Ohio Valley Preview 2017-18

-Jim Root

Projected Standings:

All Conference Awards

Player of the Year: Jonathan Stark, G, R Sr., Murray St.
Coach of the Year: Rick Byrd, Belmont
Newcomer of the Year: Byron Hawkins, G, R Jr., Murray St.
Freshman of the Year: Acoydan McCarthy, G, Austin Peay


1.      Belmont

Key Returners: Austin Luke, Mack Mercer, Amanze Egekeze, Dylan Windler
Key Losses: Evan Bradds, Taylor Barnette
Key Newcomers: Nick Hopkins, Pedro Bradshaw, Grayson Murphy, Caleb Hollander


Postseason Projection: 15 seed

Outlook: I’m just gonna start with an ode to Rick Byrd, Belmont’s longtime coach and the platonic ideal for every single mid-major hire in the country. In Byrd’s first year, the Belmont Rebels (yup, that’s right) went 15-15 in the NAIA…back in 1986-1987. They then went 15-1 in conference his second year, launching his storied 31-year-and-counting tenure in Nashville, which saw him take the now-Bruins through the D-I transition, five years as an independent, the Atlantic Sun, and finally to the OVC, where he’s made the NCAA Tournament or the NIT in all five seasons. It’s exceedingly rare for a coach as successful as Byrd to remain in one place for so long, and Byrd has solidified himself as a coaching legend in the sport. His overall career coaching record: 754-388, including 662-333 at Belmont, with a staggering 348-105 record in conference.

“Jim, stop gushing about a 64-year-old man and talk hoops!!” Okay, fine. Although the Bruins lose program pillar Evan Bradds and veteran Taylor Barnette, they once again return a core capable of winning the league. Byrd’s offensive system is a thing of beauty, an efficiency machine that emphasizes ball movement and shooting over all else, usually through drag screens – essentially just ball screens in transition. These are so tough to defend because the defense usually isn’t set, causing confusion, over-helping and poor rotations.

With a bevy of shooting always on the floor, Belmont’s spacing is pristine, and Amanzi Egekeze and Mack Mercer will feast on constant open opportunities at the hoop. Byrd will have the advantage of interchanging those two guys: either one can play the Bradds role as the roller and efficient finisher – Egekeze shot 68% at the rim last year, just behind Bradds’s elite 71% conversion rate, and Mercer was at 69% in 2015-16 (his last healthy season – also, nice). Both can step out and hit threes as well, spacing the floor for the PnR action.

Austin Luke is the perfect maestro, a deft passer who is often two steps ahead of the defense. His ability to find the roll man or make the perfect skip pass to beat a rotating defense creates so many easy points and open shots that it becomes hard to quantify his impact. He’s not a pure shooter, but his J is developing and you can live with his semi-ugly 3.1 turnovers per game when he’s second in the entire country in assists per game.

The guard shooting options aren’t as deep as normal, though. Dylan Windler is a surefire starter and a valuable weapon, but beyond that, there’s a whole lot of question marks. Kevin McClain and Burton Sampson were in the rotation last year, but they combined to shoot an ugly 20/79 from distance, leaving room for some promising newcomers to join the rotation. High-scoring redshirt freshman Nick Hopkins is my pick to slot in as a pure scorer, and he’ll be deadly with all the space the offense creates. Sophomore Michael Benkert and bigger freshman wing Pedro Bradshaw will also get a chance at minutes.

Knowing firsthand how deadly transition offenses can be, Byrd teams are extremely cognizant of taking away fastbreak opportunities for opponents. They largely ignore the offensive glass, and their perimeter alignment means they consistently have 2-3 players who can easily get back on defense. His best defenses also feature highly effective defensive rebounders, although he’s more flexible on this end – he’ll gear his team more towards pressure if his personnel calls for it (and he told Blue Ribbon he may do just that this season).

Bottom Line: Byrd is a masterful coach, and the loss of an all-time Belmont great in Bradds won’t drag the Bruins down too far. Luke knows the offense front to back by now, and he has enough weapons around him to continue racking up assists. With so many newcomers on the wing, the defense might suffer a bit (they’ll need to learn the man-to-man principles), but the offense will remain great enough to contend for the conference crown once again.

2.      Murray St.

Key Returners: Jonathan Stark, Terrell Miller, Jalen Dupree, Brian Sanchious
Key Losses: Bryce Jones, Damarcus Croaker, Gee McGhee
Key Newcomers: Byron Hawkins, Shaq Buchanan, Anthony Smith, JA Morant, Tevin Brown, Brion Whitley


Postseason Projection: NIT

Outlook: Murray State has been a breeding ground for high-major coaches over the last 15 years. Other mid-majors would kill for a run of coaches like Mick Cronin (now at Cincinnati), Billy Kennedy (Texas A&M), and Steve Prohm (Iowa State), and Matt McMahon may be on track to make that a fourth straight top-flight coach. He has the offensive talent to earn his first NCAA Tournament bid; how they defend will ultimately determine how successful this team is. 

