Monday, October 14, 2013

Conference Calling's 2013-14 College Basketball Previews: #25 OVC

Pictured: Belmont (right), rest of OVC (left).
In this space last season, we expected Belmont to walk into the Ohio Valley Conference and begin running the league like a boss. Rick Byrd's club did exactly that, toppling the Fighting Canaans of Murray State and making its sixth NCAA tournament in eight years.

In the subsequent offseason, stars filed out of the league one after the other. Belmont lost all-conference backcourt duo Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, along with steady forward Trevor Noack. Murray State lost its own backcourt, Isaiah Canaan and Stacy Wilson, along with workhorse forward Ed Daniel and his equally notorious hair. Tennessee State lost its star forward Robert Covington and two other double-digit scorers.

So, the door is open for a new boss. UT-Martin is the only OVC school that didn't lose a double-figure scorer, but are we really going to pick the Skyhawks to step up that big?

Eh, maybe not so much.

Everybody absorbed a little attrition, but who's going to react the best to their new cast of characters? Read on after the jump and see who should go dancing from the OVC.

(All statistics and rankings per unless otherwise noted.)

East Division:
1. Eastern Kentucky

--The OVC tournament semifinals featured the expected participants: Belmont, TSU, Murray State and Eastern Kentucky. If you're looking for the key factor to this season, look in the intro to this post. We detailed some of the OVC's lost stars, and all of the four semifinalists took some hits in that regard, even EKU. Departed point guard Mike DiNunno orchestrated much of the Colonels' offense, but coach Jeff Neubauer returns plenty of talent capable of making their own plays.

Combo guard Glenn Cosey returns as the team's leading scorer and top three-point threat (40.4%, fourth in the OVC last season). He's a secure ballhandler who put up a 2.4 A/T ratio last season, and Neubauer has little reason not to trust him with the offense. Corey Walden was among the nation's best true shooters last year with a 63.9% figure, buoyed by his ability to get to the foul line and convert when he's there (87.8%, No. 25 nationally). Without both DiNunno and Cosey to set him up, Walden's efficiency will likely suffer a bit, but he's still enough of a slasher to get his points whenever he wants them.

Former Miami (OH) transfer Orlando Williams missed large chunks of the season through injury, but averaged seven PPG when he did compete. If fully healthy this season, expect the 6'4" Williams to start and play on the wing. He'll be a versatile threat, as he carded two games of seven rebounds and one with six assists last year.

Swingman Tarius Johnson was often asked to play an undersized 4-spot last season, and that may repeat this year. He is a decent scorer around the rim and an underrated offensive rebounder, but 6'5" still may not be big enough to sustain long-term excellence at his position.

6'8" junior Eric Stutz is a reliable starter in the post. He led the team in rebounds (only 4.7/game, but still) and shot almost 63% from the floor. Stutz's classmate Deverin Muff needs to assert himself this season. Somehow, Muff started 21 games but averaged only 8.7 minutes. In conference play, he was a forgotten man. Muff was one of the team's best offensive rebounders by percentage, but needs to show that work on a regular basis.

6'7" upperclassmen Jeff Johnson and Timmy Knipp are the only other frontcourt veterans. Johnson is a fine candidate for a point forward role, as he made 36% of his threes and recorded an A% less than a point behind Cosey's. At 251 pounds, he could easily make plays on post kickouts to EKU's fleet of reliable shooters.

Like last year, the Colonels lack size, but there aren't many other OVC teams with reliably dominant posts to make them pay for it. They may have to work a bit more inside-out without DiNunno's improvisational genius, but they're still the league's most talented team right now.

2. Belmont

--After being led by the greatest backcourt the program has ever seen, the Belmont Bruins have to look forward. As in to their frontcourt, not necessarily to avoid the possibility of shock and damage, although that should always be a priority, as well.

Forward Blake Jenkins and wing J.J. Mann are the only returnees who averaged more than four PPG last season. Look for Mann to inherit Ian Clark's role as the biggest perimeter gun on coach Rick Byrd's usually-extensive rack. Mann hit nearly 39% from deep last season, but can he equal or better that efficiency without Clark and Kerron Johnson around to scare defenses? Oh, and speaking of defenses, Mann will be plenty scary for opponents on that end, as he led the Bruins in steals with 1.9 per game (good for second in the OVC).

