Belmont has six consecutive 20-win seasons and has played in seven of the past 11 NCAA Tournaments. So it’s no surprise that after speaking with multiple head coaches in the OVC, that, to a man, each one has said Belmont is the team to beat in the conference.
However, after a shocking OVC Tournament run last year, Austin Peay earned itself the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, so don’t pencil in the Bruins quite yet..
2016-17 OVC Preseason rankings:
Belmont returns a loaded lineup that is led by OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds, who has led the nation in field goal percentage two years in a row. Belmont also returns a talented backcourt tandem in guards Taylor Barnette and Austin Luke. Up front, it has the size to compete with just about anybody, with 6’10 junior Tyler Hadden and 6’11 freshman Seth Adelsperger.
2 Morehead State
Head coach Sean Woods led the program to one of its best records in program history last season, going 23-14. The Eagles were dealt a blow when the team’s leading scorer, Corban Collins, used the graduate transfer rule and has opted to play his final year at Alabama. However, Woods still has a solid core of players from last year’s team, including five returning seniors, which should keep them in the mix at the top of the OVC.
3 Tennessee State
The Tigers are led by the youngest head coach in Division I in Dana Ford. Senior guard Tahjere McCall was named OVC Defensive Player of the Year and averaged 14.6 with 5.1 rebounds per game, and should continue to be one of the OVC’s elite talents. The Tigers also return senior forward Wayne Martin, who averaged 11.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, and is one the most dominant big man in the conference.
4 Murray State
The Racers were an impressive 10-6 in the conference last year (17-14 overall) and have a solid mix of senior talent to go with some incoming freshmen. They did lose their top two scorers from last year, but return two senior guards in Bryce Jones, who averaged 12.7 points per game, and Damarcus Croaker, who had 9.6 points per game last season.
5 Eastern Kentucky
The Colonels went 15-16 during Dan McHale’s first season, but the team showed signs of growth. They set a school record for points per game (80.5) last season, which ranked 18th nationally. The Colonels will be led by OVC Freshman of the Year and First Team All-Conference forward Nick Mayo. The 6’ 9 Mayo averaged 14.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, and started every game for the Colonels.
6 Tennessee Tech
Tech was a 20-win team last year and went 11-5 in the OVC, but lost a good chunk of talent from last season, including its two leading scorers. The Golden Eagles also lack the size needed to compete, without a player over 6’8 in their lineup. Junior guard Aleksa Jugovic is the team’s leading returning scorer with 12.1 points per game and was a model of consistency starting all 31 of Tech’s game.
7 Eastern Illinois
The Panthers will look to improve on last season, when they went 13-17 overall, but a respectable 9-7 in OVC play. They did lose their leading scorer, but return a solid backcourt that features two upperclassmen. Senior guard Demetrius McReynolds averaged 12.1 points per game and will be complimented by junior guard Cornell Johnston, who chipped in with 11 points per game. Head coach Jay Spoonhour added a few key recruits to the mix including NCAA “All-Name Team” candidate “Silk” Goodwin.
8 Austin Peay
The Governors pulled a rabbit out their hat last year when they won the OVC Tournament as the No. 8 seed. However, they lost two of their top three scorers from last year’s improbable run and the future of the program is murky with coach Dave Loos only receiving a one-year contract extension at season’s end. Loos has been the head coach at Austin Peay for 27 years and has an OVC record 409 wins.
The Skyhawks were the OVC West Division champs last year with an impressive 20-win campaign. However, it appears that head coach Anthony Stewart is stepping in during a rebuilding year for the program after it lost its top three scorers from last season. Senior forward Kedar Edwards is the team’s leading returning scorer with 8.2 points per game.
10 Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville
The Cougars will have to improve on their 6-22 record from a season ago despite losing five seniors. On a positive note, SIUE does return its top two scorers, including Turkish senior Burak Eslik, who had a solid season, averaging 14 points per game. Sophomore guard Carlos Anderson added 10.3 points per game, and he Eslik were the only two players to start every game for the Cougars.
11 Southeast Missouri State
Redhawks head coach Rick Ray has nowhere to go but up following last season’s dismal 5-24 record that saw them win only two conference games. SEMO was near the bottom of nearly every statistical category in the OVC last year, including scoring offense (11th), scoring margin (12th), free throw percentage (12th), and three point percentage (12th) among others. Ray has brought in eight new players and returns three of his team’s top four scorers, including senior guard Antonius Cleveland, who was a lone bright spot for the Redhawks, after averaging 15.2 points per game.
12 Jacksonville State
The Gamecocks added four freshmen to the roster for this season, but return pretty much the same core of players from last year’s 8-23 squad. JSU does return three of their top four scorers, including junior guard Malcolm Drumwright, who averaged 14 points per game for the Gamecocks. However, rolling out the same team as last year and expecting a different result could lead to a long 2016-17 campaign for the Gamecocks.