The Off-Season Report is a new series here on Busting Brackets, where we catch up with with a writer of a specific team and discuss what’s taken thus far in the off-season. You can check out all the pieces in the series by clicking here. Our series rolls on today as we take the conference approach by talking with Catlin Bogard of OVC Ball about Ohio Valley Conference basketball.
BustingBrackets.com: Well let’s start with the big surprise of last season, as Murray State kind of put the OVC on the map with their incredible season. We knew they would be good, but no one thought they’d be that good huh?
Catlin Bogard: If you asked the players, they say they knew! But for the rest of us, it was after their win at Memphis that moved the Racers to 10-0, that made it clear to many of us that this was a special team. What’s amazing is how many times they had their backs against the wall, down sometimes double digits in the second half, and were able to come back. Murray State has always been good for years on the “mid-major” level, and it was great to see them get noticed nationally.
BB: It’s unlikely that they’ll win 30 games next season, so where do you see this team finishing in the OVC race given what they’ve lost?
CB: They’re still the favorites for one reason: Isaiah Canaan is returning. He was the best player in the OVC last year, and one of the best guards in the nation. They’ll need to establish a second three-point shooting threat with Donte Poole leaving, and they’ll have to replace the OVC Defensive Player of the Year in Jewuan Long. I thought Zay Jackson was outstanding in his freshman year, and will likely step into a starting guard role. And Latreze Mushatt is a great fit to take over for Ivan Aska. Also, many are high on UAB transfer Dexter Fields, who sat out this past season after transferring. They lost some great players, but they may have the talent on the bench to replace it.
BB: Let’s turn to our attention to the newest OVC addition, the Belmont Bruins. How do you think the transition goes for them coming from the Atlantic Sun?
CB: The two conferences are fairly similar, and given Belmont’s location in Nashville, they’re familiar with playing OVC opponents, including easily sweeping a home and home series with Austin Peay last season. It’s always hard when moving conference because you have to prepare for 11 new teams, whereas they all only have to prepare for 1. But Belmont has been great in the Atlantic Sun, and I suspect they’ll be pretty good in the OVC too.
BB: In terms of conference strength, do you think Belmont’s arrival and Murray State’s success starts pushing the OVC into the upper-echelon of mid-major conferences in the next few years?
CB: No. It’s still not deep enough 1-12, or even 1-4. Tennessee State, a team on the rise, has a new coach with John Cooper leaving for Miami (Oh). Morehead State, a team that’s been a good team the past 5 years, lost their coach, Donnie Tyndall, to Southern Miss. So we’re not sure what we’ll see from those two next season. Austin Peay took a major step backwards last season, and then you look at teams like UT Martin, Jacksonville State, Eastern Illinois who generally have end of season RPI’s in the high-200′s or 300′s. Add to that SIU Edwardsville, which will finish it’s transition into Division I this season. To become an elite mid-major, you have to be solid throughout the conference, and the OVC hasn’t been.
BB: Donnie Tyndall has left Morehead State to take the head coaching job at Southern Miss. Where do you think the Eagles go from here in finding his replacement?
CB: They’re looking primarily at either their own assistant coach Wade O’Connor, or Butler assistant Matthew Graves. O’Connor has only been at Morehead State for 2 years, but seeing how well Murray State did promoting from within last summer, I’m not shocked that O’Connor is getting serious consideration Graves has turned down his fair share of job opportunities over the years, but he would be an absolutely Grand Slam hire for Morehead State. If it’s not one of those two, other targets include Sean Woods (Miss. Valley State), John Brannen (Alabama), and Brett Nelson (Drake). There’s also Kelly Wells, head coach at nearby NAIA school Pikeville, who happens to be a Morehead State alumnus.
BB: There’s been a few new hires already with Jay Spoonhour taking over at Eastern Illinois, and Travis Williams being promoted to Tennessee State head coach after John Cooper left. How do you think those two fare in their new positions?
CB: Those schools were heading in completely different directions before the coaching change, and somewhat after. Spoonhour is essentially starting from scratch. The Panthers best player, Jeremy Granger, has graduated, and their best remaining player Alfonzo McKinnie transferred before Spoonhour could be brought in. That isn’t a school known for having a great basketball program, so he has a major challenge in his hands. Williams is in a much better position. Tennessee State finished 2nd last season, and was the only team to defeat Murray State before the NCAA Tournament. They were still a young team last season as well, meaning most of the team will return in the fall.
BB: Any early predictions for next season? Is it Belmont and Murray State…..and then everyone else?
CB: I think Tennessee State has the talent to compete, but as we saw with Tennessee Tech this past season, having the talent and promoting a coach from within doesn’t always end as well as we expect it to. SEMO has a lot of talent returning as well, but they’re also losing a great player in Leon Powell to graduation. I think Murray State is far and away the favorite, even over Belmont, although the Bruins could make things interesting.