Not what we meant by extensive rack, but here ya go.
Jenkins had a solid first year as a full-time starter, with an eFG% over 60, pulling more than 10% of available offensive rebounds and leading the Bruins in blocks. He put up a pair of double-doubles while only once playing more than 30 minutes in a game.

Samford transfer Drew Windler will instantly be dangerous in this offense, because he's 6'9" and drained 42% of his threes as a Bulldog. It remains to be seen if Byrd will ask him to work in the post on defense, because he's never been a great shot-blocker or rebounder.

The biggest key to Belmont's season may be point guard Reece Chamberlain. After riding behind Johnson for a couple of seasons, he's now got the keys to the offense. He's built like Johnson (6'1", 175), but the question is whether he'll attack the rim as fearlessly as Johnson did. Chamberlain posted a .372 FTA/FGA rate, which looks respectable until compared to Johnson's .736. Chamberlain can be a dangerous shooter, and he'll need to hit to give Mann and Windler a few extra open looks.

Sophomore Craig Bradshaw will join with Chamberlain to form a dangerous defensive backcourt. The two are the only returning reserves who played extensive minutes. Virginia transfer Taylor Barnette brings more shooting potential, as he drained 43% from deep as a freshman in 2011-12. 6'11", 285-pound junior Chad Lang is the only true big man on the roster, but he's struggled to find minutes. Depth will have to come from the four-man freshman class. Forwards Evan Bradds, Tyler Hadden and Nick Smith could all help on the glass and as perimeter shooters.

Like EKU, Belmont will struggle with big, physical teams. Still, there aren't many of those to trouble them in the OVC. If Chamberlain can fill Johnson's All-OVC shoes, look for the Bruins to be right back in contention for an NCAA berth.

3. Tennessee State

--TSU coach Travis Williams had a star he could lean on in his first season, but now that Robert Covington is gone, who will the Tigers lean on?

Senior point guard Patrick Miller will have to add "top scorer" to his list of duties, which include "primary distributor," "perimeter defender," and seemingly everything else short of "training table cook" and "bus driver." He's started all but one game over his four years in Nashville, and he enters this year with a legitimate shot at OVC Player of the Year honors. His 34.4% from three last season was a career high, and if he can continue improving in that area, he'll have a legitimate shot at the OVC scoring title to go with last year's assist crown.

Bruiser M.J. Rhett (6'9", 235) is the other returning starter. He was the team's best rebounder by percentage last season, and he crushed opponents when Covington missed 10 games with injury. During Covington's absence, Rhett carded 7.1 points, 8.6 boards and 1.4 blocks per game. Oddly enough, Rhett also put up a pair of double-figure scoring nights in Covington's first two games back. Expect him to become one of the league's top double-double threats.

Forward Michael Green and guard Jay Harris are the only other experienced returnees. Harris dropped 16 points in TSU's two OVC tournament games, while most of Green's best games came while Covington was injured.

Williams has added two juco prospects, four freshmen and 6'9" junior Alex Bates, who transferred from Northeastern. Bates saw about eight MPG as a freshman in 2010-11. Freshman forwards Jaylen Reid and Jamontae Davis were both rated 3* by ESPN. Juco swingman Kennedy Eubanks was a long, high and triple jump champion for his high school team, so his athletic ability will rate him a long look in the preseason.

4. Morehead State

--The Eagles return only four of the 12 guys who averaged double-figure minutes, but to coach Sean Woods' delight, they're four of the top six scorers. Woods has run in a massive load of new players, but he'll have to juggle the rotation well, since four of the nine newcomers are D-I transfers not eligible until next season.

The corner pieces in Woods' puzzle are junior guard Angelo Warner and fifth-year center Chad Posthumus. Warner came second on the team in scoring and assists, first in steals. He was a 56% true shooter last season and scored in double figures 11 times in MSU's final 13 games. The burly Posthumus (6'11", 270) likewise finished strong, averaging 10.0/8.4 over the season's last eight games. His 18.2/26.0 rebounding percentages both ranked among the nation's top 13. He needs to avoid foul trouble and not get DQ'd from five games again.

