Player of the Year: Ja Morant, G, So., Murray St.
Coach of the Year: A.W. Hamilton, Eastern Kentucky
Newcomer of the Year: Detrick Mostella, R Sr., Jacksonville St.
Freshman of the Year: Grayson Murphy, R Fr., Belmont
Key Returners: Dylan Windler, Kevin McClain, Nick Hopkins
Key Losses: Austin Luke, Amanze Egekeze, Mack Mercer (injury)
Key Newcomers: Grayson Murphy (redshirt), Mitch Listau, Adam Kunkel, Caleb Hollander (redshirt), Derek Sabin, Nick Muszynski (redshirt)
Outlook: Rick Byrd narrowly missed another conference title last year, falling to the Murray Machine by one game during the regular season and by 17 points in the tournament championship game, but he has the top-end talent to claim both of those mantles in 2018-19. His hyper-efficient offense will lead the way, and although the Bruins have to replace three-year starter Austin Luke at point guard, they have enough weapons dotting the roster to compensate.
The PG spot is crucial in Byrd’s transition drag-screen offense, as the whole system feeds off the lead ball-handler’s creativity while he runs off ball screens before the defense is set. Luke was a wizard at this, drawing defenders and finding open shooters around the perimeter or hitting big men like Seth Adelsperger or Mack Mercer (who unfortunately had to medically retire as of 10/8) as they rolled to the rim. Attacking early in the shot clock prevents the defense from being organized, and Belmont always takes advantage of the chaos:
Of course, it helps to have the court inhabited by knockdown shooters: Belmont took 54.2% of its shots from three-point range last season, the second-highest share in the country, placing massive pressure on the defense to close out and rotate at a breakneck pace. This often leads to easy cuts or post ups for the lone big man on the court as the defense scrambles around. The Bruins have led the entire country in 2P% in five of the last six years, a testament to the easy shots they get inside through gorgeous offensive motion. They avoid 2-point jumpers like the plague – only 10.3% of their shots were “2-point jumpers” per hoop-math, the lowest rate in all of Division I.
The primary candidates to take over at point guard are junior Kevin McClain and sophomore Nick Hopkins, both of whom played primarily off the ball last year, with redshirt freshman Grayson Murphy lurking as a dark horse option. All three are knockdown shooters and can space the floor, but due to Luke’s ball-dominance over the past few years (and Murphy’s rookie status), none of the three have had the chance to truly run the show in a game setting.
They’ll be helped by player of the year candidate Dylan Windler, a Swiss Army knife wing who scored at an absurdly efficient clip last year while also actually finishing second on the team in assists. The Stepien’s Jackson Hoy broke down his game at the bottom of this article, gushing about Windler’s multi-faceted skill set and high-level potential on both ends of the court. He may be asked to play with the ball in his hands more this year given the team’s lack of a proven PG, and that may not be a bad thing – he’s a mid-major force in plenty of other aspects of the game already.
Bottom Line: With Windler and McClain back and Byrd at the helm, Belmont seems like a surefire bet to finish at or near the top of the OVC once again. They’ll continue to fire copious amounts of threes and be highly efficient inside, and if the man-to-man defense can improve slightly (ranked third in the OVC, but trailed Murray’s D by 53 spots nationally, per KenPom), Byrd may find himself with yet another league title. Despite a jaw-dropping 67-17 conference record over the last five seasons, he’s only made one NCAA Tournament in that span, but I’m betting he’ll be dancing once again come March 2019.
2. Murray St.
Key Returners: Ja Morant, Shaq Buchanan, Anthony Smith, Brion Sanchious
Key Losses: Jonathan Stark, Terrell Miller, Jalen Dupree, Byron Hawkins
Key Newcomers: Mike Davis (JUCO), DaQuan Smith, Jaiveon Eaves (JUCO), Darnell Cowart (JUCO), Tevin Brown (redshirt), KJ Williams, Jalen Johnson
Outlook: Led by *perhaps* the best mid-major backcourt in the country, last year’s Racers achieved the double of winning the OVC regular season outright and suffocated Belmont in the OVC tournament final. They couldn’t overcome Press Virginia in Round 1, but Murray’s unequivocally successful season is a springboard into 2018-19 led by coach Matt McMahon and possible (probable?!) 2019 NBA Draft pick Ja Morant.
Without Jonathan Stark (last year’s OVC Player of the Year), Morant should be the undisputed leader and linchpin for the Racers, a lanky athlete and extremely capable ball-handler. He’ll have a few viral dunks thanks to his extreme vertical bounce, and his rebounding prowess makes him a major grab-and-go threat off the defensive glass. A decent model for his year may be another Murray State lottery pick:
To be clear – Morant is a different player than Payne (less threes, more attacking the rim); rather, my point is that I would not be surprised to see his usage in that insane stratosphere, both nationally and in conference play. He often deferred to Stark and Terrell Miller last year, OVC studs in their own right, but this is clearly Morant’s team. McMahon has surprisingly played fairly slow despite having electric backcourts, but the best version of this team probably involves Morant going nuts in the open floor as a scorer and creator.
