Top OVC storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. The OVC is scrapping the two division system, which has been in place since Belmont joined the league. This year the league will feature simply 1-12 in the standings.

2. Legendary Austin Peay coach Dave Loos retired after 27 years in Clarksville. Loos is replaced by Matt Figger out of South Carolina, the only new coach in the league unless you consider the removal of Preston Spradlin’s interim tag at Morehead State.

3. With Spradlin, Jon Harris at SIUE and Dana Ford at Tennessee State, the OVC has three of the youngest coaches in D1, with 30-year-old Spradlin being the youngest.

1. Belmont– If you were drafting mid-major basketball coaches, Rick Byrd would be the No. 1 pick, without hesitation. I’ve gone on and on about Rick Byrd and the dynasty he’s built in Nashville over on my personal blog, so I’ll keep it light here: Rick Byrd is a genius and the best mid-major coach in the game. The Bruins haven’t had a losing conference season since 2001-02, and his beautiful spread pick and roll/drag screen transition offense has ranked in the top 40 in offensive efficiency five of the past seven years; it’s also been the best 2PT% offense in the entire nation four of the past five years (Belmont was third the one "off" year). And his sweater vest game is impeccable. This year Byrd has to replace beyond ultra-efficient Evan Bradds as the primary "roll man" in his offense, as well as Taylor Barnette, from a team that nearly ran the OVC table last year before being upset by Jacksonville State in the OVC tournament. But as I mentioned before, Byrd just simply doesn’t rebuild, he just restocks with his constantly developing roster. A healthy Mack Mercer and Amanze Ekegeze can more than replicate Bradds’ production, and they even add some perimeter shooting to the mix in that role. If Mercer can stay healthy, he’s capable of being an elite rim protector and rebounder in the OVC as well. In the backcourt, Austin Luke returns as a pitch perfect distributor in Byrd’s offense, as he posted the eighth-highest assist rate in the country last year. His turnover rate can run exceedingly high, and his jumper is streaky at best, but he’s a senior point guard who knows the offense in and out; he’s as essential of a player as there is in the league. Off the ball, Dylan Windler and Michael Benkert will be the key scorers, with Windler returning as one of the best shooters in the country and an effective defender 2-4. Freshmen Pedro Bradshaw, Grayson Murphy and Nick Hopkins will all factor into Byrd’s rotation this year, with Bradshaw and Murphy coming in as three-star recruits. Defensively, Byrd almost always tailors his scheme around personnel (so many coaches do the opposite, and Byrd wisely recognizes that a mid-major program doesn’t have that luxury), and thus Belmont’s numbers vary wildly from year to year. Some of Byrd’s best teams extended pressure, and he had two tournament teams that ranked second and ninth nationally in defensive turnover rate. Last year’s team was 314th. With and influx of wing/backcourt talent, Byrd might try to return to some ball pressure. Belmont won’t be as dominant as they were last year, but I also doubt they shoot 34 percent again from 3, which was the lowest number for Byrd’s prolific 3-point offense in the last 16 years. Until otherwise informed, Belmont is still the class of the OVC.

2. Murray State– Matt McMahon spent the offseason loading up on defenders to buoy a Racers defense that was ninth in efficiency rating last year and was particularly inept at defending at the rim. However, most of McMahon’s additions are in the backcourt and on the wing, so I wouldn’t be shocked if the Racers amp up the pressure on the ball with all the new athleticism. The backcourt is led by Jonathan Stark, and the mega scoring point guard had a massive first season in Murray after transferring from Tulane. Stark was a lethally efficient high-volume shooter, and he’s one of the elite scorers in the entire country. With Towson transfer Byron Hawkins and freshman Ja Morant expected to log serious minutes on the ball, Stark could be in line to lead the country in scoring. If McMahon chooses to play all three point guards at the same time in his spread pick and roll, the Racers are going to put up some huge numbers. However, shoring up the defense has to be the priority, which means long two guard Shaq Buchanan could see a lot of run off the ball, as could freshmen Tevin Brown and Brion Whitley. Whitley was recruited by Kevin Keatts at UNCW originally as a perfect fit in his pressure defense. At 6-foot-8, Terrell Miller is a matchup nightmare as a 43 percent 3-point shooter who can also attack off the dribble. He’s an excellent rebounder but was totally lost defensively in the paint. McMahon didn’t do much to help the interior defense, so a massive sophomore leap from Jalen Dupree will be imperative. Dupree was a lackluster rebounder and meh rim protector in his freshman season. Veteran Brion Sanchious is a big-bodied lane clogger and capable post scorer, but also a slow-footed defender in the paint. With Stark and Miller, the Murray State offense should be capable of outscoring anyone in the league, but the defense has to improve mightily, especially at the rim. Whether that involves a big leap from Dupree or McMahon opting to extend pressure with his influx of wing athletes remains to be seen.

