Ohio Valley Preview 2016-17

Ky McKeon

Ohio Valley Preview
(Overall Rankings in Parentheses)


  1. Belmont (1st)
  2. Tennessee State (3rd)
  3. Morehead State (4th)
  4. Tennessee Tech (5th)
  5. Eastern Kentucky (6th)
  6. Jacksonville State (10th)


  1. Murray State (2nd)
  2. Austin Peay (7th)
  3. Eastern Illinois (8th)
  4. Tennessee Martin (9th)
  5. Southeast Missouri State (11th)
  6. SIU Edwardsville (12th)

All Conference Awards

POY: Evan Bradds, Belmont
Coach of the Year: Rick Byrd, Belmont
Newcomer of the Year: Rio Adams, Eastern Kentucky

1. Belmont (1st in East)

Key Returners: Evan Bradds, Taylor Barnette, Amanze Egekeze, Austin Luke
Key Losses: Craig Bradshaw
Key Newcomers: Nick Hopkins


Postseason Projection: 12 - 15 Seed (Auto-bid)
Belmont looks poised to once again be the class of the Ohio Valley this season with the return of the reigning Conference Player of the Year and the departure of only one major contributor. Rick Byrd has turned the Bruins into something of a mid-major power during his tenure. Since Belmont joined a Division 1 conference in 2001, Byrd has led the Bruins to 10 regular season conference championships and 7 NCAA Tournaments. Since Belmont joined the Ohio Valley, they haven’t finished worse than….. first. So why is this year any different? It’s not.

The aforementioned reigning OVC POY is Evan Bradds, a 6’7’’senior forward out of Jamestown, Ohio. Bradds is, to put it lightly, a fundamental Kung Fu master. Bradds ranked 8th in the country in o-rating amongst players who used over 20% of their team’s possessions. He was #1 in the country in true shooting percentage, #1 in effective field goal percentage, and #2 in two-point field goal percentage. The dude shot 72.4% from two on 283 attempts. The remarkable thing is how Bradds scores – he doesn’t overpower anyone with overwhelming size nor does he jump over guys with inhuman athleticism. The big man uses some of the most polished footwork in the nation to back down, shot fake, and dipsy-doo his way around opposing interior defenders. In the OVC, he’s nearly unstoppable when he catches the ball, and almost certainly will retain his belt as the CPOY.

Belmont runs a motion offense focused on quick looks inside to Bradds or finding quick open looks on the perimeter. The Bruins don’t really get out in transition and yet they played at the 40th fastest pace in the nation, a consequence of launching threes early in the shot clock. Belmont attempted the 4th most threes in the country last season and connected at a scorching 36.4% clip – a nice complement to their D1-leading 2PFG%.

The main pieces of this three-point attack, Austin Luke (39%; 100 attempts), Taylor Barnette (37.2%; 196 attempts), and Amanze Egekeze (43%; 100 attempts) all return to circle Bradds in the post. Luke is the Bruins’ point guard. He’s a capable passer (2nd in the OVC in assist rate), but he struggled tremendously with turnovers last season, posting a ghastly 40.0 TO Rate. If he cuts that number down by half, a doable task, Belmont could be even more of an offensive juggernaut this season. Barnette is the resident spot-up shooter, but he’s liable to back cut his man for an easy deuce every now and again. Egekeze is a big guy, but he mostly floats around the perimeter, where he somehow is extremely successful at putting the ball through the hoop despite his unorthodox shooting form. Kevin McClain, a rising sophomore, likely fills in for the graduated Craig Bradshaw. McClain is a completely different player than Bradshaw, preferring to drive to the hole rather than jack threes – a refreshing change of pace for the Bruin offense.

The major weakness of this squad is their defense. While it ranked 4th in the OVC (an overall poor defensive conference), the Bruins were a putrid 281st nationally. With virtually the same personnel returning, this likely won’t improve too much, but the Bruins can outscore most of their adversaries. Dylan Windler, a 6’7’’ sophomore post man, offers the greatest defensive hope for the Bruins on the interior. Windler is a skilled rebounder and above-average shot-blocker – he should see a spike in playing time this year if the Bruins hope to become more competent defensively.

Belmont is a shoe-in to finish in the top three of the OVC this season and is the favorite to repeat as conference champs for the 5th year in a row. If they win their postseason tournament this season, instead of falling to lowly Austin Peay, the Bruins will be a tough first round out for a 3, 4, or 5 seed.

2. Murray State (1st in West)

Key Returners: Bryce Jones, Damarcus Croaker, Gee McGhee
Key Losses: Jeffrey Moss, Wayne Langston
Key Newcomers: Jonathan Stark, Terrell Miller, Jr., Gilbert Thomas, Jr., Dondre Griffin, Jalen Dupree, Jerami Grace, Jachai Taylor


Postseason Projection: NIT/CBI
Matt McMahon’s first season in Murray, Kentucky could be considered a success. The Racers were competitive out of conference during the early part of they year with wins over Middle Tennessee, Milwaukee, and Pepperdine, and were able to beat up on the significantly weaker West division of the OVC. But the Racers were far from a “good” team. Murray State had trouble winning against the better East division OVC squads thanks to their overall poor defense. In transition, the Racers were the best team in the country in limiting opponent opportunities, but in the half court, Murray couldn’t stop opposing units from scorching the net from deep and inside the arc or getting to the foul line. McMahon and company will need to imprint a higher focus on D this season. If they can increase efficiency on that end, the Racers have a legitimate shot at improving on last year’s record with the return of key backcourt members and the influx of talented transfers.

