Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Preview & Season Review
Before the season, the battle for the OVC crown looked as if it was going to be 2-horse race between the traditional league powers, Belmont and Murray St. Both schools had retained the regular season title belt for 6 straight years, with Belmont as the incumbent from a year ago. Ricky Byrd’s Bruins proved to battle tested yet again in 2016, standing the test of a deep league, which saw a few surprising teams knocking on the door of the top spot. My colleague Jim Root was not the only one who struggled to predict the 3rd – 10th place teams, but he was pretty spot on with his bottom-of-the-league picks of Jax St. and SIU-Edwardsville, along with predicting the league winner in Belmont.
Tennessee St. and Tennessee Tech both shocked a lot of people with their emergence this year, each finishing only a game back of Belmont for the outright regular season title. Even throughout the non-conference portion of the year, most would’ve still projected both schools to wind up in the middle-to-bottom part of the standings. However, both flipped the switch once conference play rolled around, and continued to heat up down the stretch. Any gambler who wagered on either team throughout conference play likely cashed in that bet, as the ranked among the top 20 ROI teams throughout the months of January and March.
Morehead St. also made a little more noise than most expected, finishing in a 3-way tie with Tenny St. and Tenny Tech for 2nd place. However, the biggest surprise may have been the free-fall of Southeast Missouri St., under first year coach Rick Ray. Many argued Ray got a raw deal when he was pushed out the door at Mississippi State to make room for Adidas’s golden boy Ben Howland. The most noticeable stylistic change for SEMO from prior years was Ray’s heavy focus on zone defensively. Perhaps he didn’t have the personnel he needed in year 1, but the Redhawks were absolutely gashed on the interior, ranking in the bottom 10 of the country in 2-point % defense and blocked shots.
With the dynamic of the West and East divisions, the bracket is naturally set-up in those two “mini-regions”. I love all bracket formats that excessively incentivize strong regular season performance, and the OVC’s tourney definitely falls into that group. The winners of the respective decisions draw a double-bye, while the bottom 4 teams of the overall standings have to win 4-straight to punch their ticket to the big dance.
Who I want to win: While I have a soft spot for Rick Byrd as one of the great “X and O” coaches in the country, I’m actually pulling for Tenny St. to cut down the nets in Nashville. I was super impressed when I watched them play Tennessee earlier in the year, specifically with interior animal Wayne Martin, who tortured an undersized Volunteer frontline. With Martin anchoring the glass inside, and Tahjere McCall terrorizing opposing guards on the perimeter, the Tigers have an outstanding 1-2 punch that could give a power-6 school fits if they can crash the dance.
Who I think will win: I hope this pick isn’t too biased, but I do think the Tennessee St. Tigers will end up being the kings of Nashville come Saturday. If they can get by the winner of Tennessee Tech in “Round 2”, they’ll get a shot a the title holder Belmont Bruins in the semis. The Tigers whooped Belmont at home on the regular season finale 87-72, and only lost by 8 in a shootout at Belmont (103-95).
Chance to make a run: UT-Martin was fortunate enough to draw the 2-seed by winning the inferior West division of the OVC, thus securing them an auto-slot in the semis, and avoiding Belmont until the finals. They enter the tourney red-hot, having won 8 of their last 9, and are among the most experience teams in the entire country. They play almost no freshman, and are led by two 6’7 seniors, Twymond Howard and Myles Taylor, who are elite athletes and efficient scorers from 10 feet and in.