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Belmont remains top dog in declining Ohio Valley

Greg Peterson
VSiN.com

November 4, 2017 01:09 AM

Things went to script during the regular season in the Ohio Valley Conference as Belmont trucked through league play with a 15-1 record. But there was a hitch in the script during the conference tournament.

The upstart Jacksonville State Gamecocks, who went 9-7 in OVC play heading into the tournament, slayed the heavily favored Bruins and then took down Tennessee-Martin to go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.

Belmont, which has made so many runs to the NCAA Tournament the past 12 years, may not be the favorite for a change in the conference. The 2016-17 season may have been the Bruins’ best shot in awhile to get that elusive NCAA Tournament win with leading scores Evan Bradds and Taylor Barnette both being seniors.

Bradds dominated the paint as he led the team with 20 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Barnette, meanwhile, notched 11.3 points per game despite having the worst shooting season of his career, hitting just 34.3 percent of his shots from the field. While his shooting woes were a major concern in Nashville last year, it actually makes the outlook for the team moving forward a bit brighter.

The Bruins found a talented point guard in Austin Luke, who had seven assists and eight points per game. Luke is a serviceable 3-point shooter at 32.8 percent, but he is able to pass to stretch players Amanze Egekeze and Dylan Winder. Both players are at least 6-foot-7 and both hit over 38 percent of their 3s while both combined for 20.5 points per game.

The team was only seven deep last year, so getting a few of the incoming freshman significant playing time will be a must for head coach Rick Byrd. Six-foot-7 combo player DeAndre Bradshaw will need to put some weight onto his 165-pound frame, but he has great hops and a good jump shot. He should be able to replace Nick Smith, who was about the same height as Bradshaw and scored nearly nine points per game last season.

If center Nick Muszynski and power forward Nick Hollander can step up and make this a team that is eight or nine deep, it will help the Bruins really hum.

It's unlikely Belmont can go 15-1 in the OVC again, but another 20-win season is in the cards for a perennial mid-major power that should remain the top dog in the conference.

Jacksonville State might have found the ultimate do-more-with-less coach in Ray Harper, who led a team that was a 4-seed or lower in the conference tournament to the NCAA Tournament for the third time this decade.

The Gamecocks are losing two of their four double-digit scorers from a season ago, and with the team only being seven deep last year that stings. The good news is the seven guys who did see significant minutes last year all contributed a good amount of points and all knew their roles.

A key returner is Malcolm Drumwright, who led the team in points and assists per game with 12.6 and 3.9, respectively. He will not have any truly lethal 3-point shooters to pass it to as Erik Durham, who nailed 48.6 percent of his 3s last season, is gone. Drumwright was about a 35-percent shooter from deep while the whole roster of the returning players took just over five 3s per contest.

The team has a solid stable of bigs back as Norbertas Giga and Christian Cunningham are both back after pulling down 8.1 boards each last year. Giga had 11 points per game while Cunningham chipped in 8.2. Jacaranda Cross did a nice job of spelling minutes for both of them as a freshman with 5.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. The trio also made a good swat team as they combined for 3.4 blocks per game.

There is a chance that their best forward might be junior-college transfer Jason Burnell, who began his career at Georgia State before averaging over 20 points and nearly 11 rebounds per game at the lower level. If he can be even a portion of how effective he was last year in JUCO ball, he will be a huge asset to the squad.

Another guy who was a freshman last year that the team hope can blossom is point guard Tyrik Edwards, who had 4.4 points and 1.9 assists per game and played just under 14 minutes per contest. The team is hoping JUCO guard transfer Maurice Dunlap can also help hem build a nice guard stable after he put up 11.1 points and 3.2 assists per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from 3.

Jacksonville State should be better this year than it was last year, when it made the NCAA Tournament as a 15-seed. The team does not have quite the talent that Belmont does, but it’s team that is building great depth and should be near the top of the OVC.

The team Jacksonville State had to take out in the OVC Tournament championship to get into the field of 68 is UT-Martin, which managed to win 22 games last year in the first year for coach Anthony Stewart.