An inability to get stops was their downfall last year; as one of the country’s worst shot-blocking teams, opponents repeatedly gashed the Racers at the rim. The continuing development of sophomore big man Jalen Dupree is paramount to Murray building a respectable defense, as he was the only player who even remotely resembled a rim protector; fellow center Brion Sanchious is more of a ground-bound widebody. The on/off numbers bore this out, as well – the only time the defense was competent was with Dupree anchoring the paint:

He really came on late in the season, blocking at least one shot in 7 of the team’s last 8 games. Junior college transfer Anthony Smith provides another option up front, but he’s more of a rebounder; the interior defense will go as Dupree goes.

Enough about the defense – that’s not why people watch Murray play hoops. The dynamic duo of Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller can win games by themselves, keying an offense that was second only to Belmont’s juggernaut last year in conference play. Stark, formerly of Tulane, burst onto the scene last year, and he’s truly the fulcrum of McMahon’s spaced out system that relies on shooting to space the floor (and penetration into that space). Stark was outrageously efficient from deep (43%) given the amount of shots he took off the dribble (less than half of his threes were assisted), and defenses’ respect for his jumper allowed him to get into the lane at will. Miller was the primary beneficiary, a versatile scorer who is equally comfortable bombing from three (39% on high volume) or in the post (0.94 points per possession, 80th percentile nationally per Synergy). They’ll need to play both ends, though – the defense was demonstrably better when either player was off the court.

The offense has plenty of weapons outside of those two. Byron Hawkins, a transfer from Towson, was the Tigers’ best guard two years ago, and he’ll form a duo-PG system of sorts with Stark. The other starter likely comes down to a two-man race: JUCO transfer Shaq Buchanan averaged more than 18ppg last year, but it’s his 6’10 wingspan that could really add a significant element to the Racer lineup, while freshman Ja Morant could give McMahon three highly capable ball-handlers on the floor at the same time. Brion Whitley could easily earn minutes right away as well after originally committing to Kevin Keatts at UNC Wilmington – he’s an excellent athlete that could also be an upgrade on defense.

Bottom Line: The Racers should continue to be nearly unstoppable offensively, and Stark is a clear Player of the Year candidate in the OVC. Again, though, the team’s defense will determine its fate. It is easy to fall in love with the perimeter shooting and Stark’s explosiveness, but if they can’t figure out how to stop Belmont’s creative system or slow down a force like Norbertas Giga inside, the season could end in disappointment.

3.      Jacksonville St.

Key Returners: Malcolm Drumwright, Norbertas Giga, Christian Cunningham, Jacara Cross
Key Losses: Greg Tucker, Erik Durham
Key Newcomers: Jamall Gregory, Jason Burnell, Marlon Hunter, Cameron Martin


Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT

Outlook: After rolling to the OVC Tournament title – knocking off heavy favorite Belmont in the process – Jacksonville State is looking to make it two NCAA bids in a row. With several key pieces returning, that’s entirely possible; the administration’s decision to bring in Ray Harper after he resigned at Western Kentucky (several players had serious off-the-court issues) looks extremely prescient.

The Gamecocks will rely on the big three of Malcolm Drumwright at the point, Christian Cunningham as a physical, athletic four man, and Norbertas Giga as the man in the middle (side note: it’s wild that there are two “Gamecocks” mascots in the country – maybe we have too many teams if that one is repeated? I don’t know). The offense thrives off getting interior touches for Cunningham, Giga, and budding star backup Jacara Cross, as the Gamecocks were 37th in the country in percentage of possessions that featured a post up, per Synergy. Cross is actually the most efficient scorer in these settings, but the goal is really to get the defense to collapse and get the ball moving. This will create chances to shoot or attack closeouts for Drumwright and four (4!) new JUCO guards: Jamall Gregory, Jason Burnell, Maurice Dunlap, and Marlon Hunter. Dunlap is the most decorated shooter of the bunch, and Gregory is hailed for his elite athleticism.

The player that makes everything work, though, is Giga. His sheer size is an anomaly in the OVC, and the smooth Lithuanian’s deft touch from all over the court makes him an extremely tough matchup for opponents who don’t want to leave the paint. His strengths showed up in the numbers on both ends of the floor:

His presence meant the difference between a conference title contender (+0.08 points per possession) and a floundering sub-.500 squad.  (-0.07 ppp). He even displayed a burgeoning three-point stroke towards the end of last season (including a baffling 5/5 against Louisville in March), and if he truly adds that to his game, he becomes the closest thing possible to an OVC unicorn.