Similar to last season, the strength of the Racer offense will be its backcourt especially with the graduation of big man Wayne Langston. McMahon will have the luxury of starting a dual point guard tandem in returning senior Bryce Jones and Tulane transfer Jonathan Stark. Jones is the returning leading scorer for Murray State with the departures of Jeffrey Moss and Langston. Jones is a talented point guard who brings versatility to the table in the way he’s able to distribute, drive, and knock down shots. Jones ranked 9th in the OVC in assist rate last season and was in the top 20 in free throw rate despite standing only 6’0’’ tall. He also shot a respectable 34% on 103 attempts from distance. Stark isn’t quite the penetrator that Jones is, but he’s certainly as talented passing and shooting the ball. Stark led the American in assist rate back in 2014-15 and shot 33.3% from downtown during his two-year tenure at Tulane. Both guards have quick hands on defense as well allowing them to get steals and force turnovers. They should be a fun pair to watch and excellent teachers to freshman stud PG Dondre Griffin.

Two other returners, Demarcus Croaker (a former Texas Longhorn) and Gee McGhee (a former Chattanooga Moc), should also play major roles in the Racer offense this season. Croaker is a capable scorer who struggled with efficiency last season. He has a nice-looking stroke from deep but somehow only connected on 50% of his free throws. He’ll need to improve on that efficiency to hold off talented freshmen like Gilbert Thomas and Jachai Taylor from eating into his minutes. McGhee is a hard-nosed 4-man who loves barreling his way to the bucket and drawing contact.

The frontcourt was a real issue for Murray State last season – their depth behind Langston was simply non-existent. This season the Racers should be considerably more well-equipped in the big man department. Terrell Miller, Jr. comes to Murray as a JUCO transfer. Miller was a double-double machine last season at his JUCO and earned Honorable Mention All-America honors. He should start right away for McMahon’s squad. Rising sophomore Brion Sanchious should also be a major contributor this season after his year was cut short by injury in 2015-16. Sanchious is a beast on the boards and a solid defender – he has a shot to start alongside or in place of Miller this season. Jalen Dupree, a long freshman forward, could also contribute right away with his athleticism and shot blocking ability. Thomas is sure to get run at the 4 as well with his 7’2’’ wing span.

Murray State has the chops to once again dominate the West division of the OVC, but beyond that, they have a real shot at competing for the overall conference crown. An improvement on defense and interior play will be the keys to success this season for McMahon’s Racers.

3. Tennessee State (2nd in East)

Key Returners: Tahjere McCall, Wayne Martin, Christian Mekowulu
Key Losses: Keron Deshields
Key Newcomers: Ken’Darrius Hamilton, Jordan Reed, Daniel Cummings, Delano Spencer, Xavier Williams, Chris Bolden, A’Torey Everett


Postseason Projection: NIT/CBI/CIT
Head Coach Dana Ford flipped the fortunes of his 5-win 2014-15 Tiger squad upside down last season, leading Tennessee State to the school’s first 20-win season since 2012. The Tigers went from a preseason KenPom ranking of 301 to ending the year ranked 164, thanks to Ford’s coaching ability and an influx of talented transfers. Ford has quickly instilled his style of play to this program – one that focuses heavily on defense, particularly when it comes to protecting the paint.

The Tigers boasted the OVC’s best defense last season thanks to their keen ability to steal the ball (15th highest steal rate nationally) and force turnovers (14th highest TO rate nationally). TSU focuses on not allowing anything at the rim; they collapse down on penetrators and post-ups, and have quick guards with quick hands deflecting swing passes and kick-outs. This heavy focus on rim protection leaves TSU susceptible to good three-point shooting teams (like Belmont), but if the opposing squad is missing shots, it’ll be a long night against the Tigers with their rebounding ability. Tahjere McCall, a returning senior and defending Conference Defensive Player of the Year, is the catalyst on defense. He ranked 9th in the country in steal percentage last season, averaging just under 2.5 thefts per game. On the other end, McCall is one of the best penetrators in the conference, drawing the 3rd most fouls per 40 minutes in the OVC last season. He isn’t much of an outside shooter (not many of the Tigers are), but McCall is deadly when he’s attacking the rim or working from 15 feet and in. He’ll once again be the focal point of an offense determined to stuff the ball in the basket this season.

With the graduation of Keron DeShields, TSU has vacancy at the point guard position. Sophomore Armani Chaney is the most likely candidate to slide into the starting role, but we’ll also see McCall handling the ball often – he averaged 3.0 assist per game last year. Next to Chaney and McCall in the starting five will be either returning junior Darreon Riddick or Georgia Tech transfer Chris Bolden. Riddick is mainly a spot-up shooter, but performed horribly last year in that role shooting 27.4% from downtown and 33.3% inside the arc. He did shoot 81.4% from the line last season and, as a freshman, he converted on 44.9% of his three-point attempts, suggesting he can in fact shoot the rock. Bolden will likely be one of the most valuable pieces to TSU’s offense this season with his ACC experience. He too struggled a bit with his shooting last season, but he offers more versatility on the offensive end than Riddick with his penetration ability. Bolden is also the superior defender, meaning Ford likely gives him more run as the season progresses.

