The winds of change are upon us.
In Nashville, that means the beginning of a new era, and a return home for their new head coach...from a rival school just minutes down the road. In Cookeville, one of the "unforgettables" tries to earn that title again in a new role. In Murray, eyes are now focused on two arenas: one in their hometown, one three hours down the road where their former superstar begins what could be a long professional career.
The winds aren't just local though, as the sport itself prepares for a seismic shift. "Name, image, and likeness" has proven an easy political win for lawmakers, one they're more than happy to drag the NCAA and schools into kicking and screaming the whole way.
There are even some changes here with OVC Ball, but we'll get into that...
College hoops have always been about change; coaches come and go, players collegiate "careers" are on a clock, and even the rules themselves go through regular changes. (Enjoy that longer three-point line this year, shooters.)
But the changes down the line aren't the usual sort of changes, they're foundational -- and to many they threaten the future of the sport. Make no mistake though, much of the hand-wringing is due to the idea that the current foundation has worked for many, and any change in the status quo is scary for those who have benefited for years or even decades.
No one, and no one's opinions, are unbiased, and arguments from every angle are being made in bad faith -- made to convince others about what's best for them, often personally. There is no perfect solution. There is no solution which can't be abused. Even the current foundation, after all, is under fire for being abused by coaches and shoe companies at this very moment.
If you're currently successful, it's easy to be fearful any change which might upend it. If you stand to benefit from change, it's easy to be excited.
But it's worth remembering, this sport has been through dozens of changes which threatened to 'destroy' it.
There was a time where the three-point line was destined to kill the sport. (According to Gregg Popovich, that time still exists now) For many fans, it's now one of the most exciting parts of the game.
The shot clock being reduced from 45 seconds to 35 seconds in 1993 was met with concern about offense having enough time to run plays. It wasn't until 1972 that freshmen could play. Dunking was illegal from 1967 to 1976, and was still illegal during warmups just five years ago.
Even the NCAA's "foundation" has been undergoing change. The Power five are now "autonomy conferences," allowed to provide full cost-of-attendance scholarships, in addition to other benefits they can provide that other conferences cannot afford to.
Change is a constant. Nothing ever really remains the same. Yet we worry. We attack those who stand 'against' us, something social media has made far too easy. We often form our beliefs about change early and then hold on to them tight even as new information presents itself which may challenge our initial view.
Change is always scary. It's also necessary. Without change, the game wouldn't be what it is today. Players would still be only allowed to dribble once, with both hands, and the dribbler couldn't shoot. (1900-1907) Players would foul out at four fouls, not five. (1910-1943) Coaches wouldn't be allowed to speak to players during timeouts. (1900-1947) Without change, the NCAA Tournament would be much smaller than it is today, and a two-bid league couldn't exist by rule. (Pre-1975) Teams would still be allowed to skip free-throws and take the ball at half-court instead. (1939-1951)
...wait, maybe we should bring that last rule back.
These are all real, NCAA basketball rules over time, by the way.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of very interested parties that will be working to keep the sport alive. The NCAA, member schools, and players all want to make sure that college basketball is alive and well for years to come, because they all benefit from it being so.
So let's stop worrying about what we can't control. Let's stop lashing out at others for believing in a different future from ours.
Let's just enjoy the game, right now, how it is. And let's be thankful that for the next five months, college basketball is back.
So, as teased above, this year will be quite a bit different for OVC Ball, and in a one way it really won't be OVC Ball at all. (No, I'm not quitting again.)
One thing I've never had the chance to do since launching this is that I've never really been able to follow a team. Now 10 years into this, I don't have the energy to watch games every night, and travel 2-3 time a week. I'm an old man now. (Or, alternatively, I have a job that requires a bit more energy and effort than before) So my coverage as the league, as a whole, is going to be reduced. Right now, I'm thinking a once-a-week article highlighting the league.
Most of my efforts are, instead, going to be focused on one team, instead of trying to balance 12. Living in Nashville, I've chosen to focus on covering Belmont.
So, look, I know that for many of you, this will be annoying, and I get it. But for me, it really came down to two choices: quit again, (and one of these times that will stick) or pare back coverage to something I can actually maintain in my free time.
We'll still do pick 'em this year, and I'll still be watching other teams. But, Belmont will be my largest focus for the upcoming season.
Three games to watch
Austin Peay (KenPom: 202nd) at Western Kentucky, (KP: 86) Nov. 9th, 3 p.m.
Opening night is exciting because it's opening night, but the first Saturday of the year has three matchups I'm really interested in, even through according to KenPom none are really great matchups. The first is Austin Peay's first 'real' game (y'all should know how I feel about non-Division I opponents by now) at Western Kentucky. Last year saw JSU and Austin Peay really close the gap to the usual Murray - Belmont domination in the regular season.
