OVC Season Wrap & Tourney PreviewPosted by rtmsf on March 2nd, 2009
Greg Miller of WPSD Local 6 is the RTC correspondent for the OVC. The OVC Tournament begins at on-campus venues on Tuesday before moving to Nashville, TN, for the final two rounds.
Regular Season Wrap-Up
How can you not be happy for UT Martin’s Bret Campbell? After years and years of finishing at the bottom of the OVC, Campbell has led the Skyhawks to the top of the OVC. Martin’s 79-65 win over Morehead State on Saturday night clinched the school’s first-ever OVC title and just the second 21-win season in school history (first-ever in Division One.)
Campbell is really one of the good guys in college coaching. He’s paid his dues and at times really struggled to get the UTM program growing. He caught a real break when he was able to land a talent like Lester Hudson and caught another break when Hudson decided to return for his senior season. Campbell was able to go out and find a great supporting cast and now UTM is on the verge of making their first-ever NCAA Tournament if they can capture the OVC Tournament title this week.
That will be much easier said than done.
The Skyhawks had to beat Morehead State on the final night of the regular season just to avoid a four-way tie for the league crown. That’s right, a four-way tie. Murray State, Morehead State and Austin Peay all were nipping at the Skyhawks’ heels the final week of the season. Martin had ripped off 17 wins in 18 games before stumbling at Murray State on February 23. That win by the Racers got them back in the title hunt. What they did the rest of the week makes them a serious OVC Tournament title contender.
Not only did the Racers knock off UTM, they dispatched of Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky to finish the regular season with a bang. Aside from a BracketBuster loss to Louisiana Tech, the Racers’ only slip-up since January 22nd was a tough 83-80 road loss at rival Austin Peay. The Racers reeled off 10 wins in their last 12 games. What’s even more impressive is that they’ve done it despite losing yet another guard from their rotation. Back in December, Murray State lost defensive specialist Jewuan Long to an ACL injury. In his place, freshman Donte Poole was stripped of his redshirt shortly after and started to become a solid option. But Poole suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in mid-February and now Murray State is down to a three-guard rotation. Head Coach Billy Kennedy received a real scare on Saturday night when one of those guards, senior leader Tyler Holloway, suffered a seperated shoulder. To show how tough Holloway is, he popped the shoulder back in place and finished the game. It’s that toughness that has teams fearing a showdown with Murray State in the OVC Tournament.
OVC Tournament Matchups: Quarterfinals
But playing without fear is something Tennessee State has done well recently. And that’s who the Racers have drawn for round one of the tournament. The Tigers earned the six-seed thanks to a 6-1 finish to the regular season. That might not sound like much, but consider the 6-1 finish came after they fired their head Coach Cy Alexander. TSU was drummed by 30 against Murray State and Alexander was fired the next day. Assistant coach Mike Pittman took over. The Tigers lost their first game to UT Martin under Pittman, but have since rolled off six straight wins and will be a tough out in the OVC Tournament. TSU will challenge Murray State, but the Racers (assuming Holloway is healthy enough to play) should be able to defend their homecourt. It will be close, but the Racers should exact revenge for being knocked out of last year’s semifinals by the Tigers.
Back to Martin, the Skyhawks will get Tennessee Tech in round one. The Golden Eagles knocked off Jacksonville State in a “play-in game” Saturday night to earn the eight seed. Tech lost twice to Martin, but gave the Skyhawks a competitve game both times. I just don’t see Lester Hudson or Marquis Weddle (combined for 57 points in win Saturday) allowing UTM to lose on their home-floor knowing they are three wins from the NCAA Tournament. Expect to see Martin advance to the OVC Semifinals in Nashville. So, if that holds, the #1 and #3 seeds will be Music City bound for the Friday semifinals.
The other two quarterfinal games stack up like this.
Austin Peay is the #2 seed and the Govs should have little problem with Eastern Illinois. The Panthers, after climbing towards the top of the league early, have fallen back to earth. Peay has been nearly unbeatable at home in recent years, but this year they have lost three times in OVC at the Dunn Center (UTM, TSU & Morehead State.) I can’t see a struggling EIU team coming into Clarksville and winning. Peay should be headed down I-24 for Nashville.
The other quarterfinal is the most intriguing. It’s a match-up of longtime rivals in Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky. Both had high hopes coming into the final week of the regular season, but both were swept at Murray State and UT Martin. Morehead was playing for a league title this week and instead fall all the way to the #4 seed. It will be no easy task going to Richmond and winning. EKU had been playing very good basketball before their recent two-game swoon. This, honestly is a coin-flip. But I have to give the edge to Morehead State simply because they are at home. The Eagles have not lost a home OVC game all year. That should be enough of an edge to get them to Nashville to make it an all-chalk semifinal round.
And what a Friday night it should be in Nashville if the top four seeds do make it.
UT Martin and Morehead would meet again and you’d have to give the edge to Martin after their 14-point win over the Eagles on Saturday. I’m not sure Morehead State has an answer for a zoned-in Lester Hudson. He was simply amazing in their win Saturday, going for 27 points, 13 rebounds, 5 steals and 5 assists. Throw in a 30-point effort from Marquis Weddle and this is one tough team to slow down. Look for Martin to make to its first-ever OVC Tournament championship game.
The other semifinal will be an all-out war. There’s no other way to put it. Austin Peay and Murray State are the two biggest rivals in the league and have played some memorable games in Nashville with trips to the NCAA Tournament on the line. This should be no different. The Govs swept the season series, but only by four total points. The Sommet Center will have it’s best crowd of the weekend on hand and they should be treated to a doozie. I give the edge to Murray State for a couple reasons. 1) It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season. 2) The Racers have been playing very well lately, while Peay has been up and down. A 5-3 finish to the season was nothing to brag about.
With all that being said, Peay does have the equalizer in Drake Reed. If Reed gets going, the Govs are tough to stop. If it wasn’t for Mr. Hudson at Martin, Reed would most likely be player of the year in the league. But if there’s one thing Murray State has been able to do, especially in the last week, is neutralize the other team’s star player. Against Martin, Hudson was held under 20 points for the first time all season. Against Morehead State, player of the year candidate Kenneth Faried had more fouls (5) than points (4). And against Eastern Kentucky, All-OVC guard Mike Rose had just 13 points in an overtime loss for the Colonels. Billy Kennedy’s team has played great defense at home the last month of the season. If they can find a way to bring it with them to Nashville, the Racers should be on their way to the title game.
That would set up a Racer-Skyhawk final in Nashville and what a game that would be.
History is certainly on Murray State’s side. The Racers are 34-3 all-time against the Skyhawks. UT Martin’s win over Murray in early January snapped a 15-game losing streak against the Racers. But don’t bet against Lester Hudson with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line. He was handcuffed in the loss at Murray State last week. He’s going to remember that and, from what I’ve seen from Hudson this year, he can take over a game whenever he wants.
It should be a fun weekend in the Music City, but I think when it’s all said and done, the Skyhawks will be big dance bound.
And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy than Bret Campbell.