it was at the start of last season. The short-term, though, is a little less rosy as only one returning player has started a Division I game. Lamontray Harris is a guy to watch on this squad, but most of his supporting cast is unknown entering the season. It makes for a tough task for head coach Preston Spradlin‘s first full season at the helm.
11. Austin Peay (0-0)
Well, one way to move on from the Dave Loos era is to essentially redo the entire coaching staff and most of the roster, which is what’s happened in Clarksville. Will it launch the Governors back into the top tier of the league? Well, it will be a tall task for a roster filled with six freshmen and just two returners who played significant minutes the season before. While we’ve seen new coaches have success in their first season in the past, most of them inherited a senior roster from the previous coach. That’s not the case here.
12. SIUE (0-0)
Even if I didn’t want to put SIUE here, the Cougars will remain at the bottom of our Power Rankings until they prove otherwise. Last season was a disaster and had an already eliminated Eastern Illinois not come into town on the final day of the season, I doubt the Cougars would have finished the year with a conference win.
The Cougars will remain at the bottom of our Power Rankings until they prove otherwise.
But this isn’t about last year, it’s about this year and I think I currently have more faith in a community college transfer (Daniel Kinchen) than any of their returning starters. That’s not exactly ideal.