The general feeling, despite both the Racers and Bruins losing NBA talent, is that the gap will actually widen again this year, with Austin Peay among those taking a step back. Losing Chris Porter-Bunton alone would be a big change for the Governors -- he was second on the team in Possession % and Shots %, which without getting too into the weeds, basically means he was used on more offensive possessions than others on the team. He and fellow-senior Zach Glotta were good shooters, and helped stretch the offense for Terry Taylor. Austin Peay lost three other seniors as well in Steve Harris, Jabari McGhee and Jarrett Givens -- the five combined for 63% of the Governors' made three-pointers a year ago, and shot 40% from deep; the rest of the team shot 35%.
Western Kentucky is probably a pretty good analogue for the top teams in the OVC. The Hilltoppers, in their fourth year under Rick Stansbury, are picked to win the C-USA and return their top four scorers from a year ago. It will actually be their second OVC game of the year, as WKU opens with Tennessee Tech.
We think that Taylor is among, if not the most talented player in the league. But his, and the Governors success this year will come down to how the team around him comes together.
ETSU (KP: 74) at UT Martin (KP: 304), Nov. 9th, 7 p.m.
On paper, this is not a good matchup, but UT Martin is an interesting "dark horse" OVC pick. (Maybe not to win the league, but to be surprisingly competitive) KenPom's preseason rankings aren't as kind to the Skyhawks as the OVC preseason poll was, though, hence the large gap in rankings here.
Which is exactly what makes this matchup interesting: The Skyhawks are hosting what's expected to be a very good Pirates team. You never want to read too much into one game, especially an early November game, but we also will be looking for signs if UTM really is a top-4 or 5 OVC team as the preseason poll would suggest. The preseason pick makes sense: Three returning seniors in Quintin Dove, Craig Randall II and Derek Hawthorne Jr. is a promising nugget when we know so little about all of these teams, and UT Martin finished last year quite strong.
But four guys do not a team make, and they'll be playing along up to nine newcomers, including four JUCO transfers. There are also two Division I transfers, but one is sitting out after transferring, and the other, a 6-11 center from Oklahoma, hasn't yet been ruled eligible to play this year.
The mid-pack of the OVC is often a crowded space, and it will be interesting to see if UT Martin can rise above that.
Southern (KP: 343) at Murray State (KP: 116), Nov. 9th, 7 p.m.
Murray State fans have been very...er...opinionated about the many preseason polls putting them second, but when you lose a player like Ja Morant, it's easy to wonder how that kind of talent gets replaced. Remember that possession % statistic I referenced in Austin Peay's preview? Morant was third...nationally. About one-in-three of the possessions when Morant was on the court ended in he in shooting or turning over the ball -- this doesn't even count the possessions that ended in a Morant assist. He had such a massive role in that offense last year that it's harder to imagine what the offense looks like this year without him.
That's not to say there's not talent on this roster. Tevin Brown and Darnell Cowart are all-league players, but who sets them up this year, or are they able to create their own offense? And without Shaq Buchanan to stick to the opposing team's best player, how will the Racers' defense adjust?
...and that's really what preseason rankings are: it's about what we know about teams, and trying to imagine what is needed to fill in the blanks. That's easier to do with Belmont going into the year than it is with Murray.
(That's not to say Belmont doesn't have questions of their own, because they do. But, personally, Dylan Windler's absence creates less overall disruption than Morant's does, and the coaching change should be overall minor in scheme changes.)
Anyway, this shouldn't be a super-competitive game in Murray, but it will be our first look at how these gaps we're trying to imagine are filled in.
A number probably only I care about
76.1: In the last three seasons, Casey Alexander's teams have played fast. How fast? In the last four of his six years at Lipscomb, the Bisons were in the top-20 nationally in tempo. Last year, they were 12th fastest...averaging 73.3 possessions per 40 minutes.
This year, KenPom has projected the Bruins to average 76.1 possessions per 40 minutes.
Rick Byrd's Bruins only averaged more than 70 twice in his entire career: 2015-16 (71.6) and last year (71.3)
Alexander's offensive philosophy may be similar, but expect his teams to play a bit faster than Byrd's.
Around the web
--UT Martin is going to launch a poll for an "alternate logo." It won't replace the Skyhawk as we know it, but will be a secondary logo for merchandise and uniforms. Not something you see as often in the college ranks as the pros, but okay.
--I do love me some new basketball courts, and Murray State's isn't a massive change , but a nice update none-the-less.
--Speaking of new courts...
--Mid Major Madness has launched a tracker for mid-major college coach contracts. There's some detail for most of the OVC's coaches, including a few noteworthy clauses. For example, language in Anthony Stewart's contract allows for an automatic four-year extension if he wins more than 50% of his games in a season, finishes in the top four of the OVC, (or top-two in the now-defunct OVC West) or makes the conference semifinals.
So this week's entry is a bit light, as we don't have any real games to talk about. (I've never been big on talking about hypotheticals before the season begins) I'm also still working on the format of this article: expect it to go through a few different iterations as I figure that out.
You probably notice this is now at newschannel5.com -- this will be it's home this year and going forward, since it's the website I manage the other 95% of my time.
We've made it, everyone. One more night 'til college basketball begins anew. I for one cannot wait.