The frontcourt features big men Wayne Martin and Christian Mekowulu. Martin was a top five rebounder in the OVC last season and ranked as the 6th best shot blocker on the defensive end. On offense, he’s a load in the post where he finishes well and draws a substantial amount of contact. Mekowulu returns from a season-long injury last season. In 2014-15, the big man was TSU’s second highest used player, though he isn’t nearly as efficient as Martin scoring on the block. Like Martin, Mekowulu is a strong rebounder and shot-blocker. The tandem should form the best defensive frontcourt in the conference.

This team features way too many newcomers to mention all individually. A few highlights aside from Bolden include Jordan Reed, a former All-America East selection at Binghampton. Reed was Binghampton’s best player for two seasons, but that’s kind of like being the best basketball player in Qatar – probably doesn’t mean much. He’ll provide solid depth as a backcourt role player. Ken’Darrius Hamilton and Xavier Williams, both JUCO transfers, will provide capable reinforcements for Martin and Mekowulu inside. Redshirt freshmen Thomas Davis and Jalen Duke and true frosh Daniel Cummings will provide shooting help for a backcourt that sorely needs it.

TSU’s defense makes them an OVC title contender. If their offense improves its shot-making ability and turnover woes, the Tigers could conceivably knock Belmont off the top of the hill.

4. Morehead State (3rd in East)

Key Returners: Xavier Moon, DeJuan Marrero
Key Losses: Corban Collins, Brent Arrington, Anthony Elechi, Lyonell Gaines
Key Newcomers: Jordan Walker, Djimon Henson, Soufiyane Diakite, Malik Winston


Postseason Projection: NIT/CBI/CIT
Efficiency-wise, Morehead State was the Ohio Valley’s best overall team last season. Their defense featured a high-pressure attack from their guards on the perimeter – both in a full and half court setting – and strong rim protection and rebounding in the interior. The Eagles ranked 14th in the nation in steal percentage and forced the 19th most turnovers in the land. They also hacked the living shit out of teams, a consequence of playing physical basketball. On offense, Morehead mostly scored off their opportunities caused by forcing turnovers and getting the ball to the bucket (whether by penetration or offensive rebounding). The Eagles did not shoot a lot of threes last season and weren’t very efficient at putting the ball in the basket, but ranked 7th in the country in offensive rebounding leading to a cornucopia of put-back opportunities. Despite the loss of several key pieces, the Eagles should be a similar team as last season.

DeJuan Marrero was a major reason Morehead was such an effective rebounding squad. He ranked in the top ten in the OVC in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage despite standing only 6’6’’. With the loss of Anthony Elechi and Lyonell Gaines, the rebounding burden will be even more so on the broad shoulders of Marrero. Who lines up next to Marrero is a bit of a crap shoot. Lamontray Harris, Treshaad Williams, and Ty’Quan Bitting. Williams is the best rebounder of the three despite being only 6’5’’ and is the truest post presence. Bitting also likes to work inside, but he barely played last season as a junior. Harris is more of a natural 3-man, but he has potential as a small-ball 4. Keion Alexander, a raw 6’10’’ redshirt frosh, could also see some time this year.

Morehead’s backcourt is significantly deeper than their frontcourt this season. Xavier Moon is the team’s returning leading scorer and should be Morehead’s focal point on offense this year. Moon is an excellent outside shooter (41.4% from three last season), but he’s also a capable driver where he finished 64% of his shots at the rim. Two former reserves, Malik Maitland and Miguel Dicent, should step up alongside Moon this season in feature roles. Maitland will serve as the team’s point guard this season. He’s a good facilitator but like most freshmen struggled with turnovers in ’15-16. While he didn’t shoot the rock well from either two or three, his 80.4% free-throw clip is inspiring. Dicent is a great shooter from the 2-guard spot. With Dicent and Moon, Morehead will have a deadly shooting combo on the floor at most times suggesting the Eagles may attempt more threes this year than last season.

Sean Woods brings in a strong crop of freshmen with the arrival of Jordan Walker, Djimon Henson, and Malik Winston. Walker and Henson were both ranked in the top ten of the state of Indiana coming out of high school. All three guards bring something to the table for Woods and the Eagles. Walker is a strong combo-guard with point guard skills; Henson is a versatile scorer capable of shooting from the outside and taking his man off the bounce; Winston is a solid shooter and potentially excellent perimeter defender. The three newbies give Morehead one of the deepest backcourts in the conference. JUCO transfer Soufiyane Diakite and freshman Alonzo Chatman could each play a role inside off the pine.

Woods’ team should once again be a contender in the Ohio Valley this season. How high the Eagles finish will depend a lot on the emergence of Xavier Moon and committee of green forwards next to Marrero.   