Juco center Billy Reader, who started his career at Montana, was ranked among the top 30 prospects by, and he could be groomed as a tag team partner for Posthumus. At 6'10" and 260, he's not exactly built for 30 MPG in Woods' physical up-and-down game. Brent Arrington, whom Woods recruited to his last job at Mississippi Valley State, may see time with Warner in the backcourt. He was among the SWAC leaders in steals as a freshman before following his coach to Morehead.

Veteran forward Drew Kelly will add inside and mid-range scoring, while senior Bakari Turner is the team's best returning perimeter option after Warner. Skinny 6'10" center DeAndre Leatherwood was an eight-RPG man as a juco sophomore and chose Morehead over offers from Penn State and Temple.

If the newcomers can execute Woods' demanding style more consistently than last year's bunch--many of whom bolted for other schools--the Eagles could seriously threaten for the title. If the team keeps turning the ball over like it's a greased-up bowling ball covered in spikes and set on fire (10th in America in TO% last year), we're probably going to see Woods putting boots to asses even harder than he did to Devon Atkinson last season.

5. Tennessee Tech

--Remember what we said about Morehead State's turnover problems? Tennessee Tech was worse, with a percentage ranking seventh in the country. If coach Steve Payne can keep his relatively veteran team from donating to opponents like they were Jerry's Kids, there may be hope for the Golden Eagles this season.

Point guard Jeremiah Samarippas became a bit of a cause celebre in the summer of 2012 when he was ruthlessly dismissed from the SMU program because new coach Larry Brown simply didn't consider him good enough. After getting to play immediately at TTU, Samarippas proceeded to play like he was telling Brown where to stick it. While ranking top-10 in the OVC in assists and steals, the ex-Mustang also carded a whopping 29.0 TO% and a career-low 47.5 TS%. Better ball security and shot selection from the floor general could be worth an extra couple of wins by itself.

There are still only two seniors on this team other than Samarippas, and one of them may be the team's top all-conference candidate. 6'7" German Dennis Ogbe burst from obscurity to become one of the most efficient scorers in America last season. While he only put up 10.8 PPG, his 67.8 eFG% and 68.5 TS% both ranked second in the nation. He was a true closer at the rim and even stepped out for a 40.6 3P%. Look for him to inherit the bulk of departed star Jud Dillard's shots.

Senior swingman Matt Marseille and 6'9" sophomore Anthony Morse may flank Ogbe up front. Marseille was a 50% effective shooter and 20% defensive rebounder last season. Morse racked 12% on the offensive glass and swatted 11% of the shots TTU faced when he was on the court.

Redshirt freshman DeOndre Haynes and true frosh Shirmane Thomas could see minutes early, as both were heralded coming out of high school. Thomas averaged 11/5/5 at Prime Prep.

6. Jacksonville State

--JSU has a problem. Its top two rebounders are gone. Not a huge deal for many teams, but it is for one that ranked DEAD STINKING DECOMPOSING LAST in America in defensive rebounding percentage. The fact that the Cocks got beaten that hard on the glass and still came hard enough to spurt out to an 8-8 conference record is testament to a pretty efficient offense. Oh, and the three most efficient offensive players are gone, as well.

Gulp. (Okay, that's the last of the immature puns. They're getting hard to swallow.)

Guards Darion Rackley and Brian Williams are a capable scoring duo, and Williams ranks among the OVC's best point guards. He was seventh in the league in A% and fifth in A/T ratio as a junior. Rackley was on a roll when he went out for 10 games with a hand injury in January. In the 10 games prior to the injury, he shot 47% from beyond the arc. He made only 27% in the three games after his return, but on the season he was still a 58% true shooter.

One of the other things JSU did well was get extra possessions on steals (13.2 S%, 14th in America). Rackley, Williams and senior forward Nick Cook are the three returnees who swiped at least one steal per game, and Cook has also ranked in the OVC's top three in blocks the last two seasons.

Beyond those three, the starting lineup may be a crapshoot. Senior guard Rico Sanders is another shooting threat, recording a 54.6 eFG% after becoming eligible at midseason. Juco transfers D.J. Felder and Jamal Hunter should get minutes in the post. Felder was a consistent double-double threat for two different schools in the past two years.

