No longer just the stomping grounds for a few elite teams, the Ohio Valley Conference unveiled a deeper version of itself in the 2015-16 campaign.
Contrary to history, the OVC was more than just longtime flagbearer Murray State or recent challengers Belmont or Eastern Kentucky, as six teams finished within two games of the top record in the conference. Belmont led the pack, but just barely, with three teams just one game behind and two more two games back.
As if that wasn’t enough, it was the OVC’s No. 8 regular season team that won its conference tournament. Austin Peay won four games in the league tourney, knocking off Belmont and then West Division co-champion Tennessee-Martin on the way to snapping an eight-year NCAA Tournament drought.
Perhaps the OVC’s evolution shouldn’t have been so hard to see after the league’s surprising recent postseason success. The conference as a whole was quietly making headway in March the last two years, posting a combined 15-8 record in postseason tourneys. Murray State had considerable success-a CollegeInsider.com Tournament title in 2014, an NIT quarterfinal appearance last year-but others did too. Tennessee-Martin qualified for the 2015 CIT semifinals, while Belmont (2014 NIT) and EKU (2015 CIT) all also made quarterfinal trips in tournaments.
The OVC sent six teams to the postseason this year, posting a somewhat modest 5-7 record, though three of its teams were eliminated in overtime games. The league did have yet another face emerging in March, though. Morehead State-where Sean Woods has built a rugged program that won’t back down to anyone-played in the College Basketball Invitational, and the Eagles won twice on the road on their way to playing in the championship series. There, Morehead played in three terrific games against Nevada, winning the first at home before losing two tough ones in Reno, including an 85-82 overtime defeat in the deciding third game.
|SE Missouri State||2-14||5-24|
The OVC Tournament was back in Nashville for the 22nd time in the last 23 years and at Municipal Auditorium for the sixth straight year. This year’s event included some history, as Austin Peay busted the bracket time and again to become the lowest seed ever to win the event in its 53 years.
The Governors barely even qualified for the event, only clinching a spot after winning their final two regular season games. Peay came in as the No. 8 seed, but stunned No. 5 Tennessee Tech 92-72 in its opener behind an overpowering performance from Chris Horton (37 points, 21 rebounds). The Governors then edged upstart 4 seed Tennessee State 74-72 in the quarterfinals, and then knocked off top seed Belmont 97-96 in the semis in an overtime classic that was one of the best games played anywhere in the country this season. Horton (30 points, 16 rebounds including 10 offensive boards) outdueled OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds (32 points, 15-for-16 from the field) in a game that had 18 ties and 21 lead changes. Craig Bradshaw made a tip-in at the end of overtime that was originally ruled good and would’ve won it for the Bruins, but replay showed the shot came just after the final buzzer.
Austin Peay’s opponent in the final was second-seeded UT-Martin, which dismissed 3 seed Morehead State 83-70 in the other semifinal behind 22 points off the bench by Jacolby Mobley. The Skyhawks were able to shut down Horton in the final (eight points, seven boards) but freshman Jared Savage was the story, knocking down eight three-pointers for 24 points in the Govs’ 83-73 win for their fifth OVC title and first since 2008.
Besides APSU’s stunning run, higher seeds won the other three games in the tourney. That included No. 6 Murray State topping No. 7 Eastern Illinois 78-62 in the first round before the Racers lost 75-66 to Morehead State in the quarters.
Player of the Year: Evan Bradds, F, Jr., Belmont
Defensive Player of the Year: Tahjere McCall, G, Jr., Tennessee State
Freshman of the Year: Nick Mayo, F, Eastern Kentucky
Coach of the Year: Dana Ford, Tennessee State
Trae Anderson, F, Sr., Eastern Illinois
Evan Bradds, F, Jr., Belmont
Craig Bradshaw, G, Sr., Belmont
Keron DeShields, G, Sr., Tennessee State
Chris Horton, C, Sr., Austin Peay
Twymond Howard, F, Sr., Tennessee-Martin
Nick Mayo, F, Fr., Eastern Kentucky
Tahjere McCall, G, Jr., Tennessee State
Jeffery Moss, G, Sr., Murray State
Torrance Rowe, G, Sr., Tennessee Tech
- Six OVC teams played in postseason tournaments: Austin Peay (NCAA), Belmont (NIT), Morehead State (CBI), Tennessee State (CIT), Tennessee Tech (Vegas 16) and UT-Martin (CIT). The OVC also joined the MAC as the only two conferences to put teams in each of the five postseason tourneys.
- Tennessee State was the second-most improved team in the country. Only Arkansas-Little Rock improved its win total more than the Tigers’ 15-game jump.
- Belmont was again one of the best offensive teams in the country, finishing fourth in NCAA Division I in field goal percentage (49.5%) while led by Bradds, who paced the nation at 71.4%. Austin Peay’s Horton also led the nation in offensive rebounding (4.92 orpg) and was fourth in double-doubles (24) and fifth in rebounding (12.0 rpg).
- Belmont scored the best non-conference win of any OVC team, defeating NIT runner-up Valparaiso. Murray State also defeated NCAA Tournament darling Middle Tennessee State in November.
What we expected, and it happened: Belmont was the best team in the OVC in the regular season and Evan Bradds and Craig Bradshaw were again a superb 1-2 punch.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Murray State has been so good in the OVC for so long that it’s a surprise any time it doesn’t dominate the league, but the loss of four starters-including an NBA first-round pick-and their coach was enough to slow up the Racers, at least for a year.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Tennessee State was one of the best surprises in the entire country with an incredible rise from 5-26 to 20-11, a 15-game improvement. Tennessee Tech had a nice season, winning 19 games and challenging for the East Division crown. Also, Austin Peay’s run through the OVC tournament to a surprising NCAA bid was a stunner.
Teams on the rise: Austin Peay, Tennessee State. The Governors lose Chris Horton but have two very capable scoring guards in Josh Robinson and Jared Savage. TSU may not match its 20-win season again, but the Tigers also don’t look like they’re going to fall back to single-digit win territory, either.
Team on the decline: SE Missouri State. From 18 wins two years ago and 13 wins a year ago to five this year, the Redhawks have slid from ‘solid contender’ status to the bottom of the OVC and have a lot of work to do to work their way back up.
2016-17 OVC Outlook
The OVC should be competitive again, though it also looks to have a clear favorite. Belmont loses scoring machine Craig Bradshaw but returns darn near everyone else, including efficient post scorer Bradds. The Bruins will be their usual selves: smooth shooting, terrific on offense and a pain to play for more physically dominant outfits. Of course, Belmont also was a heavy favorite in the Ohio Valley entering last year, too, and we saw how that turned out.
Morehead State, Tennessee State and UT-Martin all return enough talent to challenge again, while Tennessee Tech may be the most likely to take a step back after losing over 32 ppg from Torrance Rowe and Ryan Martin. Murray State is the wild card, and could easily move back into the top 3-4; the Racers may look different without Wayne Langston inside, but should be better in their second year under Matt McMahon.
Eastern Illinois has made steady improvement under Jay Spoonhour, while Austin Peay still has Robinson and Savage, plus bouncy forward Kenny Jones. Both are very capable of finishing in at least the top half of the conference, potentially even making some postseason noise. All in all, it’s not a bad place to be for a venerable league that is regularly in the bottom half of Division I, but also shows time and again on the national stage that it deserves respect.