5. Tennessee Tech (4th in East)

Key Returners: Aleksa Jugovic, Hakeem Rogers
Key Losses: Torrance Rowe, Ryan Martin, Anthony Morse
Key Newcomers: Kajon Mack, Colton Blevins, Miles Thomas, Stephaun Adams, JaCardo Hawkins


Postseason Projection:

Last season was Steve Payne’s best in Cookeville, Tennessee. His Golden Eagle squad played a completely different style than in years past with a primary focus on outside shooting and perimeter play versus the normal post-pounding we’ve come to expect out of Tech. A major factor of this switch in style was the fantastic play of point guard Torrance Rowe, who leaves a gigantic hole for Payne to fill this season in the backcourt. Rowe was the catalyst of Tech’s OVC leading offense, and two frontcourt members, Ryan Martin and Anthony Morse, propelled TTU’s 2nd ranked 2PFG%. With all three of these key players gone, TTU could be due for some major regression.

The frontcourt is the biggest question mark for a normally strong frontcourt team. Mason Ramsey, a redshirt junior, likely steps into one of the open forward slots. Ramsey is a versatile offensive player able to score inside and out, but he doesn’t offer much from the rebounding or interior defensive perspective. Another option could be Jacardo Hawkins, a JUCO transfer known for shot blocking and rebounding. Hawkins is just the kind of brutish big man TTU needs to fill the void left by Morse. Micaiah Henry, a 6’8” redshirt frosh, could also see a fair share of court time. Henry once had a triple-double in high school with these stats: 26 point, 20 rebounds, 13 blocks; so he may have the tools to start from day one either alongside Hawkins or in place of him.

Tennessee Tech’s backcourt is far more certain and sound than its frontcourt. Payne likely starts three returning guards: Shirmane Thomas (6’2” Sr.), Hakeem Rogers (6’1”, Sr.), and Aleksa Jugovic (6’3”, Jr.). Thomas will take over ball handling responsibilities for the departed Rowe. He is also arguably TTU’s best perimeter defender. Tech is certainly not known for their defensive prowess (10th worst in the OVC last season; 300th nationally), so any bump Thomas can give them over Rowe is a positive towards improving that area. Rogers is a sharp-shooting 2-guard who connected on 39.3% of his 140 three-point attempts last season. With Rowe gone, I’d expect both him and Jugovic to flirt with 200 three-point attempts this season. The just-mentioned Jugovic is TTU’s returning leading scorer and best overall shooter (.467/.411/.877). He offers little to nothing on the defensive side of the ball, but he can absolutely shoot the crap out of the orange.

Two players to watch this year in reserve roles are Kajon Mack, a Tulane transfer, and rising sophomore Courtney Alexander II (his dad has the same name minus the “II”). Both these guys have the chops to start for TTU. Mack is a combo guard capable of handling the rock, shooting it from deep (at an O.K. rate), or driving to the hole. Alexander may be the most athletic player on the Golden Eagle roster and is a potential matchup nightmare for opposing OVC defenses as a 6’7’’ wing. 

It’s going to be a challenge for TTU to finish with an 11-5 conference record again this season. They lose some of the most talent out of anyone in the league. They’re offense is bound to regress this season, which could spell disaster for a team that doesn’t defend particularly well.

6. Eastern Kentucky (5th in East)

Key Returners: Nick Mayo, Isaac McGlone
Key Losses: Jarelle Reischel, JaVontae Hawkins, Paul Jackson
Key Newcomers: Rio Adams, Dillon Avare, Parker Chitty, Asante Gist, Zach Charles, DeAndre Dishman, Marlon Adams, Lachlan Anderson


Postseason Projection: None
The Eastern Kentucky Colonels struggled in their first season under coach Dan McHale. The Colonels had one of the most inexperienced teams in the country last season due to roster turnover and the influx of transfers and freshmen. With the transfer of Paul Jackson and graduation if Jarelle Reischel and JaVontae Hawkins, EKU will once again be a relatively inexperienced team. But, the addition of a couple key transfers and freshman plus the maturation of reigning OVC Frosh of the Year, Nick Mayo, should have the Colonels right in the thick of things.

The aforementioned Mayo will be the focal point of McHale’s run and gun offense. Mayo is in many ways similar to Belmont’s Evan Bradds, except Mayo can step outside and shoot from distance. As a freshman, Mayo posted a shooting slash of .605/.538/.815 and ranked in the top 10 in the OVC in eFG% and TS% while boasting the 5th best block rate in the conference on the other end. The 6’9’’ forward should only grow in his second season and should be one of the most offensive dominant forces in the OVC.

McHale’s roster features only three other players outside of Mayo that made a significant impact on last year’s squad. Isaac McGlone, EKU’s best defender, is back. McGlone started every game last season and played the third most minutes on the team, but he contributes very little on offense. He’s a very good outside shooter but didn’t let it fly often. To put it simply – McGlone is a prototypical “glue guy”. Jaylen Babb-Harrison and Dujuanta Weaver also return for the Colonels. Babb-Harrison was one of the best three-point shooters in the country last season connecting on 45.6% of his 90 attempts. He may get a few starting nods this season, but it’ll be tough for McHale to start him over the incoming Rio Adams (more on him below), Weaver missed the half the season last year due to injury. He’ll play a lot of point guard this season for the Colonels along with 2-star freshman Asante Gist (again, more on him below).

