By Chris Molicki
There’s certainly a lot to love around this time of year, but March Madness tops the list. However, conference tournaments come in at a close second, and this will be the first conference tournament preview in which there are no more regular season games left. It’s time.
Southeast Missouri St., or SEMO as we like to call them at The Brunch, is ineligible for the conference tournament. In addition, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee Martin, and Morehead St. all missed the cut. All due respect to them, let’s focus on who’s in. The OVC tourney tips off Wednesday.
Murray St.: The Racers displayed a type of dominance in the OVC that they haven’t had since the Steve Prohm days. They’ve won 11 straight games and will be one of the hottest teams in the Big Dance if they can run the table here. Murray St. is a team no one will want to play due to their terrific shooting and rebounding. But a major key to their success is their 3-point defense, as they hold opponents to 31.4% behind the arc, good for 13th in the nation. Imagine Murray getting a team like Kansas, who’s overly reliant on the three ball. A matchup like that has upset written all over it. Senior Jonathan Stark (no, not Jon Snow) has been a monster, averaging nearly 22 points per game. He’s flanked by another senior in Terrell Miller Jr., so you know Matt McMahon’s squad won’t be short on experience. This truly feels like Murray’s tournament to lose.
Belmont: Usually the class of the Ohio Valley, Rick Byrd’s team will have to settle for second on this list. The Bruins are led by their hot shooting and cleaning the glass on the defensive end, but when the shots aren’t falling, Belmont is in trouble. They don’t get many offensive rebounds, force many turnovers, or get to the free throw line that often, so their source of easy points is nearly nonexistent. Dylan Windler and Amanze Egekeze both shoot 42% from three, and they’ll have to keep carrying that load. Belmont beat Murray St. in their only matchup this season (at Belmont), so a rematch would be welcomed and is expected.
Jacksonville St.: It’s all about defense with the Gamecocks, unlike the two teams above them. Jacksonville St. has the conference’s best defense, something that’s helped them to a 3-1 record against Murray St. and Belmont this year. Ray Harper’s team will do its best to grind you out, and most teams are unable to reach 70 points against them. The Cocks have six players averaging at least 7.5 points per game, but no one averages 13. That balance combined with their D has them looking like a dangerous darkhorse in this tournament.
Could Play Spoiler
Austin Peay: Austin Peay is a pretty average team that has a few notable strengths, but not much else going for them. For example, they rank in the top 20 nationally in both forcing turnovers and offensive rebounds, but they’re near the basement in every other category. The Governors don’t really belong up top with the big boys, and while they’re not as atrocious as some other OVC teams, Matt Figger’s crew is going to have a hard time winning more than one game in this tournament.
Tennessee St.: Everything was shaping up for the Tigers to be a real nightmare in this tournament. They were on a seven-game win streak and forced more turnovers than nearly anyone in the country. Then, they lost their last three games to end the season. Not all is lost for Tennessee St. They’re one of the more experienced teams in the nation, led by senior Delano Spencer and junior Christian Mekowulu. But their offense is so terrible, and if they can’t get to the charity stripe, they won’t look like the dark horse they should be.
Tennessee Tech: Tech has a similar makeup as their in-state rivals–poor offensive team thats bread and butter is forcing turnovers. They’re just not as good at it as the Tigers. But when talking about experience, the Golden Eagles deserve all the love, as they’re the fourth-most experienced team in all of college basketball. They have five seniors averaging double figures, and they just got back Serbian guard Aleksa Jugovic for the stretch run. Perhaps Tech is the team to consider when looking at a sleeper from Tennessee here.
Not a Threat
Eastern Illinois: The Panthers play at a dreadfully slow pace, and the fact that they’re shooting from inside the arc sits at 44% is not good at all. Yet they’re a deep team that gets solid contributions from up to six of they’re players. That plus their experience is nice, but there are too many other more talented teams in this tournament that have the same strengths as them.
SIU Edwardsville: Edwardsville has been a very uninspiring team for quite some time now, and they wouldn’t be in this tournament if SEMO was eligible. They actually started off conference play 3-3, but have since lost 10 of 12. Jalen Henry can be a burden to deal with, but if teams shut him down, the Cougars are toast. One of the worst defensive teams in the nation routinely lets all these bad OVC offenses run all over them, and this tournament should be no different.