3. Jacksonville State– With Ray Harper’s squad returning one of the best point-center duos in the country, the Gamecocks can easily prove that they just didn’t get hot at the right time, and last year’s OVC tournament title wasn’t a small sample size fluke. JSU will revolve around a two post offense headlined by Norbertas Giga. Giga put up phenomenal numbers on the glass and as a rim protector but was inconsistent, at best, offensively. However, if Giga’s 30-point outburst against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament (which included 5-5 shooting from 3) is any indication of where his game is headed in his second collegiate season, then the Gamecocks could be headed to back-to-back OVC titles. Christian Cunningham at the 4 is Harper’s more efficient post player, posting a 119 ORtg in OVC play. Cunningham also led the league in offensive rebounding rate and block rate. Throw highly skilled but foul prone sophomore Jacara Cross and JUCO double-double machine Jason Burnell into the frontcourt mix, and you have the OVC’s best frontline. Defensively, the frontcourt is the heart of Harper’s camouflaged matchup zone scheme that was a top-25 unit in terms of field goal percent allowed at the rim. In the backcourt, Malcolm Drumwright returns to the point, and he should have a year more similar to his outstanding sophomore season when he had better shooters surrounding him. Penetrator and plus on-ball defender Marlon Hunter, who Harper coached at WKU, and JUCO sharpshooter Maurice Dunlap join the backcourt this year. Dunlap should immediately improve the woeful 32 percent 3-point shooting JSU posted in OVC play, while another JUCO, Jamall Gregory, is Harper’s best athlete off the ball. With more offensive weapons, expect JSU to play with a little more freedom, as last year they were one of the more methodical teams in the country, and Harper felt compelled to utilize a burn offense with a lack of overall offensive talent. With an interior defense that’s the best in the league combined with an improving offense, JSU should be a title contender again.

4. Eastern Kentucky– After two trying years plagued by injuries and far worse (see Jaylen Babb-Harrison), Dan McHale might finally have the roster and depth to fully implement his Pitino-esque zone trap defense. Offensively, EKU will revolve around Nick Mayo, who has a chance to be the most devastating matchup problem in the league. At an athletic 6-foot-9, Mayo can score at all three levels and protect the rim on the back end of McHale’s pressure schemes. Mayo was absolutely phenomenal in the month of February, and if the end to his sophomore season was a glimpse into this year, he’ll be one of the best mid-major bigs in the country. McHale can pair Mayo with former Butler three-star recruit Jackson Davis in the frontcourt to give the Colonels unparalleled athleticism at the 4 and 5, and DeAndre Dishman is McHale’s best overall defender; he can play either position behind Mayo and Davis or even shift to the 3 in a bigger lineup. Throw Zach Charles (who had an under the radar efficient season on both ends) into the frontcourt mix, and suddenly EKU rivals JSU for the league’s best interior. The backcourt returns high-scoring sophomore point guard Asante Gist, who probably doesn’t have to lead the league in shot rate and usage rate this year. In fact, if Gist does dominate the ball again, EKU probably doesn’t improve upon last year’s second to worst offensive efficiency rating in OVC play. Dujuanta Weaver returns from injury and provides a secondary ball handler and excellent on-ball defense. Off the ball, McHale will rely on two freshmen, Peyton Broughton and Dedric Boyd, to shoulder the load. Boyd is a three-star recruit who will probably start from day one. With Gist at the point and the outstanding interchangeable inside/out frontcourt duo of Mayo and Davis, it would be a major disappointment if Dan McHale’s squad isn’t at least a fringe OVC title contender.