The key to EKU’s success for the 2016-17 season will be how well McHale integrates the new blood coming into Richmond, KY. Of the plethora of newcomers, the following have the most potential to impact the lineup: Rio Adams (Kansas / JUCO), Asante Gist (freshman), Zach Charles (JUCO), Dillon Avare (Louisville), Deandre Dishman (freshman), and Lachlan Anderson (freshman). Adams is the biggest score for McHale; he’s a 6’4’’ wing who committed to Kansas after being ranked #91 in the class of 2012. After a failed stint at KU, Adams went to a JUCO in Texas where he served as a high-scoring, efficient wing. The senior has loads of talent and could score 15-20ppg in McHale’s up-tempo offense. Gist will compete with Weaver for staring point guard duties; he’s a score-first point guard with excellent ball handling skills and tremendous toughness. He should excel in the EKU system. Charles is an athletic forward who can play both the 3 and 4. He should provide rim protection alongside Mayo on defense. Dishman and Anderson are both combo-forwards. Dishman is highly athletic and has an affinity for dunking. Anderson comes out of Australia – he’s an excellent outside shooter and capable scorer. Avare didn’t do much at Louisville, but he’s a talented combo-guard who should see more success in the OVC.

EKU played at the 24th fastest pace in the country last year (#1 in the OVC). They ranked 9th nationally in eFG% and shot well from basically everywhere on the floor. The losses of Reischel and Hawkins are huge; guys like Adams, Babb-Harrison, and Gist will have to step up to maintain EKU’s ’15-16 efficiency. On defense, the Colonels were pitiful. EKU plays a high-pressure style of defense (they forced the 49th most TO’s in the nation last year), but its over-aggressiveness is often exploited by opposing teams – especially at the rim where the Colonels allowed opponents to shoot 61.3%. Opposing units also tend to not have any problem hitting threes against EKU – which is a major problem for EKU. The Colonels will need to improve on defense if they want to compete at the top of the conference this season.

7. Austin Peay (2nd in West)

Key Returners: Josh Robinson, Jared Savage, John Murry, Kenny Jones
Key Losses: Chris Horton, Khalil Davis
Key Newcomers: Jartavious Dobbs, Sam McCracken, Dre’Kalo Clayton


Postseason Projection: None
Austin Peay did the unthinkable last season when they took the OVC Tournament by storm and earned an automatic bid to the Big Dance despite finishing 4th in the West division and 8th overall in the conference. This marked the fourth NCAA Tourney berth for the Governors under Dave Loos who now enters his 27th season as the Peay head coach. With the loss of one of the most dominant interior forces in OVC history in Chris Horton, Austin Peay’s chances at earning another bid don’t look too strong – then again, they didn’t really last season either.

With Horton’s departure, the focal point of the offense shifts to junior guard Josh Robinson. Robinson, a 2nd Team All-OVC member last season, was the team’s second leading scorer last year and its highest used player. The 6’2’’ guard is a very good playmaker and is able to get his own shot from anywhere on the floor – 14th in the OVC in FT Rate; 16th in 3P%. The Govs had major point guard issues last season, the main one being they didn’t really have one capable of running a D1 offense. Robinson will assume a lot more ball handling duties this season despite being a natural 2-guard. Reserve Zach Glotta may (emphasis on may) be able to turn into a competent PG option, but as of now its Robinson’s show.

Joining Robinson in the backcourt will be senior John Murry and sophomore Jared Savage. Murry puts up a ton of shots when he’s on the floor and sometimes he’s successful. The Govs as a squad were not a strong shooting team a season ago, and Murry was certainly a contributing factor. Savage was tremendous breakout potential this year. After a so-so start to the 2015-16 season, Savage erupted in the OVC Tournament earning All-Tournament honors and scoring 21 point versus Belmont and 24 versus UT-Martin. Savage offers hope for the Govs’ awful shooting (38.6% from three last season) and should be a pillar of the offense this season – expect a double digit scoring average in 2016-17. I also like 6’4’’ sophomore Chris Porter-Bunton to make a leap this season. He too saw a major increase in minutes and production as the season progressed and should be a key role player for the Govs this year. Dre’Kalo Clayton, a former USF Bull and JUCO transfer, could also see some floor time.

So there’s clearly a gaping hole in the frontcourt without Chris Horton, a player who was single-handedly responsible for Austin Peay ranking in the top 100 in OR% in the country and the main source of scoring for the Governor offense. Kenny Jones is back to reclaim his starting power forward slot. Jones was the second best rebounder on the squad last year and shot a respectable 53.6% from the field. Someone should probably show him how to shoot a free throw – he shot 41% on 83 attempts last season. Freshman Jartavious Dobbs looks to be the heir to Horton’s throne. Dobbs is a super-long forward/center with superb shot-blocking ability. He’ll be a tad raw at first on offense, but I like Loos’s track record in developing big men. Freshmen Sam McCracken and senior Assane Diop should also contribute to the frontcourt.

Austin Peay could very well finish in a similar spot as last season, but their focus on offense will shift considerably. I’d expect a higher three-point attempt rate and lower rebounding rate coming as a direct result of the Horton graduation. Defensively, this team will still be lost, but Dobbs has potential to own the lane.

