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Jack Freifelder | | November 5, 2016

Sizing up things in the Ohio Valley Conference

  Austin Peay Governors guard Josh Robinson (4) will look to help lead his team back to the NCAA Tournament.

The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game.

With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

Here's a look at the Ohio Valley Conference.


The race in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) a year ago saw six of the eight teams enter the conference tournament with at least 10 wins in conference. 

In other words, parity was on full display in the OVC.

In years past Belmont and Murray State have been the pacesetters in their respective divisions, finishing in the top spot in three of the last four seasons. But UT-Martin had something to say about that trend last year, edging out the Racers of Murray State for the regular season crown in the OVC's West Division.

Fun fact: Despite not winning their division, the Racers of Murray State had their 29th-straight winning season (tied for the fourth-longest streak in DI Men’s basketball, behind Syracuse, Kansas and Arizona.)

In the OVC’s conference tournament, March Madness would reign supreme as the 8th-seeded Governors of Austin Peay upset a quartet of Tennessee-based teams (Tennessee Tech, Tennessee State, Belmont and UT-Martin) to earn the conference’s automatic bid.

First Round: No.1 Kansas moves on

In doing so, Austin Peay became the first No. 8 seed in the history of the OVC to win the conference tournament. The reward for winning four games in four days for the Governors and head coach Dave Loos, a date with the Kansas Jayhawks.

Maybe the date with Kansas was not the best matchup for the Governors, but Coach Loos and company (most wins in OVC history, 398 and counting) will take any chance he can to get to the NCAA Tournament.

Best Player: 

When the conversation of who is the best player in a given conference starts up, it's normally easiest to look to the conference's Player of the Year from the year before. In the case of the OVC, that would be Belmont Bruins forward Evan Bradds.

The 6'7" senior from Jamestown, Ohio, had a junior season to remember while averaging nearly 18 points a game and just over nine boards a night. He also set the single-season field goal percentage record for the OVC (71.2 percent), topping the previous mark (70 percent) set in the 1990-91 season by Middle Tennessee's Warren Kidd.

Since the 1993-94 season, Bradds holds the top two spots in the conference for field goal percentage in a single season. His back-to-back seasons at the top of the field goal percentage chart makes him the first Division I player to repeat that feat since Belmont's Adam Mark did so in 2002 and 2003.

In addition to his high efficiency, Bradds also manages to save some of his best performances for his team's most important games. Case in point, the 2016 OVC semifinal against Austin Peay.

Austin Peay's tandem of center Chris Horton (30 points, 16 rebounds, four assists) and guard Josh Robinson (25 points, 5 assists) would prove to be too much for the Bruins to handle in a 97-96 overtime loss, but Bradds had himself a heck of a statline as well (32 points, four rebounds and three assists; 15-16 shooting from the field). On a night where the chance to play for a conference championship was on the line, Bradds played arguably the best game of his college career. 

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd rewards hard-working players, and he knows he has a special player in his senior frontcourt star.

Honorable mention:

Anyone breaking down the year that was in the OVC would be remiss if they didn’t mention Austin Peay’s Josh Robinson. 

Robinson was an integral part of a team that made a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament, averaging 16.9 points, 3.1 boards and 2.6 assists a game. The 6’2” shooting guard only missed double figures five times in the 2015-16 campaign, while playing for a team that had no trouble scoring the basketball (76.0 ppg).

  Austin Peay's Josh Robinson (4, left) was right in the middle of the Governors postseason run a year ago.
When he wasn’t making teams pay for his shooting from the field, the native of St. Louis, Mo., was also able to convert consistently from the free-throw line — 4th-best percentage in the conference (83.2 percent).


Best Team: 

This is normally a battle between Belmont and Murray State, as the two teams have shared the top spots in their respective divisions since the beginning of the decade. However, Belmont gets the knod here because of the gap in talent and experience that will be back for another year.

In addition to boasting arguably the best player in the conference, the Bruins are also home to one of the OVC’s best point guards — Austin Luke. Rest assured, that means coach Byrd likely has plenty of plays to put Luke (his lead guard) and Bradds (his best big man) in the two-man game with one another.

RELATED: 7 point guards you can trust in the pick-and-roll

Belmont returns 12 players from a season ago, including guard Taylor Barnette (10.6 ppg) and forward Amanze Egekeze (9.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg), who will be back in the mix to help balance out a roster that was 12th in the country in scoring the basketball in 2015-16 (82.4 ppg).

The Bruins have made a name for themselves as one of the teams habitually located at the top of the charts in terms of field goal percentage, due in large part to the fact that Belmont is one of the best teams at generating open looks. A year ago Belmont was the 10th-best team in the country averaging 17 assists a contest, and Luke is a prime example of how the team operates to that effect. 

Whether operating in the open floor or off of a staggered screen setup in a halfcourt set, the prime focus is ball movement and good decision-making. And that's a recipe for success that could be replicated in most places.

If the OVC coaches preseason poll is any indication of what's to come, Belmont could be dancing again come March. Granted Belmont has won two of the past four OVC championships, and has made a trip to the Big Dance seven times since 2006, the team is still looking for its first win in the NCAA Tournament.