5. Tennessee State– The Tigers were one of the more disappointing teams in mid-major basketball last year, especially after a nonconference performance that saw them win the Cable Car Classic, beat a very good MTSU team on the road, lose in OT at NC State and have a second-half lead at Duke. Part of me feels like they never recovered from a second-half meltdown at Murray State (to be fair, the officiating was horrific in that game) to open the OVC season. Regardless, an 8-8 season with a dominant frontcourt and an outstanding senior point guard was a major disappointment for Dana Ford’s squad. Ford loses a lot of talent this year, but perhaps some chemistry issues will be resolved, and he still has four solid veterans as the team’s nucleus. Armani Chaney will take over as the full-time point guard in Tahj McCall’s stead, and while he’s not the same level scorer or penetrator, he’s a key cog defensively in Ford’s scheme that pressures ball handlers but sags down in the paint and undercuts screens to force jump shots and crash the defensive glass. His running mate is Delano Spencer, one of Ford’s only jump shooters. Darreon Reddick returns on the wing, but his inefficient shooting could lead to a minutes reduction, especially with two key transfers coming in – AC Reid from Liberty and three-star JUCO Kamar McKnight. Ford’s frontcourt should once again be a strength for the Tigers, as Christian Mekowulu is a full year removed from an ACL tear and should be one of the league’s premier rim protectors and rebounders, with an increased role in the post as well. Ken’Darrius Hamilton at the 4 offers more solid interior defense in Ford’s super compact scheme, and he has a burgeoning floor-stretching game on the other end. Ford bolstered the frontcourt depth with a slew of JUCOs this year, and they’ll be needed given TSU’s likely high foul rate again. Turnovers, mental mistakes and fouls were essentially the undoing of what should have been a potential OVC title team last year. The good news is that those are all correctable issues and not talent related.

6. Tennessee Tech– Steve Payne returns a veteran squad in Cookeville, and the Eagles were one of the more surprising OVC teams last year, relatively speaking. If the Eagles are going to improve on last year’s 8-8 league mark, a few things need to happen – more consistent perimeter shooting and Micaiah Henry to lower his excessive foul rate so Payne can use less zone. The backcourt is the strength of Payne’s squad, with Kajon Mack returning as a penetrating point guard to set up the offense. Aleksa Jugovic is his running mate in the backcourt with a good shooting stroke, but his perimeter shooting dipped to 31 percent in league play last year after hitting at 50 percent as a sophomore. That has to improve, as he’s the primary beneficiary of Mack’s penetration. Shaq Calhoun comes in from South Alabama and provides Payne with another penetrating guard who can defend on the ball. In the frontcourt, Henry could be the key to the entire TTU season, as he’s one of the league’s best rim protectors if he can stay on the floor. Unfortunately, that’s a big if. Henry swatted shots at 12.2 percent rate but also fouled at a nearly 10 percent rate. When he can’t log 20-plus minutes routinely, a domino effect happens in the frontcourt with Curtis Phillips, Mason Ramsey and Courtney Alexander all being forced to play out of position, which makes Payne have to utilize a 3-2 zone, and he prefers to pressure ball handlers as soon as they cross halfcourt. Phillips is much better served as a defensive stopper on the wing than playing at the 4, and Ramsey simply doesn’t have the height or rebounding ability to play the 5. Alexander is Payne’s best defender, as he can guard 2-5. Depth will be provided by Corey Tillery and freshman Hunter Vick in the backcourt, with Tillery aiming to help the shooting woes as a volume shooter out of D2 and take some pressure off Jugovic, and Vick helping on the wing. If Henry stays on the floor for 20-plus minutes nightly, the Eagles should have a winning OVC season.

