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Ohio Valley Conference preseason rankings: Can Murray State defend its crown?

Which teams will make the biggest moves in the standings from their placements last year?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-West Virginia vs Murrary State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

After a wild 2016-17 OVC season culminated in Jacksonville State’s surprising NCAA Tournament bid, last season gave us strong contenders besides the expected 1-2 punch of Belmont and Murray State.

Nevertheless, after losing to Belmont in the regular season, Murray State took on the Bruins once more in the OVC Championship Game, giving us a 1 vs. 2 matchup that was anything but close. Ultimately, Murray State reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 6 years, where they fell to 5-seed West Virginia in the first round.

Will the Racers be able to follow up their impressive 2017-18 campaign with another solid season? Or will other teams contend for the OVC crown?

1. Jacksonville State Gamecocks (23-13, 11-7 OVC)

Alright, I know what you’re thinking. I didn’t accidentally put Jacksonville State here instead of Belmont. The Gamecocks struggled to find a consistent lineup last season, and they never managed to really move out of the second tier of OVC teams to truly defend their conference tournament title.

However, life without Malcolm Drumwright and Norbertas Giga shouldn’t be all bad. After all, they’re returning three starters from a team that possessed the conference’s best defense last year, and each of them ranked as one of Jacksonville State’s top-5 scorers.

In addition, the Gamecocks have a promising slew of big men like Christian Cunningham and Jacara Cross who will attempt to fill the void left by Giga’s absence. Factor in Ray Harper’s excellent end-season coaching, and it’s easy to see why Jacksonville State could go dancing this March.

2. Belmont Bruins (24-9, 15-3 OVC)

By now, you’ve had time to collect yourself after the shock of seeing Belmont anywhere but no. 1. Every year — no matter the roster turnover or obstacles — Rick Byrd has this team ready to challenge for the conference crown. This year will be no different. After all, the Bruins will have Dylan Windler, the likely OVC Player of the Year, leading their team.

However, Belmont’s subpar defense and the loss of starters Austin Luke and Amanze Egekeze — the latter of whom averaged 16.8 points per game last season — does not inspire confidence. After what will likely be a shaky start against tough opponents like UCLA, Lipscomb, Western Kentucky, and Purdue, the Bruins will have to face Jacksonville State in the conference opener. It could be a very tough first few months for Rick Byrd’s Bruins, but it won’t keep them from contending in the OVC.

3. Austin Peay Governors (19-15, 12-6 OVC)

Count me as one of the people most surprised by the major jump the Governors made between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. After losing the four most important contributors from a team that was quite similar to the one that took Austin Peay to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, the Governors finished third in the conference. It was quite a stunning denut for newly-minted Head Coach Matt Figger.

This year, many major contributors from last season’s surprisingly good team will return, providing enough firepower for the Governors to take control in a league without a team that appears to be incredibly dominant. Plus, they’ve got a player to remember in Terry Taylor, who averaged 15.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in his freshman season.

4. Murray State Racers (26-6, 16-2 OVC)

I’ll probably catch a lot of heat for placing the reigning conference champions this low in the rankings, but it’s going to be exceptionally hard for the Racers to compete at the highest levels without Jonathan Stark or Terrell Miller. Both were key components of Murray State’s run to the NCAA Tournament, and Stark was named OVC Player of the Year.

Sure, the Racers will be formidable with sophomore guard Ja Morant, a First Team All-OVC selection last season, leading the way. Nevertheless, the pieces simply won’t be there to retain the OVC crown. That’s what happens when you lose a guy who averaged 21 points per game.

5. Eastern Kentucky Colonels (11-20, 5-13 OVC)

For those who made the mistake of watching any amount of EKU basketball last season, seeing them this high in any sort of ranking will likely come as a surprise. However, the Colonels are truly ready to make the jump from missing the OVC Tournament to conference relevance.