West Division:
1. Southeast Missouri State

--SEMO wandered through an odd season in 2012-13. Top-35 national rankings in scoring, FG% and assists were signs of a productive offense. Opponents shot only 40% from the floor, good for 50th in the country. Yet, the RedHawks ended up 8-8 in the OVC. What gives?

Actually, the question is more about what didn't give. As in, opposing offenses didn't give the ball to SEMO's defense. State's 15.1 oTO% was the fourth-lowest in the nation. No one's asking Dickey Nutt's defense to turn into Shaka Smart's Havoc overnight, but holy damn, man, this is rubbing shoulders with Grambling. Show some pride.

Forwards Tyler Stone and Nino Johnson are the best frontcourt duo in the OVC. While Stone was fully expected to be an all-conference performer and duly delivered, the 6'9", 245-pound Johnson exploded when given full-time minutes. He finished third in the league in FG%, second in rebounds and second in blocks. Improvement on his weak 53% foul shooting could make him a 15-10 guy, which would certainly be good for first-team All-OVC. Stone ranked eighth in the OVC in scoring, fifth in rebounding and made that FT improvement that Johnson could use (62.0 to 79.1).

The Hawks were a 40% three-point shooting team last season, but of their five truly dangerous gunners, only two return. Point guard/coach's kid Lucas Nutt returns after finishing second in the league in APG and A/T ratio. He was a 52% effective shooter, but only hoisted 3.5 attempts per game. He's most dangerous at the foul line. Look for senior A.J. Jones to try more than 70 threes this year, as he played only 20 minutes per game after coming in from junior college. He made 30 of his 70 for 42.9%.

There's good size elsewhere in the SEMO backcourt. Auburn transfer Josh Langford, jucos Darrien Gray and Jarekious Bradley and freshman Antonius Cleveland all stand 6'5" or taller. Bradley is a NJCAA All-American (21.1/8.0 w/ 87.5 FT% last season) and Tyler Stone's cousin. Cleveland put up 18/5/5 as a senior after growing nine inches in two years. Langford shot 53% for Auburn two seasons ago.

Southeast has plenty of talent, but the defense needs to generate as much pressure as the offense. Forcing poor shots is one thing, but when the opponent gets a shot 85% of the time and additional ones 31% of the time, that's a lot of extra possessions.

2. Austin Peay

--Peay had never lost 20 games in back-to-back seasons before these past two. Last season was the first losing conference season in two decades. Reasons are pretty easy to find. Although the Governors were the top shot-blocking team in the OVC, they struggled to stop anyone any other way. AP ranked in the bottom 30 nationally in defensive efficiency, opponents' A/T ratio and opponents' steal percentage. Essentially, they gave the ball away a lot and didn't go get it back.

It's a copout to blame Dave Loos for being overloaded as both coach and AD, but he's given up the latter position to focus on coaching. There's no denying he has talent returning, but what can be done with it?

Six of the top eight rotation guys return, including the OVC's top returning scorer, senior Travis Betran. Betran finished top-five in FT% and 3P%, and still shot nearly 45% inside the arc. Translation: he'll score from anywhere. A lot.

Support will come from the solid inside duo of senior Will Triggs and last season's OVC Freshman of the Year Chris Horton. Horton ranked seventh in the nation at 3.0 BPG and seventh in the league in rebounding. Triggs emerged as a double-figure scorer when given full-time minutes, shooting 54% from the field.

Sophomore Zavion Williams should get a crack at the point guard position after transferring from Lipscomb. He averaged nine PPG and 2.6 APG as a freshman, but he only managed two more dimes than turnovers. Ball security will be paramount.

The Govs took a big hit when juco forward Markee Mazyck, the NJCAA's No. 3 scorer last season, did not qualify academically. Junior Chris Freeman, a solid rebounder, should get a long look at that position. Five other jucos join for depth. D.D. Smith--like Williams, another former Bison--and Fred Garmon will both push Williams for the point guard spot.

3. Murray State

--Last season's 21-win team is gone. Only two players return who averaged more than nine MPG, and neither is OVC Player of the Year Isaiah Canaan. Jeffery Moss and Dexter Fields combined for 10.9 PPG on 39% shooting. This third place prediction is a major vote of faith in coach Steve Prohm, but bear in mind that he's yet to be a head coach without the gifted Canaan on the floor.