7. Eastern Illinois– Jay Spoonhour returns the league’s oldest team with four senior starters, but he needs some newcomers to help the Panthers get something, anything at the rim offensively. EIU had one of the most anemic two point percentage offenses in the country last year, and to wit, they took shots at the rim at the second-lowest rate. With a true post option to dump the ball into, Spoonhour needs some better penetration from his guards/wings, and directly correlated to that, continuing a trend of pressuring the ball and trapping in man to man (EIU’s turnover rate increased to 21 percent last year, the 35th highest in the country). The senior laden backcourt is led by Terrell Lewis, who you might remember as Cornell "Lil T" Johnston. Lewis is a small, quick point guard with an excellent jump shot and passing skills, but scoring among the trees off penetration is difficult given his frame. Montell Goodwin is a solid secondary ball handler and passer and a good shooter, but he’s also not a penetrator either, making it hard for EIU to generate offense at times. That inability led to long scoring droughts last year, and it seemed so often that I would watch early double-digit leads evaporate into a loss for the Panthers. Perhaps JUCO transfer D’Angelo Jackson can help generate some offense at the rim as a slasher off the wing. Ray Crossland returns as another senior in the backcourt, and he’s the linchpin of Spoonhour’s trapping defense. Freshman Mack Smith is a player I saw a few times at Warren Central, and he should see time as a spot shooter on the perimeter this year. Muusa Dama headlines the frontcourt as the league’s best rebounder, leading the OVC in defensive rebounding rate while also tallying the league’s second-highest block rate. EIU will be a mostly four-guard lineup, but Aboubacar Diallo can slot in at the 4 or spell Dama as a similar defensive/glass threat, albeit with a still raw offensive game. EIU had their issues, particularly generating offense at the rim, but the 6-10 league mark was also the result of simply bad luck. The Panthers just took some bad bounces in close games, and while they limited 3-pointers to the lowest rate in league play, teams hit 40 percent when they took them, the highest mark in OVC play – by far. I’ve commented several times about how 3-point defense is almost entirely a luck driven stat, but it certainly doesn’t help that EIU is so small in the backcourt. With hopefully better luck this year and an increased commitment to generate something at the rim, either via more penetration from a newcomer like Jackson or through transition, EIU should at the very least be a .500 team.

8. Morehead State– Preston Spradlin is the youngest coach in D1 at 30 after taking over full time following the embarrassing Sean Woods era, and he’ll have one of the least experienced rosters in the country as well. Spradlin’s a John Calipari disciple, so he went out and recruited athletes (albeit not at the same talent level as Calipari, of course), and he’ll figure out "positions" later. What’s known is Lamontray Harris will lead the team in scoring, rebounding, blocks and maybe even assists. He’s an All-OVC first team talent and will be the unquestioned focal point of the offense at the 4 and maybe on the wing as well if his jump shot developed. Freshman Malek Green could start next to Harris in the frontcourt immediately and has freshman of the year potential. JUCO Cedric Wright should be an immediate factor in the frontcourt as well. The backcourt will be led by another JUCO import, as AJ Hicks will run the point immediately. Hicks has All OVC talent with his penetration ability and a plus jump shot. Dead eye shooter Jordan Walker shot 55 percent from 3 in OVC play as a freshman, and he’ll be the main beneficiary of Hicks’ talent at the point. De’Von Cooper is Spradlin’s highest-rated freshman and could start on the wing as a three-level scorer out of Louisville. Spradlin has already shown he’s not going to press like Woods did, thus the obscene foul rate was dramatically lowered in OVC play when Spradlin took over. He did stay in a man-to-man base, but I’m not sure how this young team will defend overall, though it likely won’t be a top-half OVC unit. That said, the talent level and athleticism is high, even if roles aren’t defined yet. The Harris/Hick/Cooper trio gives the Eagles a talented base, and a top-half OVC finish wouldn’t surprise me.