8. Eastern Illinois (3rd in West)

Key Returners: Demetrius McReynolds, Cornell Johnston, Casey Teson
Key Losses: Trae Anderson, A.J. Riley
Key Newcomers: Logan Koch, Ray Crossland, Montell “Silk“ Goodwin, Devantae’ Price


Postseason Projection: None
Eastern Illinois finished 9-7 in the OVC last season despite being a bottom 100 team in the country. A lot of wins were courtesy of the weak West division, but the Panthers were competitive in nearly every conference game – even against the East (save Belmont). EIU had some talented players last season but they were simply much too small (2nd shortest team in the country) to put up a fight on the boards or on the defensive end. Gone is Trae Anderson who may be a major addition by subtraction. Anderson was the 3rd highest used player in the country last season and attempted the 6th highest percentage of his team’s shots. Sadly, he posted a subpar 93.6 o-rating thanks to poor overall shooting. However, Jay Spoonhour’s team will miss his tenacity on the boards and knack for getting to the line.

As said before, this is a small team. Like most small teams, EIU’s strength lies in its backcourt. The trio of Cornell JohnstonCasey Teson, and Demetrius McReynolds should lead the way for the Panthers this season. Johnston is a 5’7’’ firecracker at the point guard position. He played the most minutes in the OVC last season and 5th most in the entire nation while shooting 38.1% from the deep (10th best in conference) and posting the 4th best assist rate. Johnston shooting, passing, stealing, and tempo-pushing ability makes him the most valuable piece of this roster. Teson returns as a bulky spot-up shooter; he connected on 37.8% of his threes a season ago. McReynolds is the most versatile offensive player at Spoonhour’s disposal; he can shoot and drive and averaged an impressive 5.1 boards per game despite standing only 6’2’’. Newcomer Montell “Silk” Goodwin should contribute in the backcourt as well this season; he earned Honorable Mention All-American honors at his JUCO last season.

The interior is a real issue for EIU. Joe Kuligoski and Patrick Muldoon, the presumptive starters, each attempted less than half their shots at the rim last season suggesting they aren’t exactly the most dominant post scorers. Kuligoski is a decent rebounder but Muldoon wasn’t much to write home about. The Panthers are going to need sophomores Marshawn Blackmon and Lucas Jones to step up into bigger roles this season. We should also see a lot of JUCO transfer Ray Crossland at the 3 and 4 spot. 

I don’t see a lot of improvement in the cards for the EIU Panthers this season. While Anderson’s departure could open up the spacing and passing of the offense, he leaves a giant hole in the rebounding and penetrating department along with fellow departure A.J. Riley. This team likely still gets annihilated at the rim and in transition due to their size relative lack of defensive ability. I like Johnston – he’s one of the best point guards in the league – but he won’t be enough to improve on EIU’s 9-7 record from last season.

9. Tennessee Martin (4th in West)

Key Returners: Jacolby Mobley, Kedar Edwards
Key Losses: Twymond Henderson, Alex Anderson, Myles Taylor
Key Newcomers: A.J. Nywesh, Dante Bailey, Matt Butler, Malik Pugh, Nehemiah Mabson, Kahari Beaufort


Postseason Projection: None
Holy turnover Batman! The UT-Martin Skyhawks return only four players that played significant minutes from last season and add a ridiculous crop of nine newcomers. Not only that, but UT-Martin also has a new coach this year in Anthony Stewart. Stewart spent the last two seasons as an associate head coach under former head coach Heath Schroyer, who left to become an assistant at NC State, so the philosophy and style of Schroyer may still live on. But, will Stewart be able to integrate all the new pieces and form a competitive basketball team this season?

Jacolby Mobley and Kedar Edwards look to be the leaders of the Skyhawks this year. Mobley, a natural off-guard, likely slides over and assumes more ball handling responsibilities this season. Mobley’s most valuable aspect is his shooting ability – he turned in a shooting slash of .535/.362/.821 while taking 24.1% of his team’s shots while on the floor. With the absence of Twymond Howard and Myles Taylor this season, expect Mobley’s usage to increase dramatically. Edwards is 3/4 hybrid forward. He was by far the Skyhawks’ best rebounder last season despite his 6’5’’ frame, and he was also one of the best overall defenders on the team. Edwards is a versatile player on both ends of the floor and should be one of the most valuable pieces Stewart has this season.

Rounding out the starting five is anybody’s guess at this point, so I’ll take a shot. Given the personnel options at Stewart’s disposal, I think UT-Martin throws out three guards most of the time. This means we’re going to see a combination of JUCO transfers A.J. Nywesh and Kahari Beaufort and D1 transfers Malik Pugh (UNC Wilmington) and Matt Butler (Rhode Island). Nywesh scored over 1,000 points in his two years in JUCO so he should be a viable option as a high-scoring shooting guard. Beaufort was highly recruited coming out of high school He’s a fantastic shooter and excels in the open floor. With his height, he should be able to hold his own out on the wing. Pugh is a point guard with a so-so jump shot. His value will be as a ball handler and distributor off the bench. Butler is a talented shooting guard and former 3-star recruit. He wasn’t given much of a shot at Rhode Island, but could excel in the OVC.