Fields continued his m.o. from his days at UAB, namely hoisting (a lot of) threes and not providing much else offensively. He did, however, rack a 3.6 S%, a full point better than his previous career high. Moss, likewise, is an unrepentant gunner, with two-thirds of his shots coming from deep and 40% of those attempts going in. Once Clemson transfer T.J. Sapp becomes eligible in December, will there be enough shots to go around?

Just when Zay Jackson had served his penance for hitting a man with his car in a Wal-Mart parking lot, he goes and tears two knee ligaments in practice. With Jackson done for the year, freshman Cameron Payne may get first look at the point. Payne won Tennessee Mr. Basketball honors after averaging 20 points and 10 assists per game.

Juco forwards Jarvis Williams and Jonathan Fairell are both ranked among JucoRecruiting's top 100 transfers, and they could very well start every game up front. The 265-pound Fairell averaged 17.7/11.8 last season, with the rebounding figure ranking fourth in NJCAA Division I. Not to be outdone even though he's outweighed (by 55 pounds), Williams struck for 19/10 last season, including an insane 50-point, 20-rebound, 10-block trip-dub in February.

Sophomores Terron Gilmore and Zay Henderson provide frontcourt depth. Both finished well at the rim in their limited minutes, and Henderson recorded a my-god-is-that-a-typo 30.9 DR%.

The Racers are always among the OVC's best defensive teams, through all the player and coaching changes. Prohm will have to make a run this season with not much depth and even less experience, but there's still plenty of talent on hand.

4. Tennessee-Martin

--The Skyhawks are another one of those clubs that makes you ask the age-old question: If everyone comes back from a bad team, are they assured of being a better team the following season? Six of UTM's top eight scorers return, and only three of them are seniors this season. Still, that same crew combined to end up near 300th in the nation in offensive efficiency and near 330th on defense.

Forward Myles Taylor is the biggest thing the Hawks have going for them, in both the literal and figurative sense. The 250-pounder ranked sixth in the OVC in both scoring and rebounding, despite being held to less than 28 MPG by persistent foul trouble. Seriously persistent, as in 3.8 fouls per game, second-most in the nation. If he had stayed in more games, UTM could have easily had a .500 season.

Guards Terence Smith and Mike Liabo are also double-figure scorers, and Liabo has been for three years. He posted career highs in eFG% and TS% last season, and coach Jason James would love to see him do it again. Smith is also looking for his third 10-plus-PPG season and is coming off his own career-best shooting year.

All these career-high figures still weren't all that great, as not a single Martin player posted an eFG% above 50 last season. The offense may pick up a bit if juco point guard Terrence Durham plays up to expectations. Durham's a former 3* prospect who originally signed with TCU out of high school.

5. Eastern Illinois

--EIEIO EIU rallied to an 8-5 finish after slumping to a 3-16 start, signaling that coach Jay Spoonhour was getting a handle on a young team. He may have to do it again, as only four players return that saw court time for the Panthers last year.

Thankfully for Spoonhour, three of the returnees are at least part-time starters. Guard Alex Austin and forwards Josh Piper and Sherman Blanford combined for 30 PPG, and Blanford is the only senior on this season's roster. Blanford is one of the best in the OVC at drawing fouls and getting to the line, but he unfortunately only makes about 61% of his freebies. Piper and Austin were the Panthers' top three-point threats, both hovering around 37%.

Junior point guard Reggie Smith is on his third college, having already passed through Marquette and UNLV and playing only about 200 minutes combined. He should find his level as an OVC playmaker.

Pictured: an EIU fast break.
Another D-I transfer, 6'8" froward Chris Olivier, becomes eligible at the semester break. He played all of one game at Northern Iowa, getting five points, four boards and two blocks in 16 minutes. He and 7'2" juco Mat Piotrowski will give the team some needed interior bulk, as Piper and junior forward Keenen Anderson are the top returning shot blockers. Piotrowski's "little" brother Luke (all 6'11" of him) may be eligible immediately if the NCAA ever gets back to the Panthers about his waiver.

All told, Spoonhour has 18 players on his roster, and 14 of them will see their first action. Whoever actually gets the minutes, don't expect EIU to give up 39% three-point shooting again. Spoonhour's glacial offense was reasonably efficient, but the defense needed work. It's hard to make a defense better when the entire roster gets overhauled. Ideally, the Panthers won't have that problem next year.