The team is losing three of its top four scorers from a season ago including Jacolby Mobley, who had 19.5 points per game. With all of the departures, it will fall on the shoulders of guard Matthew Butler to be a prolific scorer, as he was second on the team last year with 13.7 points per game and hit 37.4 percent of his triples.

He will be joined by forward Fatodd Lewis, who averaged 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. This deserves to be highlighted because the rest of the roster is gone with six players who did not receive a whole lot of playing time deciding to leave the program.

This leaves the team needing to completely reload with three JUCO transfers and former Robert Morris forward  Lorenzen Wright Jr. The 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 3.4 points per game last season at a school in the NEC will likely be a starter this year. And in case you were wondering, he is indeed the son of longtime NBA pro Lorenzen Wright.

JUCO transfers Jerome Davis and Jailen Gill might be the team's starting froncourt with both men being 6-foot-7 and averaged just over six rebounds a game last year. Davis is the better scorer of the two, putting up just under 12 points per game while making nearly 65 percent of his field goals while ill had just 6.5 points per contest.

UT-Martin has reached 20 wins each of the past three years after it had a combined 21 in the three years prior. This program has been feast or famine, and this year, the Skyhawks will be starving for wins that will not come.

A team that went through famine last year was Murray State, which had a losing season for the first time since 1978-79 with a mark of 16-17.

The team is losing a lot but returns its two most important players in Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller Jr. Stark led the team in scoring at 21.9 points to go with 5.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game as the team's point guard. Miller was the team's 6-foot-8 rock in the paint, going for 16 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Of the team's main seven-man rotation from last year, only forward Jalen Dupree returns along with the main two, so it is paramount that the sophomore can take some big strides as a sophomore after being a contributor off the bench a season ago.

As far as guards to surround Stark, the Racers are rolling the dice on a par of transfers in former Towson guard Byron Hawkins and JUCO standout Shaq Buchanan. At the JUCO level, Buchanan shot just 25.3 percent from 3 but notched 14 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last year. Hawkins was not the Mona Lisa Vito of shooting 3s, hitting just 30.5 percent of the ones he took while at Towson, but he found a way to average 13.2 points as a sophomore during the 2015-16 season.

Murray State should get back above .500 but is an unlikely contender for the conference crown.

Morehead State finished the season strong with a 10-6 record in OVC play after a tumultuous start that saw a coaching change.

Sean Woods resigned after a 2-7 start to the season after it was announced that he was going to be investigated for physical assault of his players. Taking his spot was one of his assistants, Preston Spradlin, who got the team back on track with a 12-9 finish to the season.

With four of the team's top six scorers from last year gone and three other seldom-used players transferring, Morehead State will be in rebuilding mode this season. The team is in a similar boat to Murray State in that it will need to lean heavily on their top two returning scorers, except their two returners are nowhere near the level of those on the Racers' roster.

Miguel Dicent, 6-foot-3 senior guard, does many things pretty well but nothing in spectacular fashion. He had 10.4 points and 4.1 assists per game. With Dicent in the backcourt, Lamontray Harris will have to dominate up front following a year in which he had 9.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. The hope is the 6-foot-7 JUCO transfer Jaqwan McCauley can start alongside him after he notched 12.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest a season ago.

It's hard to see this team being anywhere other than the bottom half of the conference this season.

Tennessee State proved its jump from five wins to 20 between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons was not a fluke by following it up with a record of 17-13 last season. It might be too much to ask for the Tigers to stay above .500 for a third straight season as their two top scorers and team leaders from a season ago are gone.

Wayne Martin and Tahjere McCall were the team's two biggest leaders last year, each netting nearly 14.5 points per game and both leading the team in another category. McCall was the point guard and dished out 5.1 assists per game to go with five boards while Martin was their main post presence, pulling down 9.2 rebounds. Those losses puts loads of pressure on Darreon Reddick to not only build upon the nine points per game he averaged last year, but improve his 36.3 percent shooting efficiency from the floor.

Fellow guard Delano Spencer has similar woes as well, only he shoots closer for 40 percent from the field. With both players being about 6-foot-4 and neither being guys who do a solid job of passing to others or rebounding, it makes Tennessee State one-dimensional, with that dimension of scoring being streaky at best.

