(Compare to our preseason preview here)
- Matt "Figgers" it out at Austin Peay: After a Final Four run with Frank Martin, Sindarius Thornwell, and South Carolina, Matt Figger came to Austin Peay and faced a near-complete roster turnover. He instilled Martin's trademark toughness, though, ratcheting up the pressure on defense and the physicality on the offense boards via the Averyl Ugba/Terry Taylor duo. A third place finish is no joke in his first year.
- Offense Wins Championships: The league's top two squads (Murray St. and Belmont) had the OVC's most efficient offenses by a wide margin, with each unit right around the Top 50 in the country. Belmont bombed away to get there (#2 in the country in points scored from three-point range), while Murray used its stable of four talented guards to attack from everywhere on the court.
- Colonel Collapse: Once considered by me (and many others) as a potential challenger to the OVC throne this year, EKU saw its promising sophomore point guard (Asante Gist) transfer and its coach eventually fired by the program's new AD. Nick Mayo is still an excellent big man to build around if he sticks around through the coaching change, but EKU's next hire will have his work cut out for him.
The OVC is played at a neutral site in Evansville, Indiana - but at least the top two teams get a bye to the semifinals. This hasn't helped in the past, as the top seeds have fallen fairly early (perhaps they get rusty?!), but at least there's clear consideration given to the teams who have earned it. Also of note - SEMO would be the #7 seed, but they're ineligible for postseason play due to APR issues, which allowed SIU-E to sneak in as the 8-seed despite an abysmal 5-13 conference record (won the tiebreaker with EKU and UT-Martin).
What to Watch:
- Despite having perhaps the best backcourt in all of mid-majordom (Ja Morant is EXCELLENT, folks), Murray is heavily reliant on Terrell Miller to make the offense tick. He spaces the floor with his shooting at the four spot, and his OVC-leading defensive rebounding helps start the team's fast break, allowing Stark/Morant/etc. to get going downhill.
- Only Savannah State's insane brand of basketball (Tiger Tempo) fires more bombs than Belmont, as nearly 55% of the Bruins' shots come from beyond the arc. The transition, drag-screen offense will torch you if you aren't savvy with your matchups anc communication, and Austin Luke excels at getting all of the team's shooters the ball in the right spots. Watch for the offensive supernova lineup where Byrd plays Amanze Egekeze at the five and Dylan Windler at the four - those lineups scored a scintillating 1.21 points per possession, per Hoop Lens.
- Can anyone win 4 games in 4 days? Austin Peay accomplished that feat in 2016 behind the dominant interior play of Chris Horton, so it's not impossible. Tennessee Tech looks like a sneaky candidate to go on a run - they're a senior-laden team (4th in the country in experience), and they just got sharpshooter Aleksa Jugovic back from injury.
Who Will Win:
- Murray St. - The plethora of offensive options - both from distance and attacking the hoop - give the Racers the slightest of edges for me. They did drop road games at Jacksonville St. and Belmont during the year, though, so they are certainly vulnerable. They did exact revenge on the Gamecocks in Murray, but they're still waiting for another chance at Rick Byrd's boys.
If Not Them, Then:
- Belmont - Given the volume of threes this team takes, if they're hot for two days, just shut it down immediately. The Bruins could easily hit 12+ from deep in both games, but that same shooting also makes them vulnerable to an upset on a cold night - like when they went 8/28 and managed only 56 points in a loss at Tennessee State. They're thrilled that Murray and Jax State will face off on the other side of the bracket (JSU swept the Bruins).
- Jacksonville St. - The Men of the Weave have been high on the Gamecocks all year, but a few baffling letdown performances (home loss to UT-Martin, swept by Tennessee St.) tempered our fervor. They're the reigning tournament champs, though, and both teams that swept them (TSU and Austin Peay) are on the other side of the bracket. If they can build some momentum in the quarters before facing Murray, look out.