By Kevin Sweeney
What a year it was for the OVC.
The two perennial powers in Belmont and Murray State both peaked at the same time, with Belmont earning an at-large bid and winning an NCAA Tournament game and the Racers hosting Ja-mania while blowing out Marquette in the Big Dance. Not only are wins like that important for the conference’s reputation, they are also massive for financial purposes. The extra NCAA Tournament units that come from playing four games in March Madness rather than one or two are massive budget boosts for a league that isn’t filled with deep-pocket boosters.
While it seems likely that both teams will take somewhat of a step back in 2019-20, the league as a whole remains in good hands. Perhaps most critically, Belmont hired well in replacing the legendary Rick Byrd with Casey Alexander, securing their place as a strong mid-major program for many more years to come.
#1. Belmont– It’s weird to think of Belmont basketball without Rick Byrd roaming the sidelines, but long-time protege-turned-rival Casey Alexander is an absolute dynamite hire for the Bruins. While his .533 career winning percentage may not jump off the page, Alexander had things rolling at Lipscomb like it had never rolled before before departing across town. The offense may look a little different under Alexander, but he plays a fun brand of basketball that features tons of three-point shooting. He also ramped up the defense in a major way last year– The Bisons were one of just 25 teams nationally last season to rank in the top 50 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom. Alexander inherits a great roster– a do-it-all point guard in Grayson Murphy and skilled big in Nick Muszynski headline things, and Alexander put the cherry on top by landing Boston University grad transfer forward Tyler Scanlon to fit in as a combo forward.
#2. Murray State– Never fear, Tevin Brown is here! That seems to be the general narrative among Murray State fans this offseason as the Racers look to replace Ja Morant. There is certainly no replacing a player like Morant, but Matt McMahon has recruited extremely well in recent years and this roster is still stocked with talent. It all starts with Brown, a dynamic shooter who should flash his all-around scoring ability this season as the presumed alpha-dog. McMahon also has the luxury of having Darnell Cowart down low– perhaps the forgotten man last season, Cowart was incredibly productive down low for the Racers. The key will be finding someone to man the point guard spot: it seems that freshman Noah Kamba has the inside track, a well-regarded recruit in New England prep circles known for his quickness and passing ability. With a dynamite 2020 class coming in, Murray State is in great hands long-term, but should remain right in the mix for the OVC title this season.
#3. UT-Martin– Anthony Stewart’s bunch started 1-7 in OVC play last season, but finished strong with five wins in their final 10 regular-season games thanks to the late-season addition of Craig Randall. A talented but well-traveled wing, Randall averaged over 16 points per game after being ruled eligible on January 31, looking like one of the conference’s best players in the process. Now, he’ll get to share a backcourt with Pitt transfer Parker Stewart, an elite-level shooter who turned down high-major options to play for his father at UTM. With Stewart, Randall, and talented forward Quintin Dove, the Skyhawks have one of the best cores in the league.
#4. Jacksonville State– JSU was the forgotten third team in the OVC race last season, a legitimately dangerous club that neared the top 100 nationally in KenPom for much of the season. Ray Harper’s bunch loses a lot– five of its top six scorers were seniors. Still, Harper has made some sneaky-strong recruiting adds that should keep the Gamecocks competitive in the OVC race. The big name is former top-150 recruit Elias Harden, who was the odd man out of the rotation at Xavier but should be an impact player at the OVC level. Also worth watching are JUCO imports Derrick Cook and Kayne Henry.
#5. Austin Peay– Virtually every rotation player but Terry Taylor departs for Matt Figger and company. Luckily, Taylor might be the best player in the OVC, a uniquely skilled bruiser who put up monster numbers this season. We may see more of Taylor on the wing as a this season– JUCO imports Eli Abaev and Sita Conteh should see significant time in the frontcourt. Alabama State grad transfer Reggie Gee should help as a shot-maker in the backcourt, but big growth will be needed from sophomore Antwuan Butler.
#6. Tennessee State– Penny Collins looked to instill a toughness and aggression on defense in year one at TSU, with the end goal of forcing a lot of turnovers and playing an exciting brand of basketball. Unfortunately, the result was fouling at near-historic rates: No team in the past two seasons has had an opposing free throw rate worse than TSU’s was last season. No matter who is on the floor, that has to be the primary focus of Collins in year– channeling that energy into positive plays and not free points for the opposing team. West Virginia transfer Wesley Harris should make a massive impact as a skilled forward, though the loss of Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey in the backcourt does loom large.