The team was solid on the defensive end last year, allowing 67.7 points per game, but with Jordan Reed gone after he pulled down 6.5 boards per appearance last year, it means 6-foot-9 Ken'Darrius Hamilton has to become a difference-maker.

Tennessee State is made up of too many players who are similar. The roster is littered with guys between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-5 with almost all of them being mediocre shooters and rebounders.

Hamilton is the only guy with size on this roster, yet was third on the team in 3s attempted last season and only got four rebounds a game. With the experience at the guard spot being gone, the team needs a post presence they can rely on as well as a few second chances.

The loss of leadership as well as a poor job of roster management with nearly everyone on the team having the same skill set will push Tennessee State down the conference leaderboard and likely back under .500.

A team that did the opposite of what Tennessee State is expected to do this year is Southeast Missouri State, which went from being a five-win team in the 2015-16 season to 15 wins last year.

Much like many of the other teams in this conference, the Redhawks must replace multiple double-digit scorers from last year, including a guy who filled up the stat sheet in every way possible in 6-foot-6 combo player Antonius Cleveland. As a senior he had 16.6 points 5.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and one block per game last season. While that's a tough blow, an even bigger blow is the program being ineligible for the 2017-18 postseason due to low APR scores. This caused several players to jump ship and transfer elsewhere.

With the team's leader in rebounding from last year, Trey Kellum, also gone after putting up 11.5 points and 6.2 rebounds, it leaves the in need of length.

Third-year coach Rick Ray clearly learned from a lot of his mistakes from his time at Mississippi State and had the team going in the right direction until the school got banned from postseason play. As a result, this program is back to square one and will be back to the bottom of the conference.

While it was Jacksonville State making an unlikely run to the NCAA Tournament last year, it was Austin Peay doing it two years ago to earn a 16-seed in the dance. That run feels like a very long time ago though as the team followed that up with an 11-19 record last year and saw longtime coach Dave Loos retire.

With former South Carolina assistant Matt Figger taking over as coach, things are going to look quite different, especially with the team's top three scorers from a season ago gone.

That wasn't the only offseason bombshell for the school though as the team's leading scorer, Josh Robinson, was arrested in March and elected to go pro after the incident. With seniors John Murry and Kenny Jones also gone and Jared Savage transferring to Western Kentucky, that amounts to 61.9 of their 77.7 points per game among those four.

It leaves 6-foot-4 undersized forward Chris Porter-Bunton as the team's top returning scorer and rebounder, as he notched 6.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. The team has only one notable guard entering the program in former South Carolina State standout Ed Stephens, who shot just 37.6 percent from the floor last year but hit 36 percent of his 3s to go with 9.4 points and 1.7 assists.

As far at their low post play, Figger is pinning his hopes on 6-foot-6 junior-college transfer Deyshawn Martin to be a difference-maker. He has shown the ability to shoot the 3 and averaged 9.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last year.

Tennessee Tech went .500 in conference play last year and is looking for more. The Golden Eagles won just four games out of conference and two of them were to non-D-I schools to give them a 12-20 record.

The program hopes to start stronger with Serbian shooting guard Aleksa Jugovic back for his senior year after averaging a team-high 15.2 points last season. The backcourt around the 36 percent 3-point shooter will look different as starters Kajon Mack and  Hakeem Rogers are gone after scoring 11.8 points per game apiece last season.

Markell Henderson and Curtis Phillips, 6-foot-5 wings, both missed at least 10 games each last year, so the thought is that having them back for a full season will not only allow them to be more impactful but also help the team's chemistry.

Tennessee Tech should be more competitive in the nonconference slate than it was a season ago and should be able to stand pat in the middle of the OVC.

Eastern Illinois came just short of a winning season in 2016-17, going 14-15, and is hoping with its top two low-post players returning it can get the first 20-win season since 2000-01.

The Panthers were 1-5 in games decided by five points or fewer, with that lone win coming on the road against Missouri.