Disclaimer: I also don’t think Morant will turn into the shockingly disastrous pro that Payne has become. Unclear whether his pregame handshakes will be up to Payne’s level, though.
The assist rate should rival or even exceed Payne’s, despite some question as to where the other scoring will come from. Shaq Buchanan is a good bet to be the second banana, another drive-first guard in the same vein as Morant. Shooting will need to come from the newcomers, with the best bets being Jaiveon Eaves (44% from deep in junior college), redshirt freshman Tevin Brown, and true freshmen DaQuan Smith and Jalen Johnson. Eaves is probably the best shooter of the group, while Brown would give the backcourt some much-needed size at 6’5.
Murray State and Belmont’s offenses were mirrors of efficiency; the difference-maker last year was the Racers’ defense. They played superb man-to-man, and the departed Miller’s mobility and versatility was a big part of that. The returning bigs lack any sort of dynamism; Anthony Smith and Brion Sanchious are both low-usage, high energy guys, and neither is going to be a true difference-maker. Two junior college transfers may break into the starting lineup: Mike Davis, a mobile forward and a knockdown shooter in the Miller mold (hit 48% of his 122 threes last year), and Darnell Cowart, a 6’8, 295-pound behemoth who sneezes double-doubles. The two complement each other well, although Cowart’s lack of mobility could be an issue on D.
Bottom Line: Stark and Miller are gigantic losses, to be sure, and the uncertainty outside of Morant probably bumps Belmont ahead in most preseason polls. But the upside is still there, as Eaves, Brown, and Davis have all-OVC upside. The Racers fell off a bit last year when Morant played without Stark, per Hoop Lens numbers, but with him heading into the season as a potential first-rounder and the clear-cut go-to guy, I expect Murray to be just fine next year with Ja ruling (I haven’t snuck a terrible pun into a preview in a while, it was time).
3. Austin Peay
Key Returners: Terry Taylor, Dayton Gumm, Zach Glotta, Chris Porter-Bunton, Steve Harris
Key Losses: Averyl Ugba, Tre’ Ivory
Key Newcomers: Jabari McGhee (WKU/Tennessee), Isaiah Hart (JUCO), Jarrett Givens (D2), Eli Abaev (JUCO), Antwuan Butler, Matheus Silveira
Outlook: After the retirement of longtime coach Dave Loos – the OVC’s winningest coach ever – in March 2017 in the midst of a battle with cancer, Austin Peay was left with massive shoes to fill on the sideline and a thoroughly depleted roster. Enter Matt Figger, disciple of Frank Martin’s coaching philosophy and firm believer in his mentor’s tenacious attitude. Figger immediately infused his hard-nosed style into the Governors’ style of play, and on the strength of those principles (plus some talented freshmen and transfers), APSU shockingly finished third in the conference after being picked a dismal 11th in the preseason poll (hey, at least I had them 10th in my 3MW preview!).
An intimidating post duo of Averyl Ugba and Terry Taylor led the offense, as the Governors ranked among the country’s leaders in post-ups and offensive rebounding – not exactly a surprise given Figger’s lineage. Ugba graduated, but Taylor returns as one of the conference’s best players, and the sophomore’s inside-out game (he hit 43% of his 88 threes) makes him an incredibly tough matchup for forwards who lack his foot speed. His frontcourt companion likely becomes one of Western Kentucky transfer Jabari McGhee, fellow sophomore Richard Henderson, or JUCO transfer Eli Abaev. McGhee follows in Ugba’s footsteps as a relatively undersized but physical force, an outstanding rebounder on both ends who should be a force in his new digs. Henderson and Abaev are more “activity” big guys, and if Figger wants more size, he can throw out 7-footers Ivan Cucak and Matheus Silveira (both of whom are tied for the tallest players in program history).
Austin Peay didn’t really score much from the perimeter, but the returning guard duo of Zach Glotta and Dayton Gumm gives them some potentially prolific shooting to complement Taylor, McGhee, and co. In fact, when Gumm, Glotta, and Taylor played together, the offense exploded:
Key JUCO addition Isaiah Hart should allow that trio to continue to thrive. He averaged 20ppg and 5apg at Motlow State, and he may even start at point guard, allowing Glotta and Gumm to continue their off-ball roles. Glotta can slide over to point, but he’s far more effective as a catch-and-shoot player. Chris Porter-Bunton and Steve Harris are both ideal Figger players, too, as disruptive wings in Figger’s varying defenses.
Like his old boss, Figger mixed in a matchup 3-2 zone at times to give opponents a different look. This amoeba-esque defense allows the two bigs to stay close to the basket, taking advantage of Porter-Bunton and Harris’s length against guards. Of course, the Governors will still play plenty of man-to-man, and the flaw in the defense is often that the aggression leads to free throw parades.
