By Kevin Sweeney
The Ohio Valley managed to avoid this offseason’s conference realignment, as Murray State’s push to join the Missouri Valley was turned down in favor of Valparaiso. Meanwhile, the OVC appears to have one of the more intriguing races at the top of the conference this season, with Belmont, Murray State, and defending conference tournament champs Jacksonville State all strong contenders to claim the OVC title.
- Murray State- The media poll picked Belmont to win the league, but my money is on the Racers. Despite a disappointing 2016-17 campaign, Murray has the most talented roster in the conference and one of the best players in the country in Jonathan Stark.
- Belmont- The Bruins have been an absolute machine under Rick Byrd, and I expect them to continue their success despite the loss of star forward Evan Bradds (graduation). They still have a pure point guard in Austin Luke, a versatile big in Amanze Egekeze, and a winning culture that goes a long way in college basketball.
- Jacksonville State- It can’t be understated just how good a job Ray Harper did last season in his first season at Jacksonville State. The frontcourt pairing of Norbertas Giga and Christian Cunningham, as well as a deep backcourt that will be bostered by a group of transfers from the JUCO ranks.
- Eastern Kentucky- When you have 2 of the top 6 to 8 players in the conference, you are going to be a tough team to beat. EKU has that in junior big man Nick Mayo and sophomore guard Asante Gist. The addition of Butler transfer Jackson Davis might be the piece that pushes EKU over the top and into contender status in the OVC.
- Tennessee State- TSU loses a strong duo in Tahjere McCall and Wayne Martin, but they still will have one of the top backcourts in the conference in the form of Delano Spencer, Darreon Reddick, and talented JUCO guard Kamar McKnight, a former 3-Star who shot over 40% from 3 at Georgia Highlands College.
- Tennessee Tech- Aleksa Jugovic is one of the better guards in the conference, an outstanding shooter who has improved every season of his career. However, he’ll need help if TTU wants to contend, and he may just get that in Shaq Calhoun, a South Alabama grad transfer guard who can fill it up.
- Eastern Illinois- EIU has the pieces to surprise this season. With 3 senior stars in Montell Goodwin, Ray Crossland, and Muusa Dama, the Panthers have the experience you want in contender. The one area they must improve is their offensive efficiency, as they ranked in the bottom 50 in field goal percentage a season ago.
- Morehead State- Preston Spradlin did a great job last season in an impossible situation taking over for Sean Woods midseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if MSU surprises again behind the play of talented junior Lamontray Harris and one of the most highly-touted freshmen in the conference in De’von Cooper.
- UT-Martin- Only 2 players who averaged over 5 points per game last season return for the Skyhawks. They will need a huge year for Matthew Butler and some strong contributions from newcomers in order to contend.
- SEMO- Ineligible for the postseason this year due to academics, SEMO has a star guard in Denzel Mahoney but not a ton else to work with. It could be a struggle for Rick Ray’s club.
- Austin Peay- I like the job that Matt Figger has done since arriving at APSU, but with the departures of the Govs’ top 4 scorers, this season is definitely a rebuilding one.
- SIUE- I believe SIUE will be improved this season, but they were one of the worst teams in Division 1 last season. It will take great strides in order to rise from the cellar of the OVC.
Champions: Murray State
This Murray State team is one that I see improving significantly from a season ago. The addition of Towson transfer Byron Hawkins as well as an extremely strong freshman class headlined by guard Ja Morant. In the frontcourt, the expected emergence of Jalen Dupree next to star big Terrell Miller can’t be understated, allowing Miller stay on the floor while Dupree does more dirty work inside. Oh yeah, the Racers also have the uber-talented Jonathan Stark, one of the best guards in college basketball. If all of these pieces come together the way I think they will, watch out.
Dark Horse: Eastern Kentucky
As I mentioned before, having a duo like Gist and Mayo will win you a lot of games. But it’s the addition of Jackson Davis, who EKU head coach Dan McHale called “a momumental recruit for our program”, that really excites me. Combining a guy with the interior prowess of Davis with a versatile floor-spacer like Mayo has a chance to be a dominant frontcourt in the OVC. This team could stun some poeple.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Jonathan Stark (Murray State)
- G: Austin Luke (Belmont)
- F: Terrell Miller (Murray State)
- F: Nick Mayo (Eastern Kentucky)
- F: Norbertas Giga (Jacksonville State)
Player of the Year: Jonathan Stark (Murray State)- This is a pretty easy choice. Stark is a dominant scorer, but also a very willing passer and an elite shooter despite all the attention he receives from opposing defenses. Just 14 players since 2000 have posted the statline he posted a season ago, including Steph Curry and Markelle Fultz. He’s a huge reason I have the Racers as OVC champions.
Breakout Player of the Year: Jalen Dupree (Murray State)- Dupree showed flashes as freshman, earning more and more playing time as the season went on. He’s super athletic and strong, and I expect a huge season from him as he plays next to an outstanding big in Terrell Miller.
Newcomer of the Year: Averyl Ugba (Austin Peay)- Ugba nearly averaged a double-double for Grambling State last season and was a significant late get for Austin Peay. He should put up big numbers for an APSU team that is in desperate need of scoring punch.