Defensively, the ‘Cocks are ridiculously stout in the paint with Cross, Cunningham, and Giga. Harper mixed in some zone last season to help his bigs avoid foul trouble (Cross is nearly a lost cause in that regard), and the combo’s length and athleticism limited opponents to only 45% inside the arc, 25th-best in the country. Teams that are reliant on getting to the rim to score really struggle against JSU, so they’ll need to prove they can shoot a bit to loosen the Gamecocks’ grip on the paint.

Bottom Line: With an extremely stout frontline and a four-year starter at point guard (okay fine, 3.5 year starter), the ‘Cocks should again be a force in the Ohio Valley. Taking down shooting-heavy teams like Murray and Belmont (against whom they went 1-3 last season) will be difficult, though, unless Giga or Cross emerges into a bonafide star who can punish them inside. I’m betting on a successful year, but not quite a repeat NCAA experience.

4.      Eastern Kentucky

Key Returners: Nick Mayo, Asante Gist, Dillon Avare, Zach Charles, DeAndre Dishman
Key Losses: Isaac McGlone, Marlon Adams, Jaylen Babb-Harrison
Key Newcomers: Jackson Davis, Peyton Broughton, Dedric Boyd, JacQuess Hobbs


Postseason Projection: CIT/CBI

Outlook: If at first your press doesn’t succeed, then try, try a different press – right?

That appears to be the mantra of the Eastern Kentucky administration – they went from Jeff Neubauer, a Bob Huggins disciple, to Dan McHale, a former Rick (and Richard) Pitino assistant. Fordham hired Neubauer away in 2015 after he had built EKU into a strong OVC program, and McHale is now hoping to run the zone trap schemes he learned under the Pitinos. He hasn’t had the athletes or depth to really turn the gears up yet, but that should change this year – most of the team’s thin rotation is back, and they’ll be joined by an impressive crop of newcomers.

The whole point of the zone trap system is to force turnovers. Unfortunately, the team’s two best perimeter defenders, Jaylen Babb-Harrison and Dujuanta Weaver, missed most of the season. McHale kicked Babb-Harrison off the team for terrible off-court allegations, and Weaver tore an ACL. Although only Weaver returns, he’ll be a crucial piece thanks to his quickness and disruptive hands. Asante Gist, the team’s prolific sophomore point guard, should also be a pest as McHale unleashes the full brunt of his system.

He’ll finally have options off the bench to spell those guys, too. Dillon Avare is a former walk-on at Louisville who has found a role as a David Levitch-esque shooter, Zach Charles should be able to take his physical game to the wing now with increased frontcourt talent, and freshmen Peyton Broughton and Dedric Boyd will command minutes immediately thanks to their scoring potential (Broughton is a shooter, Boyd is a slasher). If either Broughton or Boyd can grasp the defensive system right away and rack up deflections, he could start.

The centerpiece of the team, though, is big man Nick Mayo. While not a conventional Pitino big – in the sense that he doesn’t hammer the offensive glass and play with brute physicality – he is a glaring mismatch as an ultra-skilled 6’9 scorer. He can shoot from deep, score with his back to the basket off, or drive on a slower defender and get to the line – there simply aren’t defenders capable of stopping that in the OVC. He’ll be even more deadly with the addition of Butler transfer Jackson Davis next to him, a former 3-star recruit. He’s a tenacious rebounder and an impactful defender whose overall athleticism should be a major boost for a Colonels roster that’s in dire need of just that. DeAndre Dishman is an excellent fit backing up both guys due to his physicality and defense.

Bottom Line: McHale has had the EKU car stuck in neutral for his first two years in Richmond, but he’ll likely stop spinning his wheels and get some traction this season. Gist, Mayo, and Davis are simply too talented a trio for the Colonels to continue struggling, as they the ability to rack up points in bunches both inside and out. Having finally assembled a roster that allows him to play his preferred style, look for EKU to rack up a lot more turnovers – and wins – this season.

5.      Tennessee Tech

Key Returners: Kajon Mack, Aleksa Jugovic, Curtis Phillips, Mason Ramsay, Stephaun Adams
Key Losses: Hakeem Rogers
Key Newcomers: Shaq Calhoun, Corey Tillery, Hunter Vick


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Looking back at Tennessee Tech’s season from 2016-17, it’s pretty stunning they managed a .500 record in the OVC after their galling nonconference performance. The Golden Eagles went a dismal 4-11, but even worse than the record is the list of teams they managed to beat: Hiwasee (?), Crowley’s Ridge (sounds like a forgotten battle from the French and Indian War), and KenPom #351 Alabama A&M – twice. That’s right, they swept a home and home with the college basketball rankings equivalent of Mr. Irrelevant. Feel the momentum heading into conference play!