#7. Eastern Kentucky– I love what A.W. Hamilton is building at EKU– he’s clearly a talented recruiter who will bring in plus talent on the trail. Still, with the loss of as impactful a player as Nick Mayo was, it’s impossible to project the Colonels getting over the hump this season. Jomaru Brown is a stud at guard, and NC State transfer Darius Hicks should form a pretty formidable frontcourt pairing with Tre King. Getting more efficient on offense is a must if Hamilton’s bunch is to make the jump earlier than I expect.
#8. Eastern Illinois– Jay Spoonhour has the luxury every coach wants: experience. EIU brings back over 75% of its production from last season and has a roster made up of entirely juniors and seniors. The bad news? That group simply wasn’t that good last season, losing six straight and nine of ten to end the year after at one point sitting 13-9 and 6-3 in OVC play. Also critical is the loss of talented wing Ben Harvey, who departed for SIU this spring after averaging 10 points and shooting 39% from downtown as a freshman.
#9. Morehead State– Losing a frontcourt duo in Lamontray Harris (graduation) and Malek Green (transferred to Canisius) takes some wind out of MSU’s sails as Preston Spradlin enters his fourth season at the helm. Green wasn’t discussed enough for his value– an athletic PF who finished well around the rim and rated as one of the most efficient offensive and defensive players on the team last season. His loss will hurt more than most prognosticators may realize. A pair of JUCO forwards in Jaden Stanley-Williams and LJ Bryan will be critical.
#10. Southeast Missouri State– Expected to emerge as a star replacing Denzel Mahoney, Ledarrius Brewer’s 2018-19 season was a massive disappointment. The talented wing was inefficient and a turnover machine before eventually transferring to ETSU in the offseason. SEMO now needs a new alpha-dog in the backcourt. One guy who could step into that role is Alex Caldwell, a steady two-guard who put up impressive numbers as a freshman. Meanwhile, McNeese State transfer Quatarrious Wilson was a double-double machine at his last stop and should make a big impact in the OVC.
#11. Tennessee Tech– John Pelphrey was a weird hire for TTU– a former high-major coach with strong pedigree but little familiarity to the struggles with coaching at one of the toughest jobs in the country. Luckily, he inherits a pair of building blocks in Jr Clay and Hunter Vick in the backcourt– a pair of double-digit scorers who should be able to help Pelphrey lay the foundation.
#12. SIU-Edwardsville– It’s rare to see an internal hire after a coach was fired, but SIUE elected to roll with Brian Barone as the head man after parting with Jon Harris this offseason. Barone takes over a program that has seen no success in its D1 history– the Cougars have never finished above .500 in a season since making the transition. Barone has a strong reputation in the coaching business, but this is a difficult gig for anyone to get rolling.
All-Conference First Team:
- Grayson Murphy (Belmont)
- Tevin Brown (Murray State)
- Craig Randall (UT-Martin)
- Terry Taylor (Austin Peay)
- Nick Muszynski (Belmont)
Player of the Year: Tevin Brown (Murray State)
Perhaps Muszynski is the popular choice here, but I’ll roll with a guy I am bullish on in Brown as he takes the next step from supporting cast to star. During Murray’s offseason international trip, Brown looked up to the task:
Brown is a guy who the extended three-point line certainly won’t effect, let’s put it that way.
Breakout Player: Alex Caldwell (SEMO)
Rick Ray has raved this offseason about Caldwell, a talented scoring guard who can really shoot the ball. I love the poise Caldwell plays with– an attribute that should serve him well as he steps into a bigger role with the departure of Ledarrius Brewer.
Newcomer of the Year: Parker Stewart (UT-Martin)
It’s incredibly rare to be able to get a legit ACC rotation player at the OVC level… family ties have their perks! Stewart, who amazingly has already graduated despite having been in school for just two years, demonstrated his high-level shooting while at Pitt in 2017-18. We should see more of his all-around game in addition to his sniping skills at a lower level.