Bottom Line: Even with so many new pieces and in his first year as a head coach, it didn’t take long for Figger to “figure” it out in Clarksville (crowd erupts at great pun). The Governors return plenty of weapons from last season’s surprise squad, and with Taylor and McGhee imitating the battering ram frontcourt of 2017-18, Austin Peay will once again be a pain in the ass to play against. They’re probably a -1000 favorite to lead the conference in offensive rebounding once again, and with a year of continuity in the harassing defensive system, they should be stout on that end, as well. I’d expect APSU to remain in the conference’s upper tier but a notch below the Murray/Belmont duopoly once again.
4. Jacksonville St.
Key Returners: Jason Burnell, Jamall Gregory, Marlon Hunter, Christian Cunningham
Key Losses: Norbertas Giga, Malcolm Drumwright
Key Newcomers: Ty Hudson (Clemson), Detrick Mostella (Tennessee), Derek St. Hilaire (JUCO), Maros Zeliznak, Cam Jones, De’Torrion Ware
Outlook: Jacksonville State has hung around the middle-upper tier of the OVC during its first two seasons under Ray Harper, with an NCAA Tournament bid in 2017 to show for it. Despite the loss of two studs in Norbertas Giga and Malcolm Drumwright, the ceiling may be higher than ever this season. Harper raided the SEC and ACC, respectively, for two high-end guard talents in Detrick Mostella and Ty Hudson, and that backcourt – along with a strong supporting cast – gives the Gamecocks a chance to ascend into the elite league’s tier with Belmont and Murray State.
Last year’s Gamecocks thrived on defense, the conference’s most efficient unit thanks to tremendous athleticism inside and out, spearheaded by Jason Burnell and Jamall Gregory. Burnell is an effective interior defender and shot-blocker at the four while also possessing the mobility to defend on the perimeter, and Gregory is a freakin’ menace, plain and simple. Gregory’s length and anticipation make him a nightmare for unsuspecting opponents, ripping steals and swatting shots and impressive rates for a 6’3 guard (7th in the OVC in block rate, led the conference in steal rate and ranked 36th nationally). This should be no surprise: Gregory’s college career began under the tutelage of Frank Martin at South Carolina. Christian Cunningham, the likely starter up front with Burnell now that Giga has graduated, is also a force in his own right. He ranked second in the OVC in block rate, and his overall activity level on both ends makes him tough to deal with.
Offensively, Burnell, Malcolm Hunter, and the departed Malcolm Drumwright were the straws that stirred the drink. When Burnell and Hunter played together, the offense scored at clip of 1.14 points per possession (very good!), but in any other lineup combination, that dropped all the way to a disappointing 0.98ppp. Burnell is a difficult matchup for many of the same reasons he’s an excellent defender: he’s mobile, he can knock down a jump shot, and he can beat smaller forwards in the post. Hunter is more of a slasher and midrange assassin, but the two shared a common trait in that they were devastatingly effective at the rim (Burnell shot 77.5% from in close, while Hunter hit 74.7%). With Hudson and Mostella drawing significant defensive attention, those percentages should stay elite.
Hudson is more of a natural point guard, likely sharing ball-handling duties with Gregory. The former 4-star recruit never got his career going at Clemson, but rest assured – he can hoop. Mostella is the true gem, a high-usage, get-em-in-bunches scorer whose quickness + shooting combo is going to give OVC coaches nightmares. He actually earned SEC Player of the Week honors just prior to being dismissed from the Volunteer program, but if Harper succeeds in his reclamation project, he will have a conference POY contender.
Bottom Line: The Gamecocks’ top six players are as good as any in the conference, and if they can get some minutes from junior Jacara Cross, JUCO transfer Derek St. Hilaire, and the freshman trio of Cam Jones, De’Torrion Ware, and Maros Zeliznak (the next Giga), then they’ll really be cooking with gas. Mostella’s ability to follow team rules/avoid getting the boot is a major pivot point for the team’s ceiling, but I’ll take the risk and say he’s able to stay on the court for all or most of the year. The Gamecocks’ defense should again be a dominant force, and with a variety of scoring options around, too, JSU will be nipping at Murray and Belmont’s heels (and perhaps more).
5. Eastern Kentucky
Key Returners: Nick Mayo, Jacquess Hobbs, Dujuanta Weaver
Key Losses: Zach Charles, Jackson Davis, DeAndre Dishman, Dedric Boyd, Dillon Avare
Key Newcomers: Pedro Bradshaw (Belmont), Jordan Oakley (JUCO), Tre King, Jomaru Brown, Kelvin Robinson (JUCO), Houston King
Outlook: In what ultimately was a “prove it” third season for Dan McHale, Eastern Kentucky instead had a “what else could go wrong” season marred by player departures (point guards Asante Gist and Dedric Boyd both transferred), bad luck (lost five conference games by 4 points or less), and injuries (Butler transfer Jackson Davis had to medically retire). McHale was dismissed, and EKU hired AW Hamilton, the head coach at powerhouse prep school Hargrave Military Academy and a former Kevin Keatts assistant. Ranking the Colonels in Tier 2 is probably my boldest OVC call - Blue Ribbon ranked them 11th, Athlon 7th - but Austin Peay showed last year what a solid coaching hire and a group of talented newcomers can do.