Jokes aside, coach Steve Payne did build some reason for optimism this year. Tech could have a top 3 backcourt in the conference with point guard Kajon Mack, shooting guard Aleksa Jugovic, and wing Curtis Phillips back plus South Alabama grad transfer Shaq Calhoun. The group has complementary skills – Mack is the slasher, capable of getting into the lane nearly at will, Jugovic is the sniper who demands defensive attention as soon as he crosses halfcourt, and Phillips and Calhoun are solid defenders who should key the Golden Eagles pressure schemes. Calhoun is a perfect addition as a physical bulldog who can hound ballhandlers at the top of Payne’s compact zone schemes. Corey Tillery, one of the growing population of D-II transfers stepping up a level, should be a nice perimeter weapon backing up Jugovic (or playing with him, at times).

Those defenses should see a major boost this season with development from sophomore Micaiah Henry, a 6’9 presence whose 10.4% block rate was as impressive as his 9.1 fouls per 40 minutes was troublesome. Henry’s hacking may prevent him from playing more than 20 or so minutes a game, but he’s such a massive factor that Payne will tolerate the foul trouble. Mason Ramsey often had to play undersized center last season, so more Henry minutes (and possibly from Courtney Alexander as well) will normalize the rotation.

There’s a reason the Golden Eagles struggled so much, though. The zone schemes leave them terribly exposed from deep, and opponents often found it even to get cookin’ in Cookeville (had to, sorry). As you could probably guess from Henry’s eye-popping foul rate, they also gave teams far too many free points at the line.

Bottom Line: Tennessee Tech’s backcourt is definitely cause for optimism, and having more conventional size on the court should aid the team’s interior ails. The Golden Eagles will have 5 seniors in the top 6 of the rotation, so Coach Payne is hoping to ride that experience into TTU’s  first NCAA Tournament since Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech – in 1963.

6.      Eastern Illinois

Key Returners: Terrell Lewis, Muusa Dama, Montell Goodwin, Ray Crossland
Key Losses: Demetrius McReynolds, Patrick Muldoon, Casey Teson
Key Newcomers: D’Angelo Jackson, Justice Green, Mack Smith, JaJuan Starks, Michael Chavers


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: When Jay Spoonhour was hired at EIU in 2012, it was hailed as an excellent hire in the Midwest. Jay’s father, Charlie, was a longtime coach at Missouri State and Saint Louis, and many were optimistic about Jay’s ability to build a program in Charleston. To this point, though, he’s struggled, posting a 67-87 (37-43) record in his first 5 seasons. He hasn’t been able to “build,” per se, instead being forced to rely on junior college transfers year after year. This year, the Panthers have eight players on the roster who started their careers at a JUCO, and while plenty of those guys are talented, it’s hard to maintain momentum without consistent, four-year players.

EIU does rely heavily on one four year player – Terrell Lewis, aka the artist formerly known as Cornell Johnston. The 5’7 speedster is the program’s team’s heart and soul, a four year starter who is actually quite representative of the team as a whole. He’s a skilled passer that can light it up from 3, but his size makes it nearly impossible to score at the rim. The team as a whole is entirely too perimeter-oriented: per hoop-math, EIU took the 2nd-fewest shots at the rim in the entire country (only 20% of total shots, compared to a median of 35%), and on the contrary, they took the 7th-highest share of 2-point jumpers (42% of shots, compared to a median of 28%). This shot distribution automatically limits the effectiveness and efficiency of the Panther offense, and if they can’t find a way to get more interior opportunities (or simply take more threes!), they’ll continue to struggle. Forward Ray Crossland was the biggest culprit, so Spoonhour will need to push him to get all the way to the rim.

Hope for the interior lies with big man Muusa Dama and slashing newcomer D’Angelo Jackson. Dama is a force on the offensive glass, and if the Panthers can run a little more through him (maybe via PnR? He’s not really a back-to-the-basket scorer), the rate of rim attempts will increase. Another route is via transition – getting more points in the open floor, especially given the amount of wings on the roster, would be a boon for the team’s efficiency. Spoonhour already seems to be leaning this way, as the team’s rate of transition shot attempts has gone from 14.6% (325th nationally) in his first year to a more respectable 20.8% (163rd nationally) last season. Jackson and Montell Goodwin would thrive in a quicker system (Jackson was prolific in his JUCO stint), so the trend should continue.

On the other end, Dama and Aboubacar Diallo formed an excellent shot-blocking duo, helping EIU to limit opponents’ effectiveness at the rim. However, they were ofthen both caught out of rebounding position when going for those blocks, and the team got crushed on the defensive glass. Lewis, Goodwin, and Jackson should form an aggressive perimeter group, and newcomers Mack Smith, Justice Green, Michael Chavers, and JaJuan Starks provide depth. The size deficiency of Lewis and Goodwin shows up on D too, though, so they’ll need the length of the rookies to shine through.