6. SIU-Edwardsville

--This time last year, some big-boy things were expected of SIUE. They had a stud frontcourt duo and a guard who had shot nearly 60% from three as a freshman. The forwards were reasonably productive, but the sweet-shooting guard scuffled through to a 33% season from the arc.

If the Cougars are going to get off the canvas, Kris Davis will need to find some sort of happy medium. No one expects the 59.8 from deep again, but somewhere in the 40s would be fine by coach Lennox Forrester. Davis was also one of the OVC's top 10 assist men, but nobody was helping off of him in his sophomore year.

The loss of forward Jerome Jones leaves SIUE with one fewer perimeter option to take eyes off Davis, but the return of guard Maurice Wiltz will help. Wiltz made 48% before going down for the season in early January.

Opponents shot nearly 53% on two-pointers against the Cougars last season thanks to a lack of size. That problem won't get any better this season, as only two newcomers stand taller than 6'6". Skinny juco forward Keaton Jackson (6'10", 205) averaged more than eight rebounds and two blocks last year. Tulane transfer Grant Fiorentinos (6'10", 225) started six games as a freshman, but quickly fell out of the Green Wave rotation.

SIUE's top two returning rebounders are 6'6" wing Michael Messer and 6'4" guard Tim Johnson, so this is a small pack of Cougars. Even in the vertically challenged OVC, they'll have issues.

Austin Peay: Dec. 19 vs. Lipscomb
--Two Govs get to take on their former program, although they won't recognize the coach.
Belmont: Dec. 1 vs. VCU
--The Bruins played the Rams within 10 points in Richmond last season. How will Havoc play in Nashville?
Eastern Illinois: Dec. 7 vs. Indiana State
--Guarding Jake Odum is a tough task for anybody, let alone a multiple-time washout like Reggie Smith.
Eastern Kentucky: Nov. 30 at NC State
--A definite test for what looks like a weak Colonels frontcourt. How do they slow T.J. Warren without resorting to firearms or bondage?
Jacksonville State: Dec. 8 at Florida State
--FSU lost at home to South Alabama last season, offering one of the first signs that there were serious issues in Tallahassee. This year, the 'Noles aren't nearly as touted, so another Alabama school will be amped for this shot.
Morehead State: Dec. 23 at Tennessee
--Sean Woods vs. Cuonzo Martin would have been a great 1-on-1 matchup in the day. Now, we get to see if Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon can push Posthumus and Reader around. Smart money says they do, but those are big loads.
Murray State: Nov. 26 vs. Middle Tennessee
--MTSU has gotten the kind of mileage out of juco transfers that Murray hopes to this year.
SE Missouri State: Nov. 8 at Saint Louis
--First game of the official Jim Crews era. Nino Johnson vs. Dwayne Evans sounds like a heavyweight fight.
SIU-Edwardsville: Nov. 13 vs. Saint Louis
--SIUE actually manages to get the Billikens in their house. The hard part will be keeping SLU from trashing the place like Keith Moon at a Holiday Inn.
Tennessee-Martin: Nov. 30 at UNLV
--Vegas, baby. Good as it gets.
Tennessee State: Nov. 16 at Wichita State
--Any time you line up against a Final Four participant, it should interest your fans. Patrick Miller vs. Fred Van Vleet should be a fun PG matchup.
Tennessee Tech: Nov. 9 at South Florida
--Tampa's lovely this time of year.

Travis Betran, Austin Peay
Glenn Cosey, Eastern Kentucky
J.J. Mann, Belmont
Tyler Stone, SE Missouri State 
Myles Taylor, UT-Martin

Blake Jenkins, Belmont
Nino Johnson, SE Missouri State
Dennis Ogbe, Tennessee Tech
Corey Walden, Eastern Kentucky
Brian Williams, Jacksonville State 

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Stone, SE Missouri State
--The league's most likely candidate to average 20 PPG, Stone will still have some potent support.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Steve Prohm, Murray State
--This is the year where we find out if Prohm can really coach. If this team wins 20-plus, he'll be fielding power-conference calls all spring.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Jarvis Williams, Murray State
--It's either one of the Murray forwards or Drew Windler at Belmont, but expect Williams to start posting some gaudy numbers immediately.

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