The hire seemed to pay immediate dividends – the Colonels brought in a talented group of newcomers (including one player who followed Hamilton from Hargrave, forward Tre King), which should allow EKU to build around team centerpiece Nick Mayo and compete right away. The Colonels also had the benefit of taking an offseason trip to Costa Rica, where they went undefeated and (more importantly) started to learn Hamilton’s system.
Like Keatts (and EKU’s two most recent coaches, McHale and Jeff Neubauer), Hamilton will emphasize an active, pressure defense that badgers opposing guards and looks to create turnovers for easy points. A backcourt featuring sophomore point guard JacQuess Hobbs and junior Dujuanta Weaver provides an excellent groundwork, as both adapted well to McHale’s trapping defenses, ranking 6th and 20th, respectively, in the OVC in steal rate. Freshman Houston King and JUCO transfer Kelvin Robinson provide depth, and although lanky Belmont transfer Pedro Bradshaw isn’t eligible until December, he looks like an OVC star – perhaps as soon as this year.
Another JUCO transfer, ‘tweener forward Jordan Oakley, should be a perfect fit in the pressure scheme, often playing the role of undersized four. He can get up and down the court, and he showed how well he fits in the system during the trip abroad (averaged 18.5ppg and 10rpg). He fits the Keatts system that requires a player who can participate in traps while also battling on the boards (think Torin Dorn at NC State).
Of course, I’m glossing over the team’s true foundation: Mayo, a do-it-all big man who scores efficiently inside and out. Few opponents (especially in the OVC) have the size and mobility combination to combat Mayo’s versatile offensive arsenal, and he’s shown willingness as a passer when teams try to stop him with double-teams. Lachlan Anderson showed some potential in Costa Rica as a backup big option; Hamilton will likely need some minutes from him and King given the lack of depth up front.
Bottom Line: The Colonels struggled last year, but the new additions – both coach and players – leave plenty of room for optimism. Building it all around a star like Mayo (plus the developing young backcourt) only sweeten the pot, and it helps that the returning parts have already played in a turnover-centric pressure defense. I think Hamilton is the real deal (mainly because I’ve always loved Keatts), and thus EKU is my pick for this year’s version of Austin Peay (from low in the standings to a top 4 squad).
6. Morehead St.
Key Returners: AJ Hicks, Jordan Walker, Lamontray Harris, Djimon Henson, De’Von Cooper, Malek Green
Key Losses: Londell King
Key Newcomers: Malik Riddle, Sasha Sukhanov , Ja’Cori Wilson, Tada Stricklen
Outlook: Tasked with leading one of the country’s youngest and least-experienced rosters (the Eagles ranked 329th nationally in experience and 337th in minutes continuity), Preston Spradlin struggled to generate wins last year, registering a last-place finish in the OVC at 4-14. Spradlin himself is a rug rat in the coaching ranks, the Baby Diego of Division I coaches last season at just 31 years of age. With more experience for coach and roster alike, expect Morehead St. to take a considerable jump up the league standings this time around.
The Eagles did have some bad luck last year – they actually ranked ahead of all three 5-13 OVC teams on advanced metrics sites – but ultimately, the youth held them back late in games and led to close losses. After winning their final two games and returning all five starters, though, Morehead should have some confidence heading into this year.
The offense should largely run through two seniors – point guard AJ Hicks and versatile forward Lamontray Harris. Hicks got better as the season went on, growing more comfortable as the lead ball-handler and attacking the rim with reckless abandon. He’s a physical guard at just 6’0, but he embraces contact and is a pest on defense, all while setting up teammates like Harris and the junior trio of Jordan Walker, Djimon Henson, and Londell King. Aside from Henson (probably the roster’s best shooter – which isn’t saying much), most of the team’s scoring comes from the interior. Offensive rebounding and the free throw line are pivotal, so a disciplined defensive team that cleans the glass and doesn’t hack will give the bricky Eagles serious problems (case in point – Xavier, an elite team in both of those regards, beat them by 52 in last year’s opener).
Like so many other OVC teams, Morehead’s defensive calling card is forcing turnovers. Hicks spearheads this approach, but Walker and King also flashed solid hands. The Eagles want to make you uncomfortable by speeding you up – taking quick shots feeds directly into what they want.
Most of the rest of the rotation returns, as well, and Morehead actually leads the OVC in barttorvik.com’s “Minutes Returning” stat by a large margin:
This paints a far different picture than last year’s team, and role players like De’Von Cooper, Malek Green, Alonzo Chatman, and James Baker should all see improvement (Cooper, Green, and Baker are all rising sophomores). Green, Baker, and King actually give the defense a surprisingly stout group of rim protectors, but the press often gives up such easy shots that it doesn’t matter.