The interior could be an issue for this UT-Martin squad. Schroyer teams always played a morphing, matchup 2-3 zone and historically have rebounded incredibly well. The zone part shouldn’t be a problem with current personnel, but outside of Edwards, rebounding could be a concern. We’re going to see a lot Chandler Rowe and Javier Martinez, two 6’7’’ senior power forwards. Martinez rebounded very well in limited minutes last season and actually proved to be an effective post player on offense. Rowe is a tad more versatile, able to shoot out to the three-point line, however he’s not as strong of a rebounder. Malik London could be an option off the pine, but he barely played last season for Schroyer. London is the team’s best shot-blocker hands down, so he may see some floor time. Nick Detlev is 7’2’’ but hasn’t proven to be useful thus far.

UT-Martin’s conference record will once again benefit by residing in the West half of the conference, but overall the Skyhawks could struggle. This team has simply had too much turnover to expect them to be a top 5 OVC program this season. But perhaps the newbies will overachieve in Stewart’s first year.

10. Jacksonville State (6th in East)

Key Returners: Malcolm Drumwright, Erik Durham, Greg Tucker
Key Losses: JaQuail Townser, Jared Hamilton, Jeremy Watson
Key Newcomers: Derek Green, Ashton Spears, Immanuel Griggs, Deshawn Jones, Tyrik Edwards, Mohamed Abuarisha, Jacara Cross


Postseason Projection: None
The last three seasons down in Jacksonville, Alabama have been tumultuous to say the least. The Gamecocks have been unable to keep a continuous roster year over year and have made a habit of finishing near the bottom of the conference. Their coach of eight years, James Green, was fired at the end of last season paving the way for former WKU Hilltoppers leader Ray Harper. Harper led WKU to two NCAA Tourneys in five seasons and won 20 games thrice. The experienced coach represents a faint ray of hope for a program in desperate need of guidance.

Jacksonville State did two things well last season on offense – shoot the three and protect the rock. They did one thing well on defense – not allow threes. With three key perimeter players returning, these aspects should remain constant. Malcolm Drumwright returns as the team’s point guard overall best offensive weapon. Drumwright’s efficiency numbers suffered due to being forced into tough isolation situations thanks to the relative lack of talent around him. The greatest value Drumwright brings to the Gamecocks is his ability to control the ball without turning it over. He’s a legitimately good point guard with a jump shot and penetration ability. Greg Tucker will be his running mate once again this season; he’s a spot-up shooter but didn’t connect on a high percentage last year. His 80.7% free throw clip is inspiring though. Erik Durham is the team’s best shooter period. He splashed 40.2% of his threes last season on 177 attempts. However, he is not a good on-ball defender on the other end.

The Gamecocks were just pitiful inside last season. They ranked 340th in the country in 2PFG% and had an extremely difficult time getting anything at the rim. JSU’s best rebounder, Jeremy Watson, departs but the Cocks have potential to improve this season in the frontcourt. Christian Cunningham is due for big leap, especially now that he’s under the tutelage of Ray Harper. Harper describes Cunningham as the team’s best athlete, and the big man was JSU’s best per minute O-boarder and post presence a season ago. He’ll be joined in the frontcourt by Immanuel Griggs, a 6’8’’ JUCO transfer and former ESPN 3-star recruit. Griggs has potential to be a strong rebounder in the OVC and will offer more rim protection than the departed Watson. Besides Griggs and Cunningham, this team has no interior depth. Andre Statam, a rising sophomore and natural 3-man, will be forced into more of a 4 role this season, and we should see the freshmen Jacara Cross and Mohamed Abuarisha get a bit of run.

The remaining newcomers will all reside in the backcourt this season. Deshawn Jones looks to be a capable point guard option off the pine and could even be a starting option alongside Drumwright. Jones averaged 14 points per game and shot 38% from three at his JUCO last season. Ashton Spears will also see some time in the backcourt – he’ll be a sharpshooter for Harper off the pine.

Harper likely pushes the tempo more this season than Green ever did. This could play well with the type of personnel the Gamecocks have. They’ll once again be a perimeter oriented team focused on the three-ball first and the interior second. Their defense should improve with the maturation of Cunningham and the JUCO transfer Griggs, but I wouldn’t expect any miracles.

11.  Southeast Missouri State (5th in West)

Key Returners: Jamaal Calvin, Antonius Cleveland, Joel Angus, Trey Kellum
Key Losses: Eric McGill, Isiah Jones
Key Newcomers: Daniel Simmons, William Tchiengang, Jonathan Dalton, Ray Kowalski, Denzel Mahoney, Tahj Eaddy, Dondre Duffus, Milos Vranes


Postseason Projection: None
Rick Ray’s first year as head coach at SEMO could have gone better. After struggling to win at Mississippi State, Ray… struggled to win games at SEMO. Growing pains were expected given a new coach in a program with significant turnover after the departure of former head coach Dickey Nutt (really I just wanted to type his name – it’s Dickey Nutt). The Redhawks return only four players from last year’s 5-24 (2-14) squad, but they were all starters (at some point during the year) and they’re all competent basketball players. Each of the returning pieces should improve from last season, it’ll just matter how quickly the 11 newcomers come along.