Bottom Line: EIU has some talent, but the offense’s inefficient shot selection will continue to limit them. Spoonhour is trying to be competitive, but inability to bring in and keep four-year players has hamstrung the program’s development as a whole. This season looks like a mid-standings finish. 

7.      Morehead State

Key Returners: Lamontray Harris, Jordan Walker
Key Losses: Xavier Moon, DeJuan Marrero, Miguel Dicent, Ronnye Beamon, Treshaad Williams
Key Newcomers: Adrian Hicks, Emanuel Thompson, Cedric Wright, Londell King, Richard Feagin, Malek Green


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Rarely do you see dysfunction on a team quite like last year’s Morehead State squad. Players and coaches often clash or even outright don’t get along…but when the coach is getting charged with battery against the players, it’s probably time to make a change. Despite it being nearly the start of the conference season, the Eagles’ administration made the (correct) call to fire Sean Woods amidst the allegations, promoting Preston Spradlin to interim head coach. Spradlin (who graduated college in 2009 – that’s ludicrous) guided the team to a 10-6 record in the OVC, eventually earning the right to shed the interim tag, and now he enters the 2017-18 season with a fresh slate as the youngest coach in Division I.

There’s very little history to go on with Spradlin (he was a director of operations at Kentucky for five years, then assisted Woods for 2+ seasons), so we’ll examine the small sample of his 22 games at the helm last year – but with the caveat that his style could change given all the new faces.

The strength of last year’s squad was the offense, particularly in how it attacked the offensive glass and its deadly efficiency from deep. The two returning rotation players exemplify these strengths, both of whom appear likely to make a leap this season. Lamontray Harris is the probable star, an aggressive rebounder and burgeoning scorer, and with the departure of DeJuan Marrerro, he’ll be the focal point of the interior attack. Jordan Walker, on the other hand, is a perimeter sniper. He made 36 of his 73 three-point attempts last year, good for 8th in the entire country percentage-wise, and he’ll have a sizable increase in opportunities this year.

Newcomers Cedric Wright, Londell King, and Malek Green will help the onslaught on the offensive boards. Wright and King both productive inside for decorated junior college programs last year, and Green was a monster at his Cincinnati high school. I’m not sure any of them will be a back-to-the-basket threat this season, but they’ll fill the open frontcourt minutes effectively.

Last year’s offense relied heavily on Xavier Moon to create in the halfcourt, and that will likely continue with the addition of Adrian Hicks in the backcourt, the #25-ranked JUCO player in the country per jucorecruiting.com. Hicks was a maestro at Columbia State, using change of speed and a potent ball fake (made all the more potent by his smooth outside stroke) to get in the lane at will and create for others. He has all conference talent right off the bat. Richard Feagin is a skilled passer for a freshman, and he should get minutes backing up Hicks (and perhaps alongside him) as Spradlin tries to find the best lineup combinations.

One change Spradlin made after the school let Woods go was to reel back the defensive pressure. Woods was a fan of fullcourt man-to-man hellbent on forcing turnovers (he sounds like a pretty intense guy, overall), but Spradlin took a more conservative approach. His Eagles squad got lit up from beyond the arc, though, so perhaps a little more aggression would be a good thing.

Bottom Line: With a nearly-brand-new roster and a young coach, expectations are not high for Morehead State this year. That likely is just fine to Spradlin, as it should give him time to build the program and find an identity for his teams. There’s some upside here, particularly given the talent of Hicks, Walker, and Harris, but the more likely scenario is a middle-to-low finish in the OVC and plenty of optimism for 2018-19 – the team has no seniors on the roster.

8.      Tennessee St.

Key Returners: Darreon Reddick, Ken’Darrius Hamilton, Delano Spencer, Armani Chaney, Christian Mekowulu
Key Losses: Tahjere McCall, Wayne Martin, Jordan Reed
Key Newcomers: AC Reid, Kamar McKnight, Stokley Chaffee, DaJion Henderson


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: It was easy to fall in love with Tennessee State in the preseason last year, as the return of dynamic senior duo Tahjere McCall and Wayne Martin, coupled with a healthy season from Christian Mekowulu, promised to take the Tigers to new heights. Unfortunately, an offense plagued by turnovers and poor spacing derailed what should have been a triumphant season. The year ended in disappointment with an 8-8 finish in the league and an overtime loss to SEMO in the first round of the OVC tournament, and coach Dana Ford will now have re-tool the team without his senior stars.