Bottom Line: The Morehead narrative is flipped entirely from last year, and with so much continuity this time around, we should get a far more accurate gauge on Spradlin’s true coaching ability. If this team crashes and burns once again, well, maybe he just wasn’t ready for such a gig. But if they rise up towards the 6-7 range of the standings as I expect, it will prove that he’s starting to build something following the insane Sean Woods meltdown that got him the job in the first place.
7. UT Martin
Key Returners: Fatodd Lewis, Delfincko Bogan, Parrish Hewitt, Jailen Gill
Key Losses: Matthew Butler, Dominique Williams, Terrence Parker
Key Newcomers: Kevin Little (Maine), Preston Parks (The Citadel), Quintin Dove (JUCO), Derek Hawthorne (JUCO), Charles Henderson (JUCO)
Outlook: After a solid debut season in Martin, Anthony Stewart and his Skyhawks suffered through a brutal 2017-18 that consisted of just eight Division I wins. The transfer-packed backcourt offers potential to turn things around, though – provided the newcomers help solve the team’s debilitating turnover issues.
Two Division I transfers should headline the guard rotation, as both Kevin Little and Preston Parks were both very productive at their previous stops, and both offer ball-handling help after playing some point guard. Parks is probably the headliner: he won the SoCon’s Freshman of the Year award in 2016-17, racking up 17.5ppg and 3.7apg in Duggar Baucom’s insanity ball. He’ll have to settle into a vastly different style – The Citadel (where he hails from) was 2nd in the country in tempo in 2016-17, while UT Martin finished 275th last year – but the talent is clearly there, and he appears to have the requisite vision to function in Stewart’s pick-and-roll-based, structured offense.
If he can’t, Little and Delfincko Bogan can move him off the ball, although Bogan was a leading accomplice in the Skyhawks’ turnover spree last year. The backcourt looks like the strength of the roster, as I’m also high on Parrish Hewitt for the second straight preseason. Hewitt was solid in a small role aside from his 9/38 misfiring from three-point range, but more notably, he was the team’s best player by Hoop Lens’s on/off metrics and racked up 15 points in 36 minutes in the regular season finale. Those four guys plus JUCO transfers Trenten Williams, Charles Henderson Jr., and Derek Hawthorne Jr. fuel optimism around what the Skyhawks can be this year.
That isn’t to say the frontcourt is going to be an anchor, though. Fatodd Lewis and Jailen Gill excelled on the glass, an important note given that the team’s often ignored rebounding duties. Neither of those guys is really an offensive force, though; Lewis managed to hit double figures mostly through an effective midrange jumper and finishing opportunities created by the guards. The Skyhawks were one of the worst post up teams in the entire country last year, so if they are to get one-on-one points, it will need to come from one of the new big guys: JUCO transfers Jeremy Joyner and Quintin Dove.
Bottom Line: In a weird roster quirk, the Skyhawks have no freshmen on the team, instead adding a cadre of junior college players to a fairly promising core. Anthony Stewart’s defense improved drastically last year thanks to a stouter interior resistance (Gill in particular is a menace), and if the offense can follow suit with an infusion of promising guards, UT Martin could sneak up the standings. Look for a possible gambling edge when Preston Parks becomes eligible mid-year, as he’ll be one of the most impactful midseason transfers in the low-major ranks.
Key Returners: Ledarrius Brewer, Jonathan Dalton
Key Losses: Denzel Mahoney (transfer), Milos Vranes, Daniel Simmons, Justin Carpenter
Key Newcomers: Khalil Cuffee (redshirt), Skyler Hogan (D2), Gabe McGlothan, Sage Tolbert, Nygal Russell, Oscar Kao (JUCO), Jordan Love, Alex Caldwell
Outlook: Despite only returning one scorer of note last year (the now-transferred Denzel Mahoney), Rick Ray built one of the OVC’s best offenses around spacing and shooting, helping the Redhawks to a respectable 8-10 finish after being picked 10th in the league’s preseason poll. Unfortunately, the rotation is hit hard by departures – especially many of the shooters that keyed the offense – and Ray will have to rebuild once again.
One thing you might have noticed in that paragraph: yes, SEMO had the league’s third-best offense on an efficiency basis…but they still finished under .500 in conference. That’s because the defense was a complete catastrophe, ranking dead last in the OVC. In fact, the imbalance between offense and defense was one of the most profound in the entire country:
Ray made the conscious decision to recruit shooting and skill over athleticism, and it showed: SEMO was absolutely crushed at the rim, as opponents shot 67.2% there (16th-highest in the country, per hoop-math), and the Redhawks ranked a dismal 343rd in the country in block rate, per KenPom.
Mark Laros and Isaiah Gable are the only frontcourt returners of note, and while Laros brings some size at 6’10, he simply wasn’t impactful enough as a defender to outweigh the loss of shooting on offense. Gable is a promising sophomore stretch four who knocked down an efficient 12/31 from deep, but his defense epitomized the Redhawks’ issues last year. In 191 minutes, he managed the seemingly impossible feat of recording zero steals and zero blocks. That’s legitimately difficult! Freshmen Gabe McGlothan and Sage Tolbert will be needed right away, and Tolbert’s bounce around the rim adds an element SEMO simply didn’t have last year; I’d expect him to start at some point during the season.
