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2016-17 OVC Post-Mortem

July 5, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The beat continued to go on in 2016-17 for one of the model college basketball programs in the entire country.

A move to the Ohio Valley Conference has proven no problem for Belmont, which under Rick Byrd continues to win games and championships, graduate players, and largely avoid being plundered by the transferring epidemic that has stung many programs like it. The Bruins were outstanding again this past year, winning their fourth regular season title in five years of membership in the OVC, and doing so in dominant fashion with a 15-1 record in league play five games better than anyone else.

The Belmont resume is impressive, almost staggering. Between the OVC and their former home in the Atlantic Sun, the Bruins have won nine regular season titles over the last 12 years. That stretch has also included seven NCAA Tournament trips, as well as three more appearances in the NIT in that time which have resulted in three wins from seeds fifth or lower.

Belmont players also have won four OVC Player of the Year awards, with star Evan Bradds nabbing his second straight honor this year. Bradds also was a CoSIDA Academic All-American the last two years, and the Bruins also have been dominant in this area, with a nation’s best 15 Academic All-Americans since 2001. And Belmont has done so while rarely seeing players transfer. Other than a lack of NCAA Tournament success when there-a 0-7 mark so far-Byrd’s program is one every NCAA Division I school should be looking at for guidance, and especially those at the school’s non-BCS level.

As good as Belmont was this year, though, a little of its thunder was stolen in the OVC Tournament in March by Jacksonville State, a program led by another coach with an unreal track record of his own. In his first year at JSU, Ray Harper led the Gamecocks from eight wins to 20, a total that included a major upset of Belmont in the OVC semifinals. Jacksonville State went on to defeat Tennessee-Martin in the title game for the school’s first NCAA Division I tourney appearance.

A four-time national champion and five-time national runner-up at the NCAA Division I and NAIA Division I levels, Harper is college basketball’s unknown Mr. March, a coach whose teams always are in the mix at the end of the season. He took Western Kentucky to the NCAAs twice in his five-year tenure there-including his first Hilltopper team which finished the regular season with an 11-18 record.

At Jacksonville State, he took over a program that had only once gotten as far as the semifinals in the OVC tourney and had never finished better than fourth in a division or overall in the conference until this year’s third-place finish in the East Division. JSU won its first title in 14 years in the Ohio Valley, and also completed a memorable double after also winning the conference’s football title in the fall.

Final Standings:

East Division OVC Overall
Belmont 15-1 23-7
Morehead State 10-6 14-16
Jacksonville State 9-7 20-15
Tennessee State 8-8 17-13
Tennessee Tech 8-8 12-20
Eastern Kentucky 5-11 12-19
West Division OVC Overall
Tennessee-Martin 10-6 22-13
SE Missouri 9-7 15-18
Murray State 8-8 16-17
Austin Peay 7-9 11-19
Eastern Illinois 6-10 14-15
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville 1-15 6-24

Conference Tournament
The OVC ended its run in Nashville this year, playing in the Music City for the 23rd time in 24 years before moving to the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., next year. The 54th annual event was again an eight-team, four-day event featured the awkward double-bye bracket, with seeds 3 (Morehead State) and 4 (Jacksonville State) getting byes to the quarterfinals and No. 1 Belmont and No. 2 Tennessee-Martin idle until the semifinals.

For the second straight year, an upset of top seed Belmont was the story of the event. Jacksonville State followed its 74-51 quarterfinal win over #5 SE Missouri with a stunning 65-59 win over the Bruins in the semis, holding the 1 seed to 36.7% shooting, including just 8-for-38 from three-point range. Dylan Windler hit 4 of 6 from deep; the rest of the team was 4-for-32 from long range, while Malcolm Drumwright scored 21 to lead the Gamecocks.

The other half of the bracket saw No. 7 Murray State score a pair of wins as a lower seed, edging 6 seed Tennessee Tech 85-84 in double overtime in the first round and then rallying from 10 down with nine minutes left to eliminate Morehead State 75-69. Murray’s Jonathan Stark scored 41 against Tech and 37 versus the Eagles, but he was stymied by UT Martin’s matchup zone in the semifinals, limited to just 11 as the Skyhawks held off the Racers 73-67.

Once again, UT Martin was positioned to take advantage of a Belmont semifinal upset, getting to a favorite’s position in the title game as the No. 2 seed. Once again, though, UTM fell short. Jacksonville State built a 13-point halftime lead and held the Skyhawks to 35.2% shooting in a 66-55 win, becoming the fourth different OVC tourney winner in the last four years.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Evan Bradds, F, Sr., Belmont
Defensive Player of the Year: Tahjere McCall, G, Sr., Tennessee State
Freshman of the Year: Denzel Mahoney, G, Fr., SE Missouri
Coach of the Year: Rick Byrd, Belmont

