By Kevin Sweeney
The annual Murray State/Belmont war for OVC supremacy saw another chapter written last season, when the Racers handled the Bruins in the OVC title game to get back to the NCAA Tournament. It was the first year of the league’s tournament being held in Evansville rather than Nashville, and that new location appeared to be a success, with strong fan turnouts especially from Racer nation. It should be a fun battle to watch again this year, but a few other clubs are lurking.
#1. Murray State
Perhaps no mid-major player has gotten more NBA Draft love this preseason than Ja Morant, the explosive lead guard who starred as a freshman in a supporting role next to Terrell Miller and Jonathan Stark. Morant will now be the unquestioned leader of this Racer club, with a supporting cast that features senior Shaq Buchanan and highly-touted redshirt freshman wing Tevin Brown. While the core around Morant is unproven, having a point guard who makes others better the way Morant does should help these guys along.
It’s almost a given that a Rick Byrd Belmont team will be at or near the top of the OVC. The 2018-19 edition of the Bruins is a younger one, but the return of Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain is an excellent starting point. Windler is one of the most underrated stars in mid-major basketball, with a combination of high-level floor spacing ability and strong rebounding. The key for the Bruins to get over the top and win the league will be point guard play, as long-time floor general Austin Luke graduates and will be replaced by redshirt freshman Grayson Murphy.
#3. Austin Peay
Matt Figger did a great job in year one as the head man at APSU, leading the Govs to a surprising 3rd place finish in the OVC. Finding 2 under-the-radar stars late in the process in Terry Taylor and Dayton Gumm helped make that happen, and those two now-sophomores will be complimented by a pair of highly-touted JUCO products in high-scoring point guard Isaiah Hart and steady rebounder Eli Abaev.
#4. Jacksonville State
Before Ray Harper, Jacksonville State had never finished over .500 in consecutive seasons. Since hired, he has won 20 or more games in both seasons and is on track for another competitive 2018-19 campaign. Harper’s group adds impact transfer Detrick Mostella to the mix, a sit one, play one transfer from Tennessee who averaged over 10 points per game for the Vols as a junior. A former top-100 recruit who dealt with off-the-floor trouble in Knoxville, Mostella is immediately one of the best players in the OVC. Add him to a core that also features Jason Burnell and Marlon Hunter, and this team has a chance to be dangerous.
#5. UT Martin
The future is bright at UT-Martin, thanks in no small part to the arrival of Parker Stewart to play for his dad after playing lots of minutes for Pitt as a freshman. While Stewart will have to sit out this season, the Skyhawks bring in a lot of immediately eligible talent that help this team be a sleeper in the OVC. Kevin Little (Maine VIA Colorado State) and Preston Parks (The Citadel) should form a formidable backcourt along with JUCO product Charles Henderson, while Fatodd Lewis is a solid piece up front. Early returns on the Skyhawks are strong after an excellent showing against a good Lipscomb team in a secret scrimmage:
#6. Eastern Kentucky
2 years removed from being a prep school coach, AW Hamilton takes over an EKU program that fell flat under Dan McHale after a strong tenure with Jeff Neubauer at the helm. Hamilton inherits an absolute star in Nick Mayo, a double-double machine whose efforts over the last 3 years have largely gone wasted. The sleeper here is Pedro Bradshaw, a high-level athlete on the wing who sat out last year.
#7. Morehead State
The good news for the Eagles is that they return a ton of production from last season. The bad news? Morehead State wasn’t good at all last season. One of the youngest teams in the country, MSU was largely inefficient on offense all year long, so fixing that is chief among Preston Spradlin’s concerns.
#8. Southeast Missouri State
Losing star wing Denzel Mahoney to Creighton was a crushing blow for Rick Ray’s program as Ray looks to build momentum with the Redhawks. Replacing him as the featured offensive option is Ledarrius Brewer, who starred as the second option behind Mahoney as a freshman. To move up the standings, Skyler Hogan, who starred at D2 Embry-Riddle for 2 years, will have to provide big production next to Brewer in Ray’s high-octane offense.
#9. Tennessee State
Penny Collins takes over for Dana Ford in Nashville, and the former Belmont star and assistant at ETSU certainly has the ties to the state necessary to win at TSU. Ole Miss transfer Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey should be a key cog right away, forming a solid backcourt next to Kamar McKnight and Armani Chaney.
#10. Tennessee Tech
With 5 senior double-digit scorers all graduating, this feels like a rebuilding year for the Golden Eagles. A pair of grad transfers in Malik Martin (South Florida) and Johnnie Vassar (Northwestern) will try to keep this club afloat next to senior combo forward Courtney Alexander. Vassar is almost a complete mystery, with his only collegiate action coming in a mere 70 minutes of action in the 2014-15 season at Northwestern before being allegedly “run off” by Chris Collins in a case now being handled in court. He stayed in school at Northwestern and graduated this past June before finding a home at TTU, and looks good in this workout tape:
#11. Eastern Illinois
Jay Spoonhour made headlines last year for one heck of a beard when the Panthers challenged Marquette and Nebraska in early-season contests.
However, things went south after those upset chances thanks to some brutal injury luck. EIU was so short on point guards that it had a converted team manager playing significant minutes, until he too got injured! Getting Terrell Lewis back to run the show is big, and Spoonhour has a strong piece to build around in sophomore scoring guard Mark Smith.
SIUE was mostly putrid on both ends of the floor last season, and it’s hard to see much improvement this season with the graduation of Jalen Henry. There’s just not a ton of talent on this roster top to bottom, though I do think Christian Ellis could take a nice step forward this season.