NCAAB Thursday: Checking in on the Ohio Valley
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
Murray State @ Jacksonville State
The biggest OVC matchup of the night features arguably the best backcourt in mid-major basketball of Murray State against the deep and athletic frontcourt of the defending champion Gamecocks. After a huge win at Belmont, Jacksonville State may have established themselves as the team to beat, but the Racers have started 4-0 in the Ohio Valley.
Jonathan Stark and Ja Morant lead a Murray State backcourt that heads one of the country’s best pick-and-roll offenses. Per Synergy, the Racers rank ninth in efficiency when utilizing ball handlers in pick-and-roll, while stretch power forward Terrell Miller scores a lethal 1.32 points per possession in those situations. The 6-foot-3 frosh Morant, a nightly triple-double threat, has established himself as the Trae Young of mid-majordom. He doesn’t have Young’s jumper, but he possesses the country’s 16th highest assist rate and an 18% defensive rebounding rate, which is absurd for a point guard. The addition of Morant has allowed Stark to play off the ball this year, where he has thrived.
Jacksonville State’s veteran backcourt features the long and versatile Jamall Gregory and Marlon Hunter, who actually match up reasonably well with the explosive duo of Morant and Stark. Hunter allows only a stubborn .44 points per possession in pick-and-roll situations, which will help tonight. Head coach Ray Harper has taken to playing small, shifting veteran point guard Malcolm Drumwright down to the 3. That small but versatile lineup could pay huge dividends tonight against the Racers, who line up 6-foot-3 Shaq Buchanan at the 3 and at times even utilize a three point guard lineup with Byron Hawkins.
While Jacksonville State can contain the Racer backcourt, I’m not certain Murray State’s frontcourt can hang with the deep and athletic frontcourt of JSU. Jason Burnell can hit jumpers at the 4, and 7-foot Norbertas Giga is a matchup nightmare as a floating 5. Chris Cunningham has also been hyper efficient around the rim, particularly on putbacks for one of the country’s best offensive rebounding teams. That is especially problematic for the Racers, who are just a mediocre defensive rebounding team.
The Pick: Jacksonville State +1.5
Other OVC Notes
Austin Peay has raced out to a 4-0 OVC start in Matt Figger’s first year at the helm, but they’ve played fpur home games against OVC bottom feeders. They will head out for their first road game in nearly a month against a solid Tennessee Tech team. The Govs play an aggressive, deny-heavy defense that reflects Figger’s Frank Martin roots. APSU’s offense works almost exclusively in the paint and goes after misses with ferocity. The Govs rank eighth in the country in defensive rebounding rate and seventh on the offensive end. TTU has a few issues in this matchup, as they only have one true rim protector in the incredibly foul prone Micaiah Henry. Additionally, they could be down a ball handler, with Kajon Mack missing last game with a knee injury, which would leave the turnover prone Aleksa Jugovic exposed. TTU’s offense relies on getting paint touches for Curtis Phillips, but he will line up against Terry Taylor, the linchpin of Figger’s frontcourt defense.
The Pick: Austin Peay +3
Eastern Illinois will once again be without Terrell Lewis and D’Angelo Jackson, which means they will need to rely on their third option at the point against a difficult Tennessee State 3-2 matchup zone that extends pressure on the ball handler. Both offenses should struggle tonight, but EIU’s foul prone Muusa Dama will have his hands full with TSU’s Chris Mekowulu in the post, as Dana Ford has shown a commitment to pounding him the ball.
The Pick: Tennessee State +1.5
Thursday Top Picks
Tennessee State +1.5
Wright State +10.5
Old Dominion -3
Jacksonville St +1.5