Ohio Valley Tournament Preview: Will a Top Two Seed Finally Win?

Ohio Valley Tournament Preview: Will a Top Two Seed Finally Win? article feature image
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© Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Murray State and Belmont dominated the Ohio Valley during the regular season. As a result, they finished as the top two seeds, receiving double byes into the semifinals. However, that’s been the kiss of death in the OVC Tournament in recent years. A top two seed hasn’t won the OVC title since Belmont back in the 2012-13 season. Let’s take a look at this year’s field to see if that trend will continue.

2018 OVC Conference Tournament

Eight of the 12 OVC teams make the tournament. Despite finishing in ninth place, SIU-Edwardsville actually qualified because seventh place South East Missouri State was ineligible (APR violations). All games will be played at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana. Murray State is currently listed as the favorite.

Let’s dive into the Ohio Valley tourney bracket by looking at the top contenders and a potential deep sleeper. I will also touch on ATS predictions for the first round matchups.

Who Should Win on Paper

Murray State +117

I could have just as easily said Belmont, but Murray State is the league’s most balanced team. It ranks second in offensive and defensive efficiency in the OVC. The Racers are led by OVC Player of the Year Jonathan Stark and triple-double threat freshman PG Ja Morant in the backcourt. With Stark and Morant providing a dual ball-handler look, the Racers are lethal in their spread pick and roll offense and on the break. In fact, the Racers grade out in the 90th percentile nationally in both half court and transition offense, per Synergy.

With Stark’s shooting and Morant’s penetration requiring so much attention, senior post Terrell Miller has had a hyper-efficient season on the block, as defenses can’t afford to send a guard to dig on post feeds. The Racers truly have no weaknesses on the offensive end, which is the primary reason why they have the nation’s second longest active winning streak at 11 games.

Defensively, Murray State has one glaring weakness: rim defense. Miller is a highly skilled offensive player, but that hasn’t translated on the defensive end. Jalen Dupree is a capable shot blocker, but he’s been in Matt McMahon’s doghouse for the last month, even serving a two game suspension. In order to beat Murray, you have to score at the rim, as Stark and Shaq Buchanan are both elite perimeter defenders.

If Not Murray, Then…

Belmont +127

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd (pictured above) and 4 out ball screen motion are as synonymous as Rick Byrd and sweater vests (also pictured above). Belmont’s typically stellar three point shooting usually gets all the press, as it has ranked in the top 5 in 3PT attempt rate nationally each of the past four years. However, Byrd’s offense is really predicated on exploiting matchups inside with his bigs. If the other team doubles, it’s a quick kick out. If they don’t, it’s go time. Last year, that role belonged to Evan Bradds, who seemingly never missed. This year, that role is occupied by either Dylan Windler or Amanze Egekeze, who helped lead Belmont to the nation’s best 2PT% offense. That marks the fifth time in the last six years Belmont has accomplished that feat (it finished third in the other year).

The one aspect of Belmont’s offense that has slipped this year has been in transition. Byrd’s teams are typically lethal on the break, thanks to a perfectly executed drag screen offense, but they’re scoring in just the 13th percentile nationally in transition offense, per Synergy.

Defensively, Belmont doesn’t gamble for turnovers like Byrd’s teams used to in the Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson days. Although its defense does extend past the three point line and run shooters off. The Bruins limit OVC opponents to the lowest 3PT attempt rate in the league. However, you can bully Belmont at the rim. Similar to Murray State, Belmont had issues against the more physical frontcourts in the league like Tennessee State and Jacksonville State. (I’m sure Byrd is happy to see JSU on the other half of the bracket after it beat Belmont in last year’s OVC semis and twice this season).

The Defending Champ

Jacksonville State +750

The Gamecocks are the only team in the league to have defeated both Murray State and Belmont. As I mentioned above, you can bully both at the rim, which is precisely how Ray Harper’s offense operates with undersized but aggressive power forwards Chris Cunningham and Jason Burnell. Harper also has a 7 foot center in Norbertas Giga, who can post up and float to the perimeter in pick and pop action. However, he hasn’t had the senior season many anticipated due to a nagging back injury. JSU basically has to score at the rim, as they shot a putrid 28.8% from 3 in OVC play. It also only made it to the charity stripe at just the ninth highest rate in the league.

JSU really relies on its defense, which was the most efficient in the league. The Gamecocks allow zilch in transition. Plus, with three rim protectors and bulldog defenders Jamall Gregory and Marlon Hunter, they really disrupt half court offenses. In last year’s miracle run to the OVC title, JSU allowed just .93 points per possession the entire tournament. This year’s Gamecocks are certainly capable of replicating that level of defensive efficiency.

JSU has a bye to the quarterfinals, where it will play the winner of No. 5 Tennessee Tech and No. 8 SIUE. JSU swept TTU, but shockingly lost to SIUE.

TTU is a deep sleeper with the return of marksman Aleksa Jugovic, who missed 10 games with an ankle injury in the heart of league play. The Golden Eagles started 8-3 in the Ohio Valley, but finished the year on a 2-5 skid. TTU extends its guards defensively and traps at half court with long armed wings Shaq Calhoun and Curtis Phillips, as it looks to create offense from defense. The Golden Eagles play at the OVC’s fastest pace and score 1.14 points per transition possession, which spells trouble for an SIUE team that grades out in just the 16th percentile nationally in transition defense, per Synergy.

SIUE qualified for its first ever OVC tournament after being a near unanimous pick to finish last. It might just be happy to be in Evansville. The Cougars have an outstanding versatile 4 in Jalen Henry, but Phillips really limited him in TTU’s win in Edwardsville. SIUE runs a lot of spread pick and roll, but the Golden Eagles excel in pick and roll defense, thanks to Calhoun and Phillips.

Potential Dark Horse

Tennessee State 60-1

The Tigers remind me of JSU last year. They play a tough extended 3-2 trapping matchup zone that generates turnovers at the highest rate in the league. The Tigers however are offensively challenged and could be without a key member of their frontcourt in Ken’Darrius Hamilton. TSU also turns it over at the highest rate in the league, which negates the extra possession advantage from its aggressive defense.

The Tigers are a veteran crew though. In the first round, they will face No. 7 Eastern Illinois, which they limited to .875 ppp in a regular season sweep. EIU was down to its third option and at times even fourth option at PG for much of the OVC season after losing Terrell Lewis and D’Angelo Jackson to injuries. Jackson recently returned only to re-aggravate his ankle injury. He is listed as  questionable to suit up against TSU.

If the Tigers can beat EIU for a third time, they’ll face No. 3 Austin Peay, the surprise of the OVC in Matt Figger’s first season. The Govs immediately took to the denial heavy halfcourt defense that Figger brought from his years as a Frank Martin assistant. APSU is one of the most post reliant offenses in the country, with Averyl Ugba and undersized stretch 4 Terry Taylor. However, TSU grades out in the 98th percentile nationally in post defense, thanks to OVC Defensive Player of the Year Christian Mekowulu. Keep an eye on the status of the injured Rodney Hamilton for TSU, He has played a key role as the weak side defender in Dana Ford’s 3-2 zone.

Should TSU get past EIU and APSU, it split the season series with Belmont, with the loss coming on the last day of the regular season in a game that meant nothing to either squad.

Final Prediction

Murray State over Tennessee State

First Round ATS Predictions

Tennessee Tech -6

Tennessee State -3.5

 

Photo credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports