2020-21 32×32: Ohio Valley Preview

Every single year I’ve produced conference previews, I’ve picked either Murray State or Belmont to win the league. That changes this year. The two titans at the top have a real challenger in Austin Peay, which makes for what should be an incredibly exciting league race. Let’s dive in:

  1. Austin Peay – Buzz about the Govs is HIGH, and it’s fully warranted. The job Matt Figger has done since taking over in Clarksville is worth writing about again and again, and Figger should have his best APSU team yet in 2020-21 after winning 62 games in his first three seasons. It starts with two star players: a program-changer in Terry Taylor who arrived with Figger and is on pace for over 2,500 points and 1,250 rebounds in his career, and incredibly talented sophomore scoring guard Jordyn Adams, who averaged 17 points per game as a freshman. That duo is enough to keep you competitive in any game – Adams provided Figger with the shot-maker he needed to complement Taylor’s bruising multipositional game. But where things get really interesting are the additions of a pair of high-major transfers in Mike Peake (Georgia) and Corbin Merritt (Oklahoma). Peake is a guy I’ve been bullish on since his days playing for MoKan Elite in AAU. He brings physicality, hustle, and ball skills as a potential small-ball five, and the waiver he received to play right away gives the Govs a potential third star. The x-factor might be Merritt, who barely got off the bench in Norman but has impressive defensive instincts. It’s hard to imagine playing Peake, Taylor, and Merritt on the floor together much, but having a guy who could rotate in and block shots would be a nice boost. Defensive improvement is definitely something this group needs if it wants to reach the lofty expectations placed on them, and Merritt could play a key role in that. Meanwhile, don’t sleep on young guards like Devon McCain, Tai’Reon Joseph, and JUCO import Elton Walker to give this offense even more pop.
     
  2. Murray State – Yes, it did feel quite weird not picking Murray or Belmont to win the Ohio Valley. If one is going to jump Austin Peay, I believe it will be the Racers. Matt McMahon returns one of the league’s best players in Tevin Brown, an excellent big in KJ Williams, and adds plenty of talented youngsters. Brown really raised his game as a sophomore with Ja Morant gone, improving his all-around floor game significantly and adding more creation responsibilities while shooting it even better from deep. Shooting 42% from deep when you’re the focal point of every scouting report is REALLY impressive, and Brown doesn’t get his credit as one of the better all-around players in mid-major basketball. He gets more help in the backcourt with the addition of JUCO import Justice Hill, who began his career at Arkansas and should be a strong rotation cog at point guard next to the shifty DaQuan Smith. But Hill is only the tip of the iceberg of what is one of the more impressive mid-major recruiting classes in the country: freshman Ja’Queze Kirby has high-major athleticism, and I’m also excited about Dionte Bostick, a gifted point guard from Clearwater, FL  who should push Smith, Chico Carter, and Hill for minutes in the backcourt from day one. McMahon has without a doubt capitalized on the Ja Morant recruiting bump with these recruiting wins, and that should play well for years to come.

  3. Belmont – A couple of key transfers late this offseason pour some water on things for the Bruins in year two of the Casey Alexander era, but the core here is good enough to keep Belmont strongly in contention. The big one was the late departure of Adam Kunkel for Xavier, an elite-level shooter who led the team in scoring a season ago. Kunkel’s shooting ability combined with his smarts as a cutter made him one of the conference’s best players, and his departure leaves a major hole in this Belmont offense. The other key transfer in Nick Hopkins could have filled some of that role, but he elected to grad transfer to Siena. Who could fill that shooting guard role? It could be Luke Smith, a high-scoring transfer from D3 The University of the South who shot a blistering 43.4% from deep. It’s an awfully big jump up to the D1 level from there, but the other options to add some scoring punch are unproven as well. Stat-stuffing point guard Grayson Murphy and skilled big man Nick Muszynski are as good as they come at this level – expect Muszynski’s usage to increase even more this season, and the spacing that this offense provides really accentuates his strengths. I’m also eager to watch gifted freshman guard JaCobi Wood, an in-state product who the Bruins are very high on moving forward. Some regression on offense without Kunkel seems inevitable, but Alexander should have this team competing come March.

  4. Eastern Illinois – Jay Spoonhour will have one of the oldest teams in college basketball this season, and in a season with such a disrupted offseason that’s a good thing to have. EIU has eight seniors and just two scholarship underclassmen, essentially running it back from a team that went 17-15 and 9-9 in the league last season. A trio of double-figure scorers return in Josiah Wallace, Mack Smith, and George Dixon, and the Panthers beef up the frontcourt with a pair of transfers in Sammy Friday (Siena) and Madani Diarra (St Louis). Friday struggled at times with effort and conditioning in his time with the Saints, but had some really impressive games late in the year for the MAAC champs and could be an indispensable piece this season for EIU. Another x-factor is Deang Deang, who was an impact defender on the wing who can make outside shots but only played eight games last season. The Panthers’ magic last season was in turnover margin: they did a terrific job taking care of the ball but also were in the top 50 nationally in forcing turnovers, and all those extra possessions are a great way to win games. If they can continue to hold that edge in turnover margin, this veteran group could be the best of the rest in the OVC.

  5. Jacksonville State – A 13-win campaign in 2019-20 was the worst in Ray Harper’s career, but despite some key departures I expect the Gamecocks to bounce back this season thanks to an incredibly talented incoming group. A pair of high-major big men in Brandon Huffman (North Carolina) and Amanze Ngumezi (Georgia) join the fray, and each were in the rotation at their previous stops. Huffman is the type of big body that’s hard to find in the OVC, and he tended to find his way onto the floor despite being in the periphery of the rotation during his three seasons for the Tar Heels. Ngumezi departed at the semester break from UGA, but has the size and skill level to be a weapon for Harper. Troy transfer guard Darian Adams will also be a key addition – he was inefficient last season for the Trojans, but gives JSU another proven shot-maker to go with combo forward Kayne Henry, who should have a big senior year. So much of this season though will come down to a pair of JUCO guards in Jalen Finch and Demaree King. Finch is a game manager at the point guard position, but posted a fantastic 3:1 A:TO (a welcome sight for a team that struggled with turnovers). King provides more upside: not only can he play point guard, but he shot a blistering 46% from 3 on 120 makes last season. Him asserting himself as a high-level starting guard would be huge for this team’s hopes of turning around last season’s struggles.

  6. Eastern Kentucky – AW Hamilton wants to play small, he wants to play fast, and he wants to force turnovers. He seems to be building a roster set to do just that, and adds a pair of very talented guards to a unit that already features a gifted scorer in Jomaru Brown. Brown is an incredibly high-usage guy and isn’t always efficient, but he’s constantly in attack mode and gets to the line in bunches. How he’ll mesh with the likes of gifted freshman point guard Wendell Green and West Virginia transfer Brandon Knapper remains to be seen – Green is incredibly talented with the ball, and Knapper seems like a seamless fit for this system (particularly given his familiarity with Hamilton from each’s time at Hargrave Military Academy). Brown doesn’t need to take 35% of his team’s shots when on the floor this season like he did a season ago: in fact, sitting back and picking his spots might actually serve this team best. Meanwhile, I’m bullish on sophomore forward Michael Moreno, who could be a breakout star in 2020-21. He flashed the ability to hang in on the glass while spacing the floor makes him a perfect fit on this roster. EKU had a relatively easy conference schedule last season, but 12 league wins (especially after starting 3-10) is good news for the future in Richmond. We’ll see if they can continue that momentum this season.

  7. Tennessee State – I continue to believe that Penny Collins will be a very good coach at TSU, and grabbing 18 wins in year two is a good sign that they are well on their way. Collins is a sharp basketball mind who runs really good stuff offensively, as evidenced by a team that finished in the top 35 nationally in effective FG%. The main area that needs work is taking care of the ball – the Tigers were a disaster in that regard last season, ranking 350th in turnover rate (1 turnover per roughly every 4 possessions). Those issues were compounded by not forcing many turnovers on the other end – it’s simply not possible to climb the ladder too much when you’re losing the turnover battle by five per game. Many of those wounds were self-inflicted: no team in the country had a higher non-steal turnover rate than TSU, per KenPom. The loss of incredibly talented forward Wesley Harris will be tough to swallow, as will the departures of two other key rotation bigs in Jy’lan Washington and Emmanuel Egbuta. That leaves big responsibilities for Georgia State transfer Josh Linder and JUCO import Yusuf Mohamed to solidify the frontcourt. On the other hand, there’s reason for optimism in the backcourt with the returns of point guard Mark Freeman and scoring wing Carlos Marshall along with the addition of JUCO transfer Shakwon Barrett, who began his career at Tulane.

  8. UT Martin – Alright, there are a LOT of newcomers here. Based on my count, there are 10 newcomers for this group, most of them from the JUCO world. That makes projecting things challenging, but I’ll do my best. It may not matter who is on the floor if Anthony Stewart’s group can’t figure things out on defense: the Skyhawks were an absolute wreck on that end, ranking worst nationally in defensive efficiency, worst in defensive effective FG%, 348th in defensive rebounding rate… and the list goes on. It was an absolute tire fire that may be beyond repair. The main bright spot is Stewart’s son Parker Stewart, who averaged over 19 points and close to 4 assists per game last season. Losing star big man Quintin Dove seems unlikely to help matters on the defensive end (at least from a rebounding perspective) – UC Riverside import Ajani Kennedy seems like the likely starter at the 5. Of the JUCO guys, I like Cameron Holden the most, a hard-playing wing/forward who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds at Gulf Coast State with some shot-making ability. This is essentially a blank slate beyond Parker Stewart – we’ll see if Anthony Stewart recruited well enough to turn things around.