The guards weren’t blameless in the defensive woes, either. Opposing ball-handlers constantly beat them off the dribble, leaving the aforementioned bigs overly exposed at the rim. Point guard Jonathan Dalton and inside-out wing Ledarrius Brewer return as starters, with the third perimeter player likely between redshirt freshman Khalil Cuffee and Division II transfer Skyler Hogan. Both guys bring a nice combination of shooting and athleticism, although I’d lean Hogan and have Cuffee be the dynamic spark off the bench. Freshman Alex Caldwell could conceivably push Dalton for minutes if the veteran continues to struggle somewhat with turnovers, but he’s such a good drive-and-disher that it will be difficult to unseat him. The group as a whole will need to be better about cutting off driving lanes with their bodies, or the defense will remain bleak.
Bottom Line: Despite so much turnover, Ray has seemingly found some pieces with which to reload his lineup. Brewer is a budding offensive force, and Hogan and Cuffee should both be impactful newcomers in the OVC. Tolbert can help fix the interior issues (as long as he can avoid the age-old problem of fouling too much as a freshman big man), which would go a long way towards elevating the pitiful defense. The Redhawks have some variance in their outcomes due to their reliance on jumpers, but I’m guessing they end up in the ballpark of where they finished last season, with possible room for more.
9. Eastern Illinois
Key Returners: Mack Smith, Terrell Lewis (injury)
Key Losses: Montell Goodwin, Ray Crossland, Muusa Dama, Jajuan Starks, D’Angelo Jackson
Key Newcomers: Rade Kukobat (JUCO), Josiah Wallace (JUCO), Shareef Smith (JUCO), Kashawn Charles (JUCO), Cam Burrell, Braxton Shaw (JUCO), Ben Harvey, JaQualis Matlock (JUCO)
Outlook: If you adore Eastern Illinois hoops, apologies if this paragraph reads like a broken record: Coach Jay Spoonhour has had a remarkable amount of difficulty recruiting freshmen and keeping them around for four years, stunting the growth of the program and keeping the Panthers in a perpetual state of applying JUCO band-aids. Although two promising homegrown players anchor this year’s roster, most of the other key players will consist of six brand new junior college transfers. EIU has found good players via this avenue – Montell Goodwin comes to mind – but it simply hasn’t been a route to team success (Spoonhour is just 44-54 in OVC games during his tenure).
Last year was a struggle due to losing the program’s most vital player over the last four years: Terrell Lewis, the artist formerly known as Cornell “Lil T” Johnston. Lewis had started 100 straight games in his Panther career before succumbing to an ankle injury last year and redshirting to save his eligibility, and the team ultimately lost its top four PGs to injury – including team manager-turned-walk-on Shawn Wilson. Lewis brings an innate sense of stability to the entire roster, as the 5’7 jitterbug has been a knockdown shooter and terrific creator throughout his career. He’ll facilitate an offense that relies heavily on off-ball screens and cuts to generate scoring, an area where Mack Smith thrived.
Smith is the other returner of note, a rising sophomore who is a potential OVC star if he makes the noted frosh-to-soph leap with more scoring opportunities. His departed wing counterparts last year were far less adept, though, meaning newcomers like Josiah Wallace, Shareef Smith, JaQualis Matlock, and Kashawn Charles will need to show more of an affinity if the team’s efficiency is to improve. Wallace looks like the best bet, a smooth scorer who averaged 20ppg at the College of Southern Indiana, while Smith (hails from the same Madison, WI high school that produced Vander Blue and Jeronne Maymon) would give more of a dual point guard look alongside Lewis.
The deliberate offense often fails to produce open opportunities inside, and the Panthers have been one of the country’s worst finishing teams inside the arc over the past two years. More newcomers hope to remedy that: Rade Kukobat was an effective interior contributor for JUCO powerhouse Vincennes, and Morgan Park freshman Cameron Burrell could be a future Panther centerpiece with his activity and touch inside. Burrell is a little thin, he makes up for it with consistent high effort. The Panthers will probably continue to struggle on the glass (despite the presence of Aboubacar Diallo), but Spoonhour will try to counteract that with pressure defensively.
EIU seemed well on its way to being a strong turnover-forcing menace once again last year, but the rash of backcourt players missing time forced Spoonhour to ease off a little: the Panthers forced turnovers 19.3% of the time for the year (117th nationally), but number dropped to 17.6% in conference play, dead last in the OVC (would have ranked in the 220s nationally). EIU plays in a pressure-heavy conference, and they need steals and easy scoring chances to survive.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to condemn Spoonhour after last season’s nightmarish parade of injuries, but one knock: he is one of the worst coaches in the country for benching players with two fouls (he was dead last in 2017, when players with two fouls played ZERO MINUTES - literally, zero - in the first half). It’s a smallish thing, but it’s emblematic of a lack of trust in his players or a too-rigid mindset for how the game flow is going. With a deeper roster this year, perhaps he’ll loosen the reins a bit. EIU has some talent and a true floor general in Lewis, but piecing everything together properly will continue to be a struggle in Charleston.