Antonius Cleveland is this squad’s best player by a significant margin. Cleveland led the Redhawks in scoring, rebounding, and blocks as a wing last season and is a potential All-Conference caliber player. Cleveland excels in getting out in transition (SEMO likes to push the tempo) and drawing contact driving through the lane. He’s not a good shooter by any stretch of the imagination, but Cleveland finds multiple ways to put the ball in the basket. Supporting Cleveland in the backcourt is returning point guard Jamaal Calvin. Calvin will be tasked with ball handling duties for this squad, but if posts a similar o-rating to last season (87.8), one of the many incoming guards would be happy to take his place. Out of all the rookie guards Ray brings in, I like Daniel Simmons the most to start on day one, but more on that and the other newbies in a bit.

Inside, the Redhawks are a bit undersized but not without talent. Trey Kellum and Joel Angus both averaged 10 and 5 last season and both are true posts in the sense that they do all their damage from 15 feet and in. SEMO didn’t completely suck at rebounding and getting to the foul line last season thanks to Kellum and Angus. On defense, the Redhawks play mostly zone, which hardly stopped anyone last season. Kellum and Angus can hold their own at the bottom of the zone due to their rebounding ability, but neither offers much rim protection.

SEMO brings in 11 new guys for 2016-17. Two are walk-ons so we’ll skip them (apologies). I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know A TON about any of these newcomers, but I did spend some time watching their highlight reels. Here’s some notes on each

Tahj Eaddy – point guard / good shooter / extremely good passer
Ray Kowalski – shooting guard / good shooter / strong / pretty athletic
Denzel Mahoney – wears goggles / good shooter / good ball defender
Dondre Duffus – great name / combo guard
Daniel Simmons – scorer / EXPLOSIVE / very impressive / best looking newcomer
Milos Vranes – stretch forward / can drive on slower bigs
Jonathan Dalton – so freaking quick / lightning bolt slashing through the middle  crafty PG
William Tchiengang – can stretch the floor / athletic / good post scorer / explosive / beastly
Jaylen Benton – shooter / not sure he plays much

So there you have it. Top impactful newcomers (in my opinion) should be Daniel Simmons, William Tchiengang, Ray Kowalski, and either Tahj Eaddy or Jonatan Dalton. Don’t hold me too that.

SEMO will be an improved team this season. Will they be dramatically improved? Probably not, but I can see this team winning 10 games (overall) and not finishing dead last in the OVC.

12.  SIU Edwardsville (6th in West)

Key Returners: Burak Eslik, Carlos Anderson, Keenan Simmons
Key Losses: C.J. Carr, Yemi Makanjuola
Key Newcomers: Tre Harris, Glen Pierre, Justin Benton, Brandon Jackson, Kevion Stewart


Postseason Projection: None
We don’t need to waste too much time discussing the SIUE Cougars (apologies to the fan base of the common St. Louis high school destination). The simple truth is, SIUE hasn’t been a factor in the slightest since joining D1 2009. After firing Lennox Forrester, the Cougars hired Jon Harris, a former Cuonzo Martin assistant at MO State, Tennessee, and California. It’s hard to tell how successful Harris will be at SIUE (where success could be little things), but his first year certainly wasn’t an ideal start. The Cougars finished 6-22 (3-13) last season and lose a point guard and center from that squad. Yeesh.

The backcourt duo of Carlos Anderson and Burak Eslik is a bright spot in the lineup – the slim ray of sunshine poking through the cell bars in the dungeon. Eslik is a whiz at getting to the foul line; he drew fouls at the 9th highest rate in the OVC and connected on 84.5% of his 155 free throw attempts. Eslik has the ability to be a good shooter from everywhere on the floor, but his shot selection (thanks to the overall lack of talent) hindered his efficiency. Anderson is a burly guard with strong rebounding skills. He can create his own shot and likes to shoot the three (albeit poorly). Anderson was thrown into the fire as a freshman, so it’s possible we see a more polished product this season in his sophomore campaign. Tre Harris, a K State transfer, also figures to play a major role in the Cougar offense. Josh White started half of the 10 total games he played last season, so it’s possible he starts the year as the team’s point guard while Harris comes off the pine.

Inside, Keenan Simmons will be a familiar face, but the loss of Yemi Makanjuola leaves a giant hole to fill. Makanjuola was the highest used player on the roster and was one of the best boarders in the OVC (rebounding was SIUE’s one strength last season). Replacing him will be a combination of returning 6’8’’ forward Jalen Henry and Charleston transfer Glen Pierre, Jr. Pierre is a natural center and is, you know, tall. He’ll likely be an above average rebounder for the Cougars but don’t expect too much offense.

Harris brings in a slew of freshman, all of which have shots at contributing to this rebuilding team. Justin Benton is a quick point guard who could be the long term answer at a position of great question for SIUE (as could fellow frosh Christian Ellis). Brandon Jackson has good potential as a rebounder and rim protector, two things that are never bad to have off the bench. Kevion Stewart projects as a good shooter from the 2-guard spot.

SIUE was a bottom 30 offense and bottom 100 defense last season. I tend to think Jon Harris is a good hire and will eventually slowly turn this program’s fortunes around, but this year will not be the year of renaissance.