With both lead ball-handlers and 39 percent 3-point shooters Montell Goodwin and Terrell Lewis returning, it give this team perhaps the most experienced lineup in the conference. Both also had 1.2 steals per game last season with the difference being that Goodwin is a bit of a better scorer at 14.3 points per game, while Lewis gets more dimes at 4.7 assists per contest.

Eastern Illinois' stable of big men are back, including 6-foot-9 center Muusa Dama. He needs to cut down on the 3.5 fouls per game he picked up a year ago because despite all of the foul trouble, he had nine points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game a season ago. He pairs nicely with Ray Crossland, who is more a stretch player who logged 10.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while also getting a team-best 1.5 steals per contest. If he can bump his 31.6 percent 3-point shooting, it will make a fairly efficient team even better.

The Panthers appear to be on the rise and have a chance to become a 20-win team for the first time in over 15 years.

It was a tough year for Eastern Kentucky, which went 12-19 in the team's second year under coach Dan McHale. He had big shoes to fill with the team having three straight seasons of at least 20 wins prior to his arrival, but he appears to have some talented young players who are ready to turn the corner.

Many of these players got loads of experience with the arrest of Jaylen Babb-Harrison nine games into the year. It occurred after the team had won four of their last five, including a big one against in-state rival Western Kentucky. He would not play the rest of the year, allowing guys like 6-foot-6 freshman DeAndre Dishman and the now-departed Marlon Adams to play big roles off the bench.

As far as the starters are concerned, the Colonials were led by freshman point guard Asante Gist, who had 15.9 points and 3.6 assists per game. He needs to work on the fact that he was a 37.6 percent shooter from the floor, but the offseason should help along with the return of 6-foot-8 Nick Mayo.

As a sophomore, he led the squad with 18.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He chipped in 1.3 blocks per game and hitting 39 percent of his 3s makes him an extremely hard guard and a potential player of the year candidate.

Zach Charles, who played alongside him as a more traditional big, averaged 7.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game to help give the team a variety of scoring options

The team will need guys like Dishman to play big minutes this year with reserves Marlon Adams and Parker Chitty deciding the transfer. The team brought in a trio of freshmen point guards in A.J. Youngman, Peyton Broughton and Dedric Boyd, with the thought that at least one of them can flourish into a main scoring option and another can be a priority bench player.

Though the last two years have been tough for Eastern Kentucky, happy days should be coming back to the Colonials, who should be back above .500 and threatening 20 wins.

Then there is lowly SIU-Edwardsville, which was 1-15 in conference last year and 6-24 overall. It makes sense that the team struggled so much because it ranked in the bottom five nationally in 3-point percentage, 3-pointers made and assists.

It does not help that their two top scorers from last year might be gone, depending on whether Tre' Harris returns to the program. He averaged 14.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while hitting 37.4 percent of his 3s. The former Kansas State guard joined the program due to his relationship with third-year coach Jon Harris, and interestingly enough, the reason Harris took two leaves of absence last season was due to personal issues. He missed the final nine games of the season during his second leave and his status for the 2017-18 season is unknown.

If he does not come back to the program, it makes an awful jump shooting team into perhaps the nation's worst jump shooting team as there will be no players on the roster who averaged more than 0.5 made 3s per game last season.

Forward Jalen Henry is going to have to go from being a more traditional big into a dangerous stretch player regardless of whether Harris returns to the program. Henry took 1.6 3s per game last year and had 12.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

This will be a bad team regardless of whether or not Tre' Harris returns, but if he's gone for good, this team might challenge for the worst record in the country.

The OVC as a whole has taken some steps back in recent years, though Belmont still is the favorite in the conference. There are teams like Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois that have a chance to take strides forward and perhaps be this year's Jacksonville State, meanwhile, the bottom of the conference looks like it will be much worse than normal.

Greg Peterson’s Ohio Valley Conference forecast:
1. Belmont
2. Jacksonville State
3. Eastern Illinois
4. Eastern Kentucky
5. Murray State
6. Tennessee Tech
7. Tennessee State
8. UT-Martin
9. Morehead State
10. Austin Peay
11. Southeast Missouri State*
12. SIU-Edwardsville

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