All-Conference Team
Evan Bradds, F, Sr., Belmont
Antonius Cleveland, G, Sr., SE Missouri
Austin Luke, G, Jr., Belmont
Nick Mayo, F, So., Eastern Kentucky
Tahjere McCall, G, Sr., Tennessee State
Terrell Miller, F, Jr., Murray State
Jacolby Mobley, G, Sr., UT Martin
Xavier Moon, G, Sr., Morehead State
Josh Robinson, G, Jr., Austin Peay
Jonathan Stark, G, Jr., Murray State

Season Highlights

  • Three OVC teams played in the postseason. Jacksonville State made its first-ever NCAA Division I Tournament appearance, falling to Louisville in the first round; Belmont won at Georgia in the NIT before being eliminated by eventual runner-up Georgia Tech, and Tennessee-Martin topped UNC Asheville in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament before losing at Campbell.
  • Belmont point guard Austin Luke ranked second in the nation in assists, averaging 7.1 dishes per game. UT Martin forward Javier Martinez also ranked third in NCAA Division I in field goal percentage, shooting 67.1%.
  • Tennessee State scored the OVC’s best non-conference win with a 74-63 win at Middle Tennessee State in mid-November. The Tigers also won the 50th annual Cable Car Classic with wins over host Santa Clara and Big West champion UC Davis, took North Carolina State to overtime on the road and pushed Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
  • First-year coaches were very successful. In addition to Jacksonville State winning the conference tourney under Ray Harper, UT Martin took the West Division crown under Anthony Stewart. Morehead State interim coach Preston Spradlin also led the Eagles to a second-place finish in the OVC East and a 12-9 record overall after taking over for Sean Woods nine games into the season. Spradlin engineered a nice turnaround after a 2-8 start and was named head coach in March.
  • Belmont boasted at least one CoSIDA Academic All-American for the fourth straight year and the 10th year in the last 12.

What we expected, and it happened: Belmont looked like a clear-cut favorite in the OVC and Evan Bradds appeared to be the league’s best player, and both were exactly that. On the other end of the standings, SIU-Edwardsville again had a rough season, going 1-15 in the OVC and winning just six games for the second straight year.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We thought Austin Peay would capitalize on its run from an eighth seed to win the 2016 OVC tourney, but the Governors were too permissive on defense and on the glass in the final year under conference legend Dave Loos. Also, Eastern Illinois backslid a little, falling back from 9-7 to 6-10 in conference play even while modestly improving its overall win total.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: After winning just five games last year, Southeast Missouri was a pleasant surprise in year two under Rick Ray, winning 15 games and placing second in the West. Antonius Cleveland was one of the most exciting players in the Ohio Valley, while begoggled freshman Denzel Mahoney showed a versatile game mature beyond his years.

Teams on the rise: Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks return three starters, including OVC tourney MVP Malcolm Drumwright, from a stingy defensive team that also was strong on the boards.

Team on the decline: Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels slipped to the bottom of the OVC East this year, well off their pace of three straight 20-win seasons from 2012-15. The slide may be only temporary, though, as Nick Mayo and Asante Gist form a fine 1-2 punch, and just need a little more help.


2017-18 OVC Outlook
After two straight years where Belmont came in as a heavy favorite and posted the conference’s best regular season record both years, including convincingly this year, the OVC may be up for grabs next year. The Bruins lose Bradds, one of the craftiest, most efficient scorers in NCAA history. Now, the names change, but the results usually stay the same in Nashville, and point guard Austin Luke, Amanze Egekeze and Dylan Windler is a darn good place to start. Also, a return by Mack Mercer after missing the season due to injury could go a long way towards filling some of the production of Bradds.

Chief among those in hot pursuit of the Bruins are Jacksonville State and Murray State. The Gamecocks should have no trouble believing after breaking through to the NCAAs. Norbertas Giga and Christian Cunningham form a formidable front line, and former Tennessee guard Detrick Mostella could be a huge piece paired with Drunwright. Meanwhile, no team will have a better tandem than Murray State with Stark and Miller. The Racers need more consistent play around them, though, and it’s little secret improvement will be expected after two mediocre seasons under Matt McMahon.

Eastern Illinois returns an experienced team and has a chance to move back up the standings. On paper, Tennessee State will miss Wayne Martin and Tahjere McCall, but Dana Ford has quickly established himself as an on-the-rise coach. The Tigers’ 17-13 record last year was deceiving; the season could’ve been so much better if TSU hadn’t gone 0-4 in overtime games. Tennessee Tech has alternated winning and losing OVC records the last six years; the Golden Eagles are due for an upswing after a season that saw 11 losses by eight points or less.

SE Missouri has a future star in Mahoney; how much help he gets will determine how much SEMO improves. Ditto for Eastern Kentucky with Mayo and Gist. UT Martin lost a lot of experience and will rely heavily on Matthew Butler. Austin Peay still has high-scoring Josh Robinson plus Jared Savage, and the Governors at the least should be improved defensively with Matt Figger taking over after coaching under Frank Martin at South Carolina. Morehead State loses a whole bunch and will be a young team with no seniors, while SIU-Edwardsville will try to get out of the basement in year three under Jon Harris.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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