The Tigers will rely on the conference’s best overall defense to bounce back (although that ranking fell to third in OVC-only games). Ford employs a compact, paint-protecting man-to-man to force teams to shoot from the perimeter, leaving them exposed to hot nights from opposing guards. He combats this slightly by pressuring the ball (McCall was one of the best in the country on ball), and Armani Chaney will likely continue that wrinkle.

Despite the loss of Martin, TSU still has probably the second-best frontcourt in the OVC (honors go to EKU) with which to dominate the paint on both ends. Mekowulu looked like a budding star during his freshman campaign in 2014-15, but a torn ACL led to a reserve role last year as he regained confidence in his knee. He’s a glaring breakout candidate this year, with senior Ken’Darrius Hamilton providing a sturdy rock to lean on alongside him. Both players protect the rim with zeal, and their prowess on the offensive glass should continue to earn them free points and trips to the line. Sneakily, Hamilton has nice touch from the perimeter as well, which should open up some space for Mekowulu despite the shooting-starved perimeter. Two JUCO transfers, Stokley Chaffee and DaJion Henderson, will fill the rolls Hamilton and Mekowulu played this year off the bench.

Delano Spencer is really the only true shooter returning this year (apologies to Darreon Reddick and his 32% 3-point stroke – not quite good enough for me to call him a threat), so Ford may look to his newcomers to alleviate the spacing concerns (likely as reserves). AC Reid, a transfer from Liberty, and Kamar McKnight (JUCO) offer some upside in that department; both should immediately slot into the wing rotation. The hope is that the shots they do take will be good ones, based on all the attention centered on the bigs.

Bottom Line: After losing McCall, the primary ball-handler, the biggest concern is limiting turnovers with a relatively inexperienced option at point. McKnight should help some (and freshman David Morris is a dark horse for playing time), but both of those guys will be in their first year of D-I ball – not usually a formula for great ball security. If they can’t solve that issue, the effectiveness of the excellent frontcourt will be hampered, which subsequently puts a cap on the Tigers’ upside.

9.   UT Martin

Key Returners: Matthew Butler, Fatodd Lewis
Key Losses: Jacolby Mobley, Kedar Edwards, Javier Martinez, Chandler Rowe
Key Newcomers: Delfincko Bogan, Dominique Williams, Jailen Gill, Parrish Hewitt, Jerome Davis, Terrence Parker


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: One of many teams in the OVC facing serious roster turnover, the Skyhawks have to start over after coming oh-so-close to the program’s first NCAA Tournament. A senior-laden roster (8th-most experienced last year, per KenPom) made a run at the OVC’s NCAA bid, losing in the tournament’s championship game to Jacksonville State, and now second-year coach Anthony Stewart has to piece together a competitive roster made up mostly of junior college and D-I transfers. There’s talent present, but assembling it all into a cohesive unit could prove to be too tall a task.

We’ll start trying to unravel this mystery box team on the defensive end. Stewart prefers a matchup zone look designed to confuse opponents and create turnovers; unfortunately, the zone is more prone to surrendering open threes and easy lanes to the bucket. The personnel playing it will be nearly brand new, also, so they won’t have experience with the intricacies of the scheme – usually a necessity to successfully defend in a zone.

Stewart will try to have as many athletes in the scheme as possible; he has a plethora of options to choose from, so he can certainly play the players who pick up on the zone quickest. Returners Matthew Butler, Fatodd Lewis, and Kahari Beaufort should have a leg up for playing time, and Butler and Lewis in particular seem locks to start.  Point guard Delfincko Bogan, who started his career at conference rival Jacksonville State, should be able to use his quickness to disrupt action on the perimeter, and JUCO transfers Jerome Davis, Andre Hogan, and Darius Thompson all have some modicum of length. Grad transfers Dominique Williams from Radford and Lorenzen Wright Jr. from Robert Morris will be valuable due to their D-I experience; Williams got significant time in C-USA in 2014-15, but he hasn’t played competitively in two years.

On the other end, Stewart’s system revolved around the inside/outside combo of Javier Martinez and Jacolby Mobley, and he’ll surely be looking for more productivity to emerge this season. To that end, I think Parrish Hewitt could emerge immediately as a freshman due to his scoring ability going to the rim, and two more JUCO transfers, Jailen Gill and Terrence Parker, offer offensive upside on the interior.

Stewart demanded a major effort on the offensive glass last year – the Skyhawks ranked 9th nationally in offensive rebound rate – and the cadre of newcomers will need to prove they will compete in the same way. Lewis and Mike Fofana were not great at this aspect last year, further opening the door for all of the transfers.

Bottom Line: This will likely be a long year in Martin, Tennessee. Stewart has to completely restock the roster cupboard, and there aren’t clear indications that the newcomers can compete in the OVC. I like Bogan and Hewitt the most of the newbies, and if Butler can step into a slightly larger facilitator role, there’s potential for the offense, but the porous perimeter D will be the ultimate downfall.