10. Tennessee St.
Key Returners: Kamar McKnight, Armani Chaney, Stokley Chaffee Jr.
Key Losses: Christian Mekowulu (transfer), Delano Spencer, Ken’Darrius Hamilton, Darreon Reddick
Key Newcomers: Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey (Ole Miss), Demarcus Mitchell (redshirt), Emmanuel Egbuta (JUCO), Michael Littlejohn (JUCO), Damarri Moore (JUCO), Monty Jahal, David Morris (redshirt)
Outlook: After resurrecting Tennessee State from the depths of Division I (the program won 5 games each in 2013-14 and 2014-15), Dana Ford answered the call of the Missouri Valley, hopping up the coaching ranks to Missouri State at the tender age of 34. In steps Penny Collins, also 34, who brings with him a variety of coaching experiences, all of which started at TSU in 2007. He played for offensive mastermind Rick Byrd at Belmont and has coached under more aggressive defensive philosophies as well (Steve Forbes at ETSU, Dan Muller at Illinois St.), so I’m hoping/expecting the Tigers to play a blend of those systems.
One more fun Penny Collins fact before we really kick this off: he was head coach at Columbia State Community College for three seasons, compiling a 54-38 record…but that’s misleading, because he went 0-27 in his first season. If you’re scrambling for a calculator, fear not: that means 54-11 over his last two years, which – *calculating* – is really good!
The Tigers suffered a blow when star big man (and OVC Defensive Player of the Year) Christian Mekowulu opted to transfer to Texas A&M, and the lineup mainstays that do come back will all shoulder a little more responsibility as a result. The go-to scorer role, though, may end up falling to Ole Miss transfer Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey, a talented wing who never got his career going under Andy Kennedy despite a promising freshman season. Along with returners Armani Chaney (point guard) and Kamar McKnight (a useful two-way guard), they’ll likely comprise a starting backcourt that will need to hit shots if Collins is to employ Rick Byrd’s offensive philosophies. Freshman Monty Jahal was a lights-out scorer in high school, and the silky lefty should be an elite microwave bench scorer (or even starter). Collins will also need some scoring flashes from big wings/potential stretch four options Daniel Cummings and JUCO newcomer Emmanuel Egbuta.
Byrd offenses also always have a primary interior threat who takes advantage of floor spacing and defensive confusion to post efficient scoring numbers. Stokley Chaffee may get first crack at that spot, but another possible fit is DaJion Henderson, a wide load former JUCO player who missed all of last year with an injury. He looks more like an offensive tackle, but he has deceptively decent feet and soft hands, which could make him a great fit in the new system.
He will, however, struggle if Collins brings pressure on defense. Tennessee State actually ranked third in the entire country in defensive turnover rate last year, and all three of that team’s best steal guys – Chaney, McKnight, and Chaffee – return to continue the onslaught. Michael Littlejohn, another JUCO rookie, brings plenty of quicks himself, as well. As long as the team grasps Collins’ trapping concepts, the defense should be a nightmare to play against.
Bottom Line: With a new coach and a bevy of important newcomers, the degree of uncertainty surrounding Tennessee State’s season makes them difficult to predict. I’m taking a “wait and see” approach with Tigers for now, but the ceiling for finishing in the league’s top half is there. If Fitzpatrick-Dorsey and/or Jahal can be elite perimeter scorers right off the bat, then reaching that ceiling becomes a lot more realistic.
11. Tennessee Tech
Key Returners: Courtney Alexander, Micaiah Henry
Key Losses: Kajon Mack, Curtis Phillips, Mason Ramsey, Shaq Calhoun, Aleksa Jugovic
Key Newcomers: Hunter Vick (redshirt), Jr. Clay, Jared Sherfield, Malik Martin (South Florida), Johnnie Vassar (Northwestern), Reece Wilkinson, Caden Mills, Spencer Chandler
Outlook: Let’s just get this out of the way – I’m concerned about the Golden Eagles this year. The inverse of my “high on EKU” pick, Blue Ribbon ranks TTU 5th in the OVC, and I just don’t see that at all (not picking on Blue Ribbon! Just a reference point). Steve Payne has finished in the KenPom top 200 only twice in seven years, and the 2018-19 version returns only one starter and one other minor rotation player from a mildly disappointing team (though Aleksa Jugovic’s injury struggles exacerbated that). What replaces the losses is a jumble of newcomers who do not appear to possess the same talent, and thus this year could be a long one in Cookeville.