9. UT Martin– No one in the league lost as much production as the Skyhawks, but Anthony Stewart has quickly proven to be a solid recruiter and developer of talent. The Skyhawks were one of the oldest teams in the country last year, and they put it all together toward the end of the season and nearly made their first trip to the NCAA Tournament. Stewart reloaded with a decent collection of talent, but the difference between a .500 season and a potential plummet to the cellar will depend upon how they all mesh, especially defensively where Stewart continued his predecessor’s (Heath Schroyer) difficult to pick up matchup zone. Last year’s experienced Skyhawks had trouble defending in the zone (and rebounding defensively, which was always a hallmark of any Schroyer team), so it’s a bit sobering to think of how a host of newcomers will struggle to pick up the scheme. Offensively, Stewart might utilize a dual point guard look with veteran Matthew Butler and former JSU recruit DelFincko Bogan (he was a first-team All-Name candidate for me two years ago). Butler’s a former walk-on who should be Stewart’s leading scorer this year, especially if he can be a little more assertive off the dribble. High-scoring combo guard Parrish Hewitt could make an immediate impact, as he was rated the fourth-best Tennessee prep, while Robert Morris transfer Lorenzen Wright Jr. could also see immediate minutes off the ball. Veteran Kahari Beaufort returns on the wing, while former FIU wing Dominique Williams is an underrated addition by Stewart. Williams is a long-armed 6-foot-7 who could be a key cog in the matchup zone. The frontcourt will have to be lead by Fatodd Lewis, who is essentially unproven in every aspect, but Stewart is high on him. Behind him, Stewart has a slew of JUCOs coming in, and I’m not sure exactly how the rotation in the paint will shake out, but it will probably be entirely dependent on who can defend and rebound, with Jailen Gill and Darius Thompson the most likely starters. Anthony Stewart is a unique coach with a unique perspective, but it will be hard for the Skyhawks to be competitive on the same level as his first season in Martin with so much roster turnover.

10. SEMO– Rick Ray loses a lot of talent from last year’s fairly surprising fifth place Redhawks, but he does return burgeoning OVC star Denzel Mahoney to build around. Mahoney posted a 119 ORtg in OVC play as a freshman thanks to 42 percent shooting from 3 and getting to the free throw line seemingly at will, where he hit 82 percent. His efficiency numbers are likely to take a hit, as the point guard options around him are unsteady at best. Dondre Duffus returns from injury and is the msot likely option for Ray on the ball, but he’s more of a threat defensively in Ray’s 1-2-2 halfcourt zone trapping scheme with his athleticism. Fellow junior Jonathan Dalton is more of a potential offensive threat, and he’ll see minutes at the point as well. Off the ball, veteran Daniel Simmons returns, but Ray is high on redshirt Ray Kowalski, who can be a lethal shooter in a system that creates a lot of open looks from the perimeter. Mahoney’s a given at the 3 (or can slide down to the 4 in small lineups), while Milos Vranes is a highly-skilled pick-and-pop offensive threat at the 4, but with questionable defense. Mark Laros is a traditional back-to-the-basket 5 out of the JUCO ranks, but Ray could utilize a more versatile lineup with Vranes at the 5 and Mahoney at the 4, and that would put a lot of pressure on opposing frontcourts to guard outside of the paint. The problem is that lineup would be gashed inside, as they allowed nearly 70 percent shooting at the rim last year, fifth highest in the country. (Hence the zone press, which at least limited shots at the rim at a top-10 rate nationally.) Ray has always been known for his keen recruiting eye, and Isaiah Gable and Ledarrius Brewer are typical, versatile Ray recruits. With so much roster turnover and so many question marks, it’s hard to see SEMO building on last year’s top-half finish.