10.   Austin Peay

Key Returners: Chris Porter-Bunton
Key Losses: Josh Robinson, John Murry, Kenny Jones, Jared Savage, Dre’Kalo Clayton
Key Newcomers: Averyl Ugba, Ed Stephens, Eric McCollum, Acoydan McCarthy, Terry Taylor, Deyshawn Martin


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: After 27 years at Austin Peay, longtime coach Dave Loos retired last March, taking with him a 258-194 conference record and a massive era of Governors basketball. To fill that void, the APSU administration tabbed Matt Figger, a longtime Frank Martin assistant at Kansas State and South Carolina. Fresh off a Final Four appearance, Figger now makes the move to Clarksville, Tennessee, where he will attempt to resurrect a program that returns nearly no one of substance from last year’s squad. Figger did one hell of a job this offseason, gathering transfers and freshmen galore in an attempt to keep the Governors relevant during his first year on the job.

He’ll bring with him the hard-nosed style that has become a trademark of Martin’s teams in Columbia. Those teams thrived on their defense, using length and physicality to make scoring in the halfcourt an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses. APSU will likely play a combination of man and zone, the latter of which often has heavy matchup principles, taking the shape of whatever offense the other team tries to run. Offensively, the mission is simple: get to the rim early and often, attack the offensive glass, and earn as many free points at the line as possible. As mentioned, those schemes demand length and aggression, and Figger thinks he has players to fit that profile.

Averyl Ugba, a grad transfer from Grambling, will be a perfect fit. He was the best overall rebounder in the SWAC last season, and his tenacity in the paint should make him an instant Figger favorite. The depth on the interior isn’t ideal for a Martin-esque team, but 7’0 center Ivan Cucak can help a little bit simply due to his sheer size. Beyond that, it will be up to undersized forwards Terry Taylor and Richard Henderson to help Ugba. Taylor is an intriguing talent after tearing up the prep circuit in Kentucky; a powerful lefty who, like Ugba, seems tailor-made for his new coach’s desired style.  

Contrary to what Figger might like, he’ll often have to play four guards. Luckily, his guards have some size, particularly his promising freshmen – Spaniards Acoydan McCarthy and Joan Bernacer (plus JUCO Deyshawn Martin) are listed at 6’5 or 6’6, and although they’re thin now, Figger will hope they can amplify the halfcourt pressure with their long arms. McCarthy could be a bit of a “PJ Dozier-lite” in the OVC due to his ability to handle the ball, as well. The lone returner of note, Chris Porter-Bunton, also has some promising defensive qualities at 6’5.

Offensively, meshing this disjointed jumble of parts into a point-producing unit will be a challenge. Freshman guard Dayton Gumm and South Carolina State grad transfer Ed Stephens will need to help create open shots (and knock them down from deep); otherwise, McCarthy and Bernacer may have to take larger playmaking roles right off the bat.

Bottom Line: There’s almost no continuity from last season, whether it be the changing coach/system or the nine new scholarship players dotting the roster. For that reason, it’s hard to accurately predict Austin Peay, but given all the turnover and youth, it’s relatively safe to bet they’ll be towards the bottom of the league. The McCarthy/Taylor combination could eventually blossom into a potent OVC duo, though, and Figger’s pedigree is certainly reason for optimism as well.

11.      SEMO

Key Returners: Denzel Mahoney, Jaylen Benton, Milos Vranes, Daniel Simmons
Key Losses: Trey Kellum, Antonius Cleveland, Jamaal Calvin, Tahj Eaddy
Key Newcomers: Ray Kowalski, Mark Laros, Justin Carpenter, Ledarrius Brewer, Khalil Cuffee


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: After only the program’s third year with a  conference record over .500 in the past 16 years (and first since 2011-12), Rick Ray has to replace several formidable scorers with unknown newcomers, and a slide down the standings seems inevitable for the former Missisissippi State boss after securing the 5 seed in last year’s OVC tournament.

Last year’s Redhawks team was predicated on its offense, a smooth shooting group that will now be led by Denzel Mahoney, a rising Ohio Valley star as a versatile offensive weapon. He can fill it up from inside and out, although getting him in position to score will be a concern after the departure of both rotation point guards. Dondre Doffus and Johnathan Dalton, two juniors, will likely earn the lion’s share of minutes at the point, with Doffus being the favorite for the job if he’s healthy after missing all but five games last year. He’s a bigger player who should fit into Ray’s zone trap-heavy defensive scheme; Dalton will need to rely on his quickness to make a similar impact.