  9. Morehead State – This feels like a big year for Preston Spradlin – his fourth full season on the job in Morehead at a place where you can win. The Eagles were ugly on offense a season ago, shooting just 27.3% from deep and 63.8% from the free throw line. To ignite things on that end, much hope relies upon Ta’Lon Cooper, a talented guard from South Carolina who showed major promise as a freshman. Cooper was used as a sixth man for much of the year, but was one of the few players on the team who consistently made outside shots and he also did a very good job of protecting the ball. I expect a big year for the sophomore. A pair of transfers in Jaylen Sebree (FAU) and Skyelar Potter (Wright State) could help as well – Sebree brings lots of intrigue as an athletic combo forward, and Potter is a good glue guy in the backcourt who should see plenty of minutes. I remain relatively unconvinced that MSU will turn a corner despite my bullishness on Cooper, but how much they can “run it up” against the bottom tier of the league likely determines how high they can reach in the OVC standings.

  10. Tennessee Tech – I wasn’t overly high on TTU’s hire of John Pelphrey, a middling HM coach who I wasn’t sure would be able to succeed at a program with VASTLY different resources than what he had to work with at Arkansas or even at South Alabama in the mid-2000s. Things were not pretty in year one: the Golden Eagles finished 331st in KenPom and had few redeeming qualities as a team. One bright spot:  Jr Clay, who regressed a bit as a shooter but remains a steady option at point guard who improved as a decision-maker last season. Around him, there isn’t a ton. Shandon “Biggie” Goldman should help up front after transferring in from Northern Iowa – he was a steady rotation player for Ben Jacobson and should be a consistent piece up front. JUCO import Damaria Franklin should also be an important shot-maker for this group after averaging close to 20 points per game at State Fair CC. For a year two, Pelphrey desperately needs to find some building blocks. Maybe guys like Keishawn Davidson and Tujautae Williams can do that after solid freshmen campaigns. Finding a core to build around would make this year a win for TTU and Pelphrey.

  11. Southeast Missouri State – Longtime Bruce Weber disciple Brad Korn takes over at SEMO after Rick Ray was let go in Cape Girardeau, and I’m not sure we should expect much in year one. On one hand, I’m excited about a few newcomers: namely Nebraska transfer Nana Akenten, who was a productive rotation player for the Huskers before off-court trouble led him out of Lincoln. Akenten is athletic, can handle the ball, and defend multiple positions, and I expect him to be one of the better transfers in the conference this season. I also wouldn’t sleep on Dylan Branson, an in-state product who played on the same championship-winning MoKan team that Mike Peake was on and screams glue guy. I’m buying stock in sophomore point guard DQ Nicholas, who was very scrappy as a freshman and should take the reins this season. This will be a long, long road for Korn to rebuild here, and stealing a few wins would a nice start in year one.

  12. SIUE – We wrap things up with a frequent basement-dwellar: SIUE. Brian Barone looked like a fairly sharp coach in my limited viewings last season, but the results didn’t come – an 8-23 season is certainly nothing to ride home about. Barone made a splash with the addition of UConn transfer Sidney Wilson this offseason: it’s surprising to see Wilson head to a program that has toiled in irrelevancy for as long as SIUE has despite his struggles in Storrs, and he’s definitely an intriguing reclamation project. If nothing else, his athleticism will make him a versatile piece, and I’d expect he’ll be a focal point in the offense and put up points. A trio of JUCO guys will also be critical to get out of the cellar: I really like Philip Pepple from Casper CC, an efficient post player at the JUCO level who also blocked 90 shots a season ago. Those numbers scream steal for a program like SIUE. The other two JUCO imports in Courtney Carter and Carlos Curtis should duke it out for starting PG duties – Curtis is a bulldog-type guard who began his career at ETSU, and I expect he’ll win the job. Like with SEMO, simply some incremental improvement is all this group needs… this is one of the toughest places to win in college basketball.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Grayson Murphy (Belmont)
  • Jordyn Adams (Austin Peay)
  • Tevin Brown (Murray State)
  • Terry Taylor (Austin Peay)
  • Nick Muszynski (Belmont)

Player of the Year: Terry Taylor (Austin Peay) – From no other Division 1 offers to being well on pace to be the program’s all-time leading scorer, the Terry Taylor story is one of the more impressive ones in all of Division 1 basketball. He may be short and stocky for a D1 player, but Taylor is quite simply as good as they come: fantastic around the rim, capable of hitting outside shots, a good defender, and a dogged offensive rebounder. He should have a massive year and deserves a shot at a big dog in the NCAA Tournament before his career is up.

Breakout Player: Michael Moreno (Eastern Kentucky) – I spoke about Moreno’s fit within AW Hamilton’s system earlier, but will double down here. The in-state product is big, skilled, and was fearless as a freshman. Having a 4-man who can space it like Moreno really opens things up for a fast-paced offense like EKU’s, and if the Colonels climb the standings this season he’ll be a big reason why.

Newcomer of the Year: Mike Peake (Austin Peay) – Other transfers may put up bigger numbers here, but overall impact on a team matters. Peake may be the piece that put this group over the top in the OVC. I’m bullish on how he’ll open things up for APSU on both ends – he perfectly fits in with Matt Figger’s aggressive and tough ethos and will do all the little things for this group while providing scoring punch and rebounding.

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