11. Austin Peay– Matt Figger comes in from the Frank Martin tree to replace legendary APSU coach Dave Loos, so the defense and rebounding should see an immediate improvement. Those were two areas that the Govs rated among the worst in the entire country last year, as they surrendered a horrific 1.17 points per possession and were 346th in defensive rebounding rate. Figger will install the Frank Martin 3-2 matchup zone, but obviously it will take some time for a roster built on the fly to pick up. That said, it will be an immediate improvement for APSU on that end. Figger will rely heavily on do-everything wing Chris Porter-Bunton, the only returnee of note from the Loos era. Two low-mid transfers should see immediate playing time, as Averyl Ugba is a rugged rebounder out of Grambling, and Ed Stephens is a high-scoring combo guard out of South Carolina State. You can probably pencil in both as starters at the 5 and 2, respectively. Stephens can play on the ball, and Tre Ivory and Zach Glotta are veterans who can run the point as well, but the most intriguing options on the ball for Figger are 6-foot-6 Acoydan McCarthy and athletic Dayton Gumm, both freshmen. McCarthy would be a long-armed matchup problem on both ends, while Gumm is more of a natural creator. In the frontcourt, Terry Taylor is undersized, but he’s the most likely option to have the rebounding skills and physicality that Figger will be looking for at the 4. There are a lot of new faces everywhere in Clarksville, and the learning curve will be steep, especially for that matchup zone, but there’s no question that APSU will be a better defensive and rebounding team this year. The Govs should be back in the top half of the league in short order.

12. SIUE– When Jon Harris took over at SIUE, I noted on my blog that the Cougars would quickly become one of the most paint touch reliant offenses in the country, and that proved prophetic, as only a handful of teams shot fewer 3-pointers, and no one scored a higher percentage of their points at the free throw line than SIUE. (Side note: please don’t go back and note all of my predictions that turned out to be less than "prophetic.") Unfortunately, all that penetration from Christian Ellis and Burak Eslik and forcing the ball into Jalen Henry didn’t make SIUE any more efficient on offense. Actually it was rather the opposite, as they posted just 0.95 points per possession, the worst mark in the league. Without any shooters to kick out to and Ellis hitting an absurd 44 percent of his free throws despite having the eighth-highest free throw rate in the country, points were hard to come by. Ellis returns as an uber-penetrating point with no semblance of a jumper, and Harris hopes high-scoring JUCO Daniel Kinchen can help in that regard. Fellow JUCO import Jalen McCoy could move Ellis off the ball, and he’s reportedly been Harris’ best on-ball defender during the summer. Henry is a versatile offensive big capable of playing the 4 or 5 and inside or out, and he’s Harris’ best rim protector. Keenan Simmons was actually the most efficient offensive player on the roster at the 4, but the vast majority of that offense came via putback, as he’s a relentless offensive rebounder, a large part of Harris’ scheme in order to supplement a poor overall offensive attack. Defensively, the Cougars were nearly as bad as they were on the offensive end. The guards were blown by routinely on the perimeter, and the interior was subsequently torched at the rim, and the emphasis on offensive rebounding and deep lane penetration led to a lot of easy transition points the other way. The low 3-point attempt rate was more a result of poor perimeter defense than any sort of scheme related adjustment, as teams simply didn’t need to shoot the triple against the Cougars. Harris hopes the backcourt/wing additions help in that regard, and he wants to play more up tempo with more offensive weapons. SIUE is something of a sleeping giant in the OVC. They have a national TV deal and are just 30 minutes away from St. Louis, a hotbed of talent that Harris needs to tap into.

FINAL OUTLOOK: Belmont is once again the best bet to win the OVC, but if Murray State improves its defense, they have the most offensive talent in the league. Postseason bids for JSU and EKU seem within reach as well. A 14 seed come March seems the likely ceiling if the winner is Belmont or the Racers.

OVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jonathan Stark, Murray State

ALL OVC FIRST TEAM:
Jonathan Stark, Murray St
Terrell Miller, Murray St
Nick Mayo, Eastern Kentucky
Amanze Ekegeze, Belmont
Austin Luke, Belmont

ALL OVC SECOND TEAM:
Lamontray Harris, Morehead St
Terrell Lewis, Eastern Illinois
Denzel Mahoney, SEMO
Jackson Davis, Eastern Kentucky
Malcolm Drumwright, Jacksonville St

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