 Hyper-athletic Antonius Cleveland will be the most difficult player to replace, a wing who survived at the four in the small OVC. There’s no clear replacement for him, although the promising freshman class offers some possibilities (more on them shortly). Mahoney can do a nice impersonation, but he’s not as big or as long; Ray will probably turn to Milos Vranes instead, a drastically different player from Cleveland (much more of a shooter), but effective nonetheless. Vranes played some nominal center last year as Ray experimented with five-out looks, and that option should open the floor quite a bit with 4 shooters – a super-small lineup of Vranes/Mahoney/three guards could be deadly on offense. When Ray opts to play more conventionally, newcomers Mark Laros (Dutch, JUCO transfer) and Justin Carpenter (American, private Illinois high school graduate) will man the center spot, though neither is a difference-maker. At the very least, Laros’s 6’10 frame should help – SEMO allowed opponents to shoot 70% at the rim last year, 5th-worst in the entire country.

The upside for this roster lies in the freshman class, as Ray used his coaching pedigree and contacts to pull in several promising youngsters. Ledarrius Brewer and Isaiah Gable have the length to try and fill the Cleveland role, but they’re both relatively raw – they’ll likely get thrown in the rotation, though. Khalil Cuffee is a stoutly-built guard (6’4, 210) with some of the most annoying Youtube highlight cliips I’ve seen. For some reason, it cuts and repeats totally routine plays, including a baffling one where he has to make a panic pass in midair just before he gets swatted on a jumper (go to 0:37 in that video for a laugh). This is all without mentioning redshirt freshman Ray Kowalski, who may finish second only to Mahoney in scoring this year.

Bottom Line: Mahoney is a bright spot for the turned-over roster, and the Redhawks’ success is extremely dependent on how ready the freshman class is to produce (I’m including Kowalski here). The defense was a sieve if opponents beat their traps last season, so they’ll need to pick up wins against the squads that lack proven point guard play. Ray’s goal should be to develop the roster and aim high in 2018-19.

12.   SIU Edwardsville

Key Returners: Jalen Henry, Christian Ellis, Keenan Simmons
Key Losses: Burak Eslik, Tre Harris, Carlos Anderson, Josh White
Key Newcomers: Jaylen McCoy, Daniel Kinchen, Kevion Stewart, DJ Jackson, David McFarland


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: A 6-24 (1-15) season is obviously a disaster for anyone, but coach Jon Harris should be able to find some silver linings in last season’s struggles. The Cougars were only really run off the floor in three conference games (@Murray, @Belmont, @EKU), but they couldn’t find a way to close out any games down the stretch. The “he’s on the team, now on a leave of absence, now he’s back, now he’s gone” routine of leading scorer Tre Harris was certainly a wrench in the team’s plans, but once he was officially gone, it did enable Christian Ellis and Jalen Henry to take on bigger roles – something that should benefit the Cougars this season. They didn’t necessarily make the Cougars good when they played together, but at least they made them significantly less bad:

Ellis keys the offensive attack, which centers around a relentless assault on the rim in an effort to get to the free throw line. SIUE scored the highest percentage of their points at the free throw line in the entire country, showing just how reliant the Cougs were on the charity stripe. Ellis ranked 8th nationally in free throw rate (free throws attempted/field goals attempted), and Henry followed him at 171st. Neither guy can shoot, so taking free shots while defenders are forced to stand and watch is tremendously helpful (and Ellis still only managed to make 44% of those).

The offensive glass was also central to the team’s strategy. Returnees Keenan Simmons and Brandon Jackson were excellent in this regard, and UIC transfer Julian Torres will provide an extra boost. This is yet another avenue to getting to the free throw line, as opposed to repeatedly barreling to the rim off the dribble. 

Of course, there was a reason for this overt focus on the rim: outside of the now-departed Harris, the roster was completely bereft of any threats from the perimeter. Harris attempted to address that in the offseason, adding three junior college guards, plus a true freshman and a redshirt freshman who may also contribute. Daniel Kinchen lit it up at Alabama Southern (26.7ppg, 45% from deep), so he seems like a lock to start. Jaylen McCoy is more of a defender and point guard, and David McFarland showed the ability to score from deep and going to the rim (versatility – it’s a wonderful thing!). Of the freshmen, Kevion Stewart (the redshirted variety) is more of a shooter, while 6’5 DJ Jackson is more of a physical presence.

Bottom Line: SIUE was tough to watch last year – as often as they got to the line, they also put opponents there at a high rate, resulting in slow, choppy games with a lot of stoppages. Harris likes to extend his defense to take away the three-point line, and he’s hoping that the influx of wing talent will lead to a reduction in fouls. If the newcomers provide some perimeter firepower and Ellis figures out how to make a free throw, the Cougars could climb a few spots out of the OVC cellar.