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2017-18 OVC Post-Mortem

June 8, 2018 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

Murray State has been so consistently excellent in the Ohio Valley Conference for such a long time, it almost was hard to believe that the Racers were on a mini-drought from the NCAA Tournament coming into the 2017-18 season.

The Racers have been the surest of sure things seemingly forever. When one looked at the top of the OVC standings at almost any time over nearly 30 years, they were always there. For a stretch from 1988-2012, Murray never went more than four years without an NCAA bid, and finished worse than second in the conference just twice! (For the record, those two years outside the top two, MSU finished third and fourth)

And even as the recent absence from the Big Dance was the Racers’ longest since a 19-year spell ended in 1988, soon to be followed by 13 trips in 25 years, it’s not as if the program had fallen off a cliff. Murray State still won four straight OVC West divisional crowns, won the CIT title in 2014, and the following year’s team was robbed of an NCAA bid. Still, consecutive seasons of 17-14 and 16-17 were not up to the program’s lofty standards, and if there wasn’t outright concern, there at least was some stirring and wondering among Racer fans about when their team might get back to their perch.

Turns out, there was no need to worry. Murray State was back atop the OVC and back in the NCAA Tournament this year, besting recent nemesis Belmont for both titles, part of an exciting season for a program accustomed to them.

The Racers quietly had a terrific year that probably deserved a little more national attention than it received, entering the NCAA Tournament with a 26-5 record before getting a brutal first round draw against frenetic, deep West Virginia. Murray State finished ninth in the country in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by an average of 12.4 points per game, won 13 straight coming into the NCAA tourney, and in particular featured a dynamite trio with seniors Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller plus freshman point guard Ja Morant.

Stark was one of the leading scorers in the country, Miller was a consistent double-double threat, and Morant played beyond his years at the point. Much like the teams of previous coach Steve Prohm, this year’s edition coached by Matt McMahon wasn’t necessarily deep, but it was mighty talented.

The Racers and Belmont were again the headliners in the OVC this year. While Murray State claimed both titles, the Bruins also won 24 games, led the conference most of the regular season, and were ever-so-close to some really big things. Belmont won at Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky to post the two biggest wins by conference teams on the season and also defeated Vanderbilt at home. The Bruins also lost at Providence at the buzzer, though, and fell at Washington in the season opener after leading almost the whole way.

While the season for the Ohio Valley included another bright spot with the resurgence of Murray State’s old rival Austin Peay in the first season under coach Matt Figger, and also saw solid teams at Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech, overall the year belonged to the top two teams. It was encouraging that the OVC finished a decent 18th in the conference RPI rankings, its best finish since 2012-13, and as we noted several years back, it’s not been the worst thing for this conference in the past to have a program or two carrying its banner. Many NCAA Division I leagues would be only too glad two programs as consistently successful as Belmont and Murray State to lead the way.

Final Standings:

OVC Overall
Murray State 16-2 26-6
Belmont 15-3 24-9
Austin Peay 12-6 19-15
Jacksonville State 11-7 23-13
Tennessee Tech 10-8 19-14
Tennessee State 10-8 15-15
SE Missouri 8-10 14-17
Eastern Illinois 7-11 12-19
Eastern Kentucky 5-13 11-20
Tennessee-Martin 5-13 10-21
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville 5-13 9-21
Morehead State 4-14 8-21

Conference Tournament
The Ohio Valley Conference tried something different for the 55th edition of its tournament, moving the event away from longtime host Nashville and to the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., a neutral site but also one not too far of a drive for fans of most conference schools. The new host was a hit, too, widely acclaimed as Evansville embraced the event and made for a cozy new home for the league.

The tourney continued its format or granting the top two seeds double byes to the semifinals and seeds 3 and 4 a spot in the quarterfinals. There were plenty of close games through the first three rounds but few surprises. In fact, the only lower seed to win was No. 7 Eastern Illinois, which snuck past 6 seed Tennessee State 73-71 in the first round before falling to No. 3 Austin Peay 73-66 in the quarterfinals.

No. 5 Tennessee Tech also dismissed SIU-Edwardsville 60-51 in the first round before dropping a close 73-70 decision to 4 seed Jacksonville State. Quarterfinal winners JSU and Austin Peay then both were eliminated in the semis, with top seed Murray State first holding off Jacksonville State 70-63. Terrell Miller finished with 18 points and 18 rebounds, and the Racers finished on an 8-0 run after the Gamecocks had wiped out a 20-point deficit to take the lead. No. 2 Belmont also handled Austin Peay 94-79 as Amanze Egekeze drilled nine three-pointers and scored 32 points, including 29 in the second half.

