This Tuesday featured a packed slate of Ohio Valley Conference basketball, and the top two teams in the league both had their hands full with KenPom top 100 foes. Between that and a crowded middle tier of the conference, the full picture is tough to sort out with conference play approaching.
12. UT Martin Skyhawks (3-8)
Recent results: @ Mississippi State (92-61 L)
There really shouldn’t be much debate over which team is sitting in last place in this week’s OVC rankings. While the Skyhawks have played an OK schedule (which is more than other lower-tier teams in the conference can say), they have looked abysmal against teams they should have easily beaten, namely Southern and UMKC. It’ll take some adjusting for the Skyhawks to get used to losing three of their four leading scorers from last season.
11. Eastern Illinois Panthers (3-7)
Recent results: @ South Alabama (63-52 L); vs. Western Illinois (78-77 W)
A win Tuesday night over Western Illinois snapped a four-game losing streak for the Panthers that began with an overtime loss to Marquette. The Panthers’ schedule isn’t appreciably more difficult than UT Martin’s, but they’ve won the games they’re supposed to win. That’s the difference-maker here.
10. Morehead State Eagles (4-7)
Recent results: vs. Central Arkansas (98-94 W-OT); @ Butler (85-69 L)
The Eagles’s non-conference schedule is tough. Really tough. Therefore, it’s difficult to judge them by their record. However, they are a close overtime victory from having no wins against Division I opponents this season. Hopefully their challenging non-conference slate will allow them to be well-prepared once OVC play arrives in a little over a week.
9. SIU-Edwardsville Cougars (4-6)
Recent results: vs. Chicago State (88-76 W)
Sure, the Cougars haven’t given themselves a schedule nearly as formidable as Morehead State, but given SIUE’s three-game winning streak, I cannot rank them below the Eagles. They might honestly be the worst team in the OVC, which is something KenPom currently thinks. But, there’s reason to believe that might not be entirely the case, especially with a guy like Jalen Henry leading the Cougars. Henry is currently averaging close to a double-double.
8. Eastern Kentucky Colonels (6-6)
Recent results: @ Charleston Southern (70-65 W); vs. Norfolk State (83-66 W)
So, the Colonels are 6-6. That’s good. That’s respectable. However, their record belies their skill. Their schedule ranks among the worst in the country, and EKU has looked quite unimpressive against the better teams it has faced. On top of that, their stats are equally unforgiving. Now, I would normally say that such stats are influenced by an abundance of games against tough competition, but that’s really not the case.
7. Southeast Missouri Redhawks (6-5)
Recent results: @ Kansas State (89-71 L)
The Redhawks managed to beat the spread against the Wildcats by a point, but they ultimately saw their four-game winning streak come to a close. Still, they’re led by sophomore Denzel Mahoney, who currently leads the OVC in scoring. That potent offensive is what will set them apart from many teams in the league, allowing them to compete quite well in conference play. Later this week, they’ve got two more games against high-quality mid-majors (Bradley and Saint Louis) to prove themselves.
6. Austin Peay Governors (5-6)
Recent results: @ Evansville (78-74 L-OT); vs. Troy (75-73 W)
The Governors stumbled a bit out of the gate, but after holding Illinois close earlier this month, they’ve looked like a team that will surely be able to take on many of the teams ranked below them. That’s thanks in large part to their defense, which, according to KenPom’s rankings, is among the conference’s best. Clearly that’s an impressive note, considering APSU’s daunting non-conference docket.
5. Tennessee State Tigers (5-5)
Recent results: @ NC A&T (64-54 L); @ Texas (47-46 L)
The Tigers played so well against Texas on national television this past Monday that I seriously considered pushing them up to fourth. However, a loss to a bad NC A&T team and 25 turnovers against the Longhorns was enough to keep them at No. 5. Regardless, Christian Mekowulu is one of the OVC’s best players, and his performance against Texas proved they have the requisite guys to fight for a spot in the league’s top tier.
4. Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles (8-4)
Recent results: vs. Chattanooga (82-76 W)
A three-game losing streak to open December wasn’t what the Golden Eagles were hoping for, but given the strength of their opponents — Furman, Dayton, and Central Michigan — the shortcomings can be forgiven. Still, TTU picked up a solid win over Chattanooga over the weekend, and they have a chance to pull a Fort Wayne and upset the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington on Thursday. Do that, and they could find themselves in the top three next week.
3. Jacksonville State Gamecocks (9-3)
Recent results: vs. USC Upstate (77-61 W); vs. Howard (62-60 W)
While seemingly everyone is talking about the Racers and the Bruins, last year’s OVC Tournament champions are slowly building a solid record, albeit by facing some not-so-skilled competition. Indeed, the Gamecocks are 9-3, but they missed some chances to snag victories against the bigger names on their schedule, including a one-point loss to Oregon State last week. Make no mistake: This team is good. I am quite eager to see how they fare once they hit a tough road slate against Tennessee State and Belmont in early January.
2. Murray State Racers (7-3)
Recent results: vs. Marist (100-63 W); vs. Auburn (81-77 L)
Shortly after suffering a 14-point loss to Saint Louis, the Racers took out their anger on Marist, shooting 62 percent from the field in the process. They faced Auburn on Tuesday night, and were in a solid position to win before the Tigers’ Jared Harper hit three magical shots from long range to propel Auburn to a victory in the CFSB Center. Murray State easily has the league’s best offense, and the Terrell Miller/Jonathan Stark duo is the envy of the OVC. On top of that, freshman guard Ja Morant has had quite the stretch of games, giving Murray State fans an extra-healthy dose of optimism going into the final game before conference play.
1. Belmont Bruins (8-5)
Recent results: vs. Milwaukee (82-63 W); vs. Pepperdine (79-62 W); @ Western Kentucky (75-72 W)
The Bruins are good, and their potential for greatness is there. However, they have two losses — both to heated rival Lipscomb — that have severely impacted their ability to stand quite sturdy as the OVC’s No. 1 team. Regardless, their wins and close losses are impressive, and they have seen their standing improved by a three-game winning streak, which includes a road victory over a KenPom top 100 team in Western Kentucky. Part of the reason for that success is the duo of Amanze Egekeze and Dylan Windler, the latter of whom is notching 15.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. They probably won’t be as dominant as last season, but they’re still the best team in the OVC.