Despite the firing of Coach Dan McHale, Eastern Kentucky is poised to finish in the top tier of the conference, thanks largely to senior forward Nick Mayo. The Maine native has averaged 18 or more points the previous two seasons, and he will likely be the player with the best shot to challenge Belmont’s Windler for OVC Player of the Year honors. Combine him with guys like Dujuanta Weaver and Zach Charles, and you’ve got yourself a dark horse team in the making.

6. Morehead State Eagles (8-21, 4-14 OVC)

Similar to their rivals miles down the road in Richmond, the Eagles should make a big jump this season. For Morehead State, that will mean both finishing higher than last in the conference and actually getting a chance to play in the OVC Tournament.

Most of this will be thanks to experienced returnees Jordan Walker, Lamontray Harris, A.J. Hicks, and Djimon Henson, each of whom averaged more than 10 points per game last year. This season should prove to be a successful one for Preston Spradlin, the young ex-John Calipari graduate assistant.

7. Southeast Missouri State Redhawks (14-17, 8-10 OVC)

Even though they finished seventh in the conference last season, APR violations prevented the Redhawks from taking part in the OVC Tournament. This was quite a shame, considering the Denzel Mahoney-Ledarrius Brewer-Daniel Simmons trio that propelled SEMO to a modest 8-10 conference record.

Now, Brewer returns to a team that is hindered by the transfer of promising big man Justin Carpenter, who is now playing at Wabash Valley College. Regardless, they’ll be motivated to prove themselves after the disappointing conclusion to last season.

8. Tennessee State Tigers (15-15, 10-8 OVC)

Despite having plenty of talented players, a unique style of play, and stifling defense at his disposal, Dana Ford could never seem to make things come together in order to produce a title-winning team.

This year, under new Head Coach Penny Collins (Ford took the open Missouri State job), the Tigers should have be relying heavily on reigning OVC Defensive Player of the Year Christian Mekowulu, but he transferred to Texas A&M. But this is still a highly talented TSU squad, and it should be interesting to see how they adjust to a playing style that should be quicker than the snail’s pace the team was used to under Ford.

9. UT Martin Skyhawks (10-21, 5-13 OVC)

This is where the rankings really get tricky. With so many teams that were similarly awful last season, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where they’ll end up next year. The Skyhawks will miss Matthew Butler tremendously, and they will struggle to find much footing in the conference without him.

Fortunately, Fatodd Lewis is one of the best big men in the OVC, and much of the burden of removing this team from the conference cellar will be placed on him and fellow returnee DelFincko Bogan.

10. SIU-Edwardsville Cougars (9-21, 5-13 OVC)

After finishing as one of the worst teams in the country last season, things probably won’t improve all that much for SIUe in 2018-19. Daniel Kinchen and Christian Ellis will need to step up big time for this team to see a discernible improvement, but even that might not be enough to fix this team. Regardless, it will be difficult to get any worse than 318th, the KenPom ranking they finished with last year.

There’s nowhere to go but up!

11. Eastern Illinois Panthers (12-19, 7-11 OVC)

This is the team that really puzzles me the most in the OVC. They weren’t very good at all last season, and that was with a few experienced guys leading the way. This year, they’re without Montell Goodwin and Muusa Dama, meaning that I don’t have much faith in their ability to improve.

If things go according to how I expect they will, this will likely be a season where Eastern Illinois regresses and misses the OVC Tournament.

12. Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles (19-14, 10-8 OVC)

Okay, I lied. This is the team that puzzles me the most this season. I genuinely have absolutely no idea what to make of the 2018-19 Golden Eagles. They’re a team that missed their window of opportunity last season when they were completely full of talented seniors who had the potential to make this team a dark horse conference title contender.

Now, Curtis Phillips Jr., Kajon Mack, Shaq Calhoun, Mason Ramsey, and Aleksa Jugovic are all gone. Together, they accounted for almost 83% of the team’s total points. Perhaps someone can fill the void, but a mass exodus such as this simply does not bode well for Tennessee Tech’s fortunes. Residents of Cookeville, Tennessee, should brace themselves for a long season.