The total lack of returning production creates an odd predicament. On one hand, last year’s offense was a complete nightmare, as the team struggled mightily to take care of the ball and knock down shots. Ordinarily, replacing the backcourt for a team with those qualities would be a good thing, but the two biggest culprits were actually Courtney Alexander and Micaiah Henry, returners who put up grisly turnover rates of 25.3% and 29.4%, respectively (for context, I’d say 18ish would be a decent estimate of “average”). Even worse: Alexander shot 50% from the free throw line (eventually adopting the Rick Barry underhand strategy), and he was by far the better of the two, as Henry punted his way to 14/46, 30% from the line. Unless the team plays a jumbo lineup, Henry may even lose his starting spot to Malik Martin, a grad transfer from USC via South Florida, who brings similar activity defensively and on the glass but isn’t going to set the world on fire offensively.
The backcourt jumble is a complete guess. Redshirt freshman Hunter Vick, Northwestern grad transfer Johnnie Vassar, and true freshmen Jr. Clay, Jared Sherfield, and Caden Mills figure to compete for the plethora of available minutes, but that group is completely unproven. Vassar barely saw the floor in four years in Evanston due to some potentially-nefarious behind-the-scenes activity, and although he’s talented, it’s unclear how much he’ll provide having barely played competitive basketball in years. Clay and Sherfield are probably the highest-upside candidates, but if any of that group shows promise, they’ll play. Returners Corey Tillery and Cade Crosland are a D2 transfer and former walk-on, respectively, and were largely invisible in minor minutes (although Crosland did hit some shots).
Bottom Line: The complete dearth of creation offensively looks like it will be a crippling weakness for the Tigers. Unless multiple of the new guards break out into legitimate scorers, Tennessee Tech is going to struggle severely for points, and I’m going to wager they’ll be the worst offense in the league this year. Payne’s teams have been solid enough the past three season – and this team will be ungodly young – but I’m just not into this roster at all.
Key Returners: Daniel Kinchen, David McFarland, Christian Ellis, Justin Benton, Brandon Jackson
Key Losses: Jalen Henry, Keenan Simmons
Key Newcomers: Treavon Martin, Tyresse Williford (JUCO), Anselm Uzuegbunem (JUCO), Elochukwu Eze, Cameron Williams
Outlook: Life as a Division I program has been tough for the Cougars. In ten seasons (three as an independent), SIU-E is a ghastly 79-194 overall, 35-79 in conference. They peaked at 12-16 (8-8) in 2014-15…and proceeded to fire their coach. Current boss Jon Harris has presided over three seasons in which SIU-E has ranked 311th, 318th, and 318th in at KenPom.com, a truly dire stretch in which he’s struggled to gain any sort of foothold in the league. The Cougars bring a lot back this year, but they lose their most productive player (Jalen Henry) and most efficient player (Keenan Simmons), leaving a ton of questions as to how they’ll actually make improvements this season.
Harris runs a fairly structured offense, based on halfcourt execution and (attempting to) put players in specific spots to succeed. Christian Ellis returns as the primary facilitator, while sixth-man Daniel Kinchen is also back as the leading returning scorer. I’d say he was a microwave scorer, but that implies he heats up quickly, and his bricky shooting from the field (34%) probably doesn’t even qualify as lukewarm. He may continue to come off the bench due to Justin Benton and David McFarland also sticking around, with McFarland being the team’s best perimeter defender and Benton a (little-used) knockdown shooter (hit 48% from 3 last year). Tyresse Williford and Cameron Williams add depth and possibly more; Williams looks like a diamond in the rough found locally in St. Louis.
The issues arise in the frontcourt, where Henry and Simmons were the engines that made the team go (for as much going as it did). Without either guy on the court, the Cougars were a landfill doused in napalm - look at the Hoop Lens numbers when both were OFF the court:
Unfortunately, since both guys graduated, SIU-E is going to have to play quite a few possessions without both of them – all of the possessions, in fact! Brandon Jackson is one likely starter thanks to his experience, but he wasn’t special in any of the areas in which Henry and Simmons excelled (not a great rebounder, doesn’t block shots, can’t stretch the floor). Sophomores Bill Awet and DJ Jackson (no relation) will compete to play alongside him, although given the lack of experience and production coming back, I’d expect newcomers Treavon Martin and Anselm Uzuegbunem to have every shot to play early. Awet, an Australian, is probably the most high-upside of the group, but he’s still developing and was exceedingly foul-prone last year.
The Cougars will play primarily man-to-man defensively, but outside of McFarland on the perimeter and Awet in the paint, they don’t really have any impact defenders. The defense dipped noticeably when Kinchen was on the floor, per Hoop Lens numbers (1.15ppp w/ him, 1.05 w/o), forcing Harris into a difficult decision between playing him for offense or benching him for D. Barring some shooting luck or a major surprise, it’s pretty unlikely the defense gets a lot better this year.
Bottom Line: Edwardsville has proven a difficult place to win, but an optimist would say that the talent pool in St. Louis is deep enough to sustain a relevant low major program. A Cuonzo Martin assistant for seven years, Harris is young, energetic, and grew up in Edwardsville (played at Edwardsville High), but he might be running out of time to prove he’s the right guy to build the program. It’s hard to see where marked improvement comes from this year, leaving the Cougars once again firmly in the OVC’s bottom tier.