For 13 straight seasons, the Ohio Valley’s best conference record was owned by either Murray State or Belmont.
Now, with Belmont and Murray State gone to the other valley, a new power dynamic is being created. Morehead State, with the most tournament appearances (eight) and most recent appearance (2021) of all the conference teams, took full advantage, as expected, winning the regular season title — outright by three games.
Two other teams with 21st century NCAA Tournament experience, Little Rock (five appearances, last in 2016) and Eastern Illinois (two appearances, last in 2001) didn’t make the eight-team OVC “ladder” this year. As a matter of fact, of the eight teams taking the court in Evansville, the seven teams not named Morehead State have only qualified for a combined five (!!) NCAA Tournaments, with the most recent of those bids going to Southeast Missouri State in 2000.
If you’re looking for more teams to get to the dance that you haven’t seen in a while, keep an eye on the this league moving forward, but for now, Morehead State will try to establish itself as the new kings of the OVC.
Schedule (all times ET)
First Round: Wednesday, March 1, ESPN+
Game 1: (8) Lindenwood* vs. (5) Southeast Missouri State, 7:30 p.m.
Game 2: (7) Southern Indiana* vs. (6) SIUE, 10 p.m.
Quarterfinals, Thursday, March 2, ESPN+
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. (4) Tennessee State, 7:30 p.m.
Game 4: Game 2 winner vs. (3) UT Martin, 10 p.m.
Semifinals: Friday, March 3, ESPNU
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. (1) Morehead State, 8 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. (2) Tennessee Tech, 10:30 p.m.
Finals: Saturday, March 4, ESPN2
Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 8 p.m.
Morehead State really found their groove at the right time. They shook off a mediocre non-conference slate and a 3-3 start to conference play to win 11 of their last 12 games of the year. Two things that stand out on their Kenpom metrics sheet: they love to slow the game down — as they are one of the slowest teams in the country — and they are also the luckiest team in all of Division I, meaning their actual to expected record comparison is the most favorable. Lucky or not, this team and their coach, Preston Spradlin, have a lot of experience, including NCAA Tournament experience. They sport the player of the year in guard Mark Freeman, and the most efficient player in the league by some metrics in Alex Gross, and when they get teams to play down to their pace, Morehead State is hard to beat.
The other teams are so closely bunched together behind Morehead State, so I’m just going to list them all here.
UT Martin isn’t necessarily the most efficient team on offense, but they play fast and rebound well on the defensive end. (The only OVC team that plays faster is SEMO, who we’ll get to in a sec.) Personnel-wise, they’re led by Parker Stewart, who played a year at UTM, then transferred to Indiana last year (and started 31 games!) before transferring back to UTM, which accounts for more big-game experience than maybe anyone else in the league. They’re looking for their first-ever tournament appearance, having coming up one game short in 2016 and ‘17.
Southeast Missouri State went through a bit of a roller coaster, including a rough 3-10 stretch midseason in a road-heavy part of the schedule, before rebounding to win seven of eight, only to lose five of seven to close the year. As we mentioned, they play fast, and this is also the best 3-point shooting team in the league, so if they get hot, they can be a threat to everyone (and if they’re not, well, you know the saying). They were the only OVC team to win on the road in Morehead this year. Check out 5-foot-10-inch freshman Phillip Russell, who might be the most fun player to watch in Evansville.
SIUE put together the very first winning campaign in over a decade at the D-I level, turning heads with wins against Troy, at Longwood and a rare win over local power St. Louis, before stumbling to the finish a bit with two separate four-game losing streaks near the end of conference play. The metrics still like them though — they sit second in the league in NET ranking and KenPom — in no small part due to their non-conference performance, which you could certainly argue was the strongest in the whole league. Paced by all-league guard Ray’Sean Taylor, if they can figure out how to keep teams under 80 points, don’t be surprised to see them in the final on Saturday night, also looking for their first ticket to the dance.
Tennessee Tech: Fans of the Golden Eagles have been waiting a while to avenge their tournament record 69-point defeat to Loyola-Chicago in the year of our lord *checks notes* 1963?! (That was five months before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, if you’re keeping score at home.) Not the metrics’ favorite team, but when you advance straight to the semifinals, it’s kind of hard to drop you to the “longshots” category. If the Golden Eagles can win just one game, it will be only their second finals appearance since 2002, when they dropped a heartbreaker after going 15-1 in league.
I’m at risk of sticking too many teams in this section, and Tennessee State might be a tick below the others metrics-wise, but they might be the hottest team outside of Morehead State right now, having won seven of nine. They would face Morehead in the semifinal round on the tougher side of the bracket, but don’t count out Jr. Clay, Marcus Fitzgerald and company.
Southern Indiana, like many first year D-I teams this year, put together a very respectable inaugural campaign. In fact, of their nine losses, just two were by double digits, including two in overtime. And, oh yeah, they’re playing at home in Evansville. If they don’t put a scare into teams this year, they could very soon.
Lindenwood, also in its first D-I campaign, struggled getting off the mat this season before recovering and making the field, which is an accomplishment in itself. In dramatic fashion, the Lions edged Little Rock on a tiebreaker for the last tournament spot after beating them in the season’s last game on a last-second triple. They seem a bit overmatched compared to the top teams in the field.
Players to Watch
ALL-OVC FIRST TEAM
Mark Freeman, Morehead State (14.8 PPG, 3.8 APG, 42.5 FG%, POTY)
Alex Gross, Morehead State (12.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 57.5 FG%, DPOY)
Jaylen Sebree, Tennessee Tech (15.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 48.5 FG%)
Parker Stewart, UT Martin (16.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG)
Jordan Sears, UT Martin (14.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG)
KJ Simon, UT Martin (14.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.4 Stls, 1.1 BPG)
Jr. Clay, Tennessee State (18.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 5.6 APG)
Chris Harris, Southeast Missouri (14.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
Phillip Russell, Southeast Missouri (18.2 PPG, 5.1 APG, 5’10”)
Ray’Sean Taylor, SIUE (15.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.0 APG)
Damarco Minor, SIUE (13.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG)
Deejuan Pruitt, SIUE (11.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG)
Isaiah Swope, Southern Indiana (15.7 PPG, 3.6 APG, 46.1 FG%, 42.1 3FG%)
Trevor Lakes, Southern Indiana (13.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG)
Jacob Polakovich, Southern Indiana (12.8 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 56.3 FG%)
Keenon Cole, Lindenwood (13.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 53.7 FG%, 46.9 3FG%)
UT Martin edges Tennessee Tech to make the final, but is ultimately handled by Morehead State, making us all wait another year for “new blood” to come out of the OVC.