That set up a highly anticipated title game between Murray State and Belmont, the third time the conference’s two titans had met in the tourney final since the Bruins joined the league for the 2012-13 season. Belmont won those first two meetings, but the Racers came through this time, dominating the final seven minutes and closing the game on a 16-3 run for a 68-51 win. Jonathan Stark scored 24 points on his way to tournament MVP honors and Murray won its OVC-best 16th tourney title.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Jonathan Stark, G, Sr., Murray State
Defensive Player of the Year: Christian Mekowulu, F, Jr., Tennessee State
Freshman of the Year: Terry Taylor, F, Austin Peay
Coach of the Year: Matt Figger, Austin Peay

All-Conference Team
Amanze Egekeze, F, Sr., Belmont
Austin Luke, G, Sr., Belmont
Denzel Mahoney, G, So., SE Missouri
Nick Mayo, F, Jr., Eastern Kentucky
Terrell Miller, F, Sr., Murray State
Ja Morant, G, Fr., Murray State
Jonathan Stark, G, Sr., Murray State
Terry Taylor, F, Fr., Austin Peay
Averyl Ugba, F, Sr., Austin Peay
Dylan Windler, G/F, Jr., Belmont

Season Highlights

  • Murray State got back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, winning OVC regular season and tournament titles.
  • The OVC again had some success in lower level tournaments. Jacksonville State advanced to the College Basketball Invitational semifinals, while Austin Peay made it to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament quarterfinals. OVC teams have won at least one postseason game for 10 straight years.
  • Belmont was once again one of the leading three-point shooting teams in the country, with its 11.5 triples per game ranking fourth in NCAA Division I. Also, the Bruins’ Austin Luke ranked fourth in the country averaging 7.5 assists/game.
  • Five different OVC teams posted wins over teams that made the NCAA Tournament, and four of them finished in the league’s second division. The biggest may have come from Morehead State, which finished last in the conference but topped Marshall in November. Tennessee Tech (Lipscomb), Tennessee-Martin and SE Missouri (both over North Carolina Central) also finished seventh or worse but defeated a team in the NCAAs, while Murray State also topped Horizon champion Wright State.
  • Belmont’s Dylan Windler was named a CoSIDA Academic All-American. The Bruins have boasted at least player on the team in 11 of the last 13 years.

What we expected, and it happened: Belmont was excellent yet again, to the surprise of no one. Also, Tennessee Tech continued its pattern of alternating winning and losing records in the OVC for the seventh straight year, finishing above .500 just as recent history suggested they would.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Coming off an NCAA bid, Jacksonville State looked primed for a delicious three-way battle with Belmont and Murray State for the title. The Gamecocks did win 23 games but were inconsistent in OVC play and finished well behind the leaders.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Austin Peay was a pleasant surprise, finishing third and winning 19 games. The Governors were a contender in the first season under Matt Figger, who brought years of experience working under Frank Martin to craft a pesky denial defense and also took advantage of a potent 1-2 punch inside.

Team on the rise: Austin Peay. With defense and post play that are supposedly less relevant in today’s version of basketball, Figger got a lot of mileage out of a team that didn’t shoot it that well. There are holes to fill at the point and inside, but Peay should remain stubborn, and Terry Taylor has future star quality.

Teams on the decline: Tennessee-Martin. The finished 10-6 in the OVC the year before but took a long fall, dropping to 5-13 and a tie for ninth.

2018-19 OVC Outlook
A lot of talent exits the Ohio Valley after this most recent season. The 15 players on the all-league first and second teams included nine seniors, and add in several more transferring after the season and just about every team from top to bottom has significant holes to fill.

Discussion of the favorites in the OVC typically starts with Belmont and Murray State, though, and those are great places to start again. The Bruins still have a stud in Dylan Windler, Kevin McClain is a versatile guard who should score even more after a breakout 2017-18 season, and Nick Hopkins is poised to continue the line of excellent floor generals for Rick Byrd. Murray State, meanwhile, will miss dearly both Stark and Miller, but Ja Morant is so multi-talented (reminiscent of recent Racers star Cameron Payne, in fact) and capable of making everyone around him better that he alone gives his team a real shot at contending again.

Jacksonville State should again be athletic and tough on defense. The Gamecocks should stay in the top half of the standings. Austin Peay won’t surprise anyone this year, but the Governors also look to be a team built to stay with their ferocious defense.

Beyond the usual suspects, Morehead State could make a nice move up the standings. The Eagles bring back most of a team that finished in last place, yes, but was plenty competitive in many of their 21 losses and had 11 Ls by seven points or less. Eastern Kentucky gets a fresh start under new coach A.W. Hamilton and still has the superb Nick Mayo. Tennessee Tech was solid last year but loses five seniors who all scored in double figures. The Golden Eagles’ strength will be in the frontcourt. A surge by anyone else would be a surprise, as even the second division teams last year suffered heavy graduation and personnel losses.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam



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