There's still a lot of basketball to play between now and the postseason of course, so the Bruins will likely take things one step at a time. At the end of the day, the road to the 2016-17 OVC Championship goes through Austin Peay — like it or not.

Team (East Division) Points
Belmont (16) 126
Tennessee State (6) 106
Morehead State (1) 98
Tennessee Tech 62
Eastern Kentucky (1) 60
Jacksonville State 40
Team (West Divison) Points
Murray State (21) 131
Eastern Illinois 95
Austin Peay (2) 88
Tennessee-Martin (1) 82
SIU Edwardsville 54
Southeast Missouri State 42

Sleeper Team:

Tennessee State was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the OVC a year ago, but the Tigers took that as motivation for proving wrong the naysayers.

And after winning just five games overall in the 2014-15 season, the Tigers tied the program’s record for wins in a season with 20 (20-10 overall, 11-5 in the OVC). The 15-win improvement was second among all Division I schools, according to an Oct. 26 release from the conference.

Head coach Dana Ford (last year’s MVC Coach of the Year) will try to take that success and replicate it again this year in his third year at the helm.

Before things tipoff though, Ford will have to find space in his rotation for nine players that return for another season of basketball in Nashville, Tenn.

Senior guard Tahjere McCall (14.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.0 apg), the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the OVC, will be tasked with leading his team again, but forward Wayne Martin (11.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) will certainly be looking to work in tandem with his teammate.

McCall was ninth in the country in steals a year ago while doing a little bit of everything for Tennessee State, while Martin came in third in the OVC with 10 double-doubles.

The duo are two of 10 players on the Tennessee State roster who have opted to use their redshirt status, which makes this one of the more intriguing teams in the conference. Add in two guard transfers in Jordan Reed (Binghampton, America East Conference) and Chris Bolden (Georgia Tech, ACC) and there could be an interesting mix in play.

It remains to be seen if all that experience can be parlayed into another postseason run. A 78-73 2OT first round loss to Ball State in the Postseason Tournament (CIT) was one of the more exciting games the team played all year.

Though the Tigers may be a bit undersized — considering no one on the roster is listed taller than 6’9” — the team more than makes up for its lack of height with tenacity on the backboards.

It may not seem like much, but Tennessee State’s margin of +2.6 on the glass was good enough for the 89th-best mark in the country — just a few spots behind VCU (83rd), Saint Joseph’s (85th), and Stephen F Austin (87th), not to mention one spot ahead of Maryland (90). 

What do all of those teams have in common? They all received NCAA Tournament berths a year ago. No promises that’s in the cards for the Tigers, but it’s certainly an omen that bodes well for a team looking to make its first trip to the Big Dance in the last two decades.

Visits to play this year at Middle Tennessee, Vanderbilt, NC State and No. 1 Duke could be interesting tests of where the Tigers group stands.

RELATED: Men's basketball AP Top 25 preseason poll

Honorable mention:

At 8-23 overall (4-12 in conference), Jacksonville State (JSU) found themselves at the bottom of the OVC East standings in the 2015-16 season. Being the only team in their division with single-digit wins was a lonely fate for the Gamecocks, but there’s reason for optimism coming into this season. 

Malcolm Drumwright (Guard, 6'2" —Junior) 14.0 ppg 2.6 rpg 3.8 apg
Greg Tucker (Guard, 6'2" — Senior) 10.2 ppg 2.3 rpg 1.4 apg
Erik Durham (Guard, 6'4"  — Senior) 11.7 ppg 4.0 rpg 0.9 apg

The top three scorers from a year ago, a trio that helped guide the team in tight road losses at Virginia Tech, Winthrop, UAB and Alabama (RPI rankings of 80, 131, 81 and 79, respectively). Those numbers may not seem eye-popping at first, but JSU ranked No. 311 in the country a year ago in the season’s final RPI rankings. Frankly speaking, playing up to the competition is a prerequisite for the Gamecocks in the nonconference slate and there’s really nowhere to go but up.

Freshman to Watch:

Given Tennessee State's success a year ago and the crowd of players that return, the opportunities for a redshirt freshman to crack the lineup may be few and far between. However, redshirt freshman Jalen Duke will give it the old college try. (A redshirt freshman is a bit of stretch, but sometimes a little leeway goes a long way).

  Tennessee State guard Jalen Duke (34) will join the squad after using his redshirt to sit out last year.
After sitting out last season and choosing to burn his redshirt, the 6'5" swingman returns a year older and a year wiser to the college game. Granted there's no real substitute for live game action, the chance for Duke to be in the system practicing and learning the plays on offense and defense is invaluable.

Duke's game is a bit old school, with a penchant for mid-to-high post-up sets where he can fade away on short jump shots or face up to the basket in a triple-threat position. The midrange game is a lost art these days, but this young buck likes to make a living in the wing extended area. In high school he was able to bully smaller defenders, so the college game should be a good chance for him to test out his well-built frame.

Honorable mention:

Jacksonville State will welcome freshman Jacara Cross (6'8") to campus this year, and his size and athleticism will be valued assets when he gets on the floor. It remains to be seen what kind of a role the forward from Lithonia, Ga., will have for first-year head coach Ray Harper, but the chance is there for Cross to make an immediate impact on a team with a lot of room for improvement. 

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