I'm not sure we've really learned...well, much of anything through the first week of the season.
Sure, there are results that turn the head a bit. Belmont allowing 56 in the second half to Illinois State? Austin Peay allowing 97 to Western Kentucky? Murray State's slow offensive start against Southern? Jacksonville State's 19 turnovers against SMU? These are the four teams we consider "contenders," and none looked overly dominant in their opener.
But it's also impossible to say what those individual things mean. Last year, for instance, Jacksonville State was drilled in their opener against Samford; what we didn't know at the time was that Samford would actually be a pretty good team. (...and JSU was pretty good, too.)
And there's more to look at, too: TSU had an offensive breakout against Alabama A&M, but couldn't come close to replicating it against Chattanooga. If you're expecting an offensive breakout from SIUE, early results say this may not be your year. (Which, is kind of on-brand for them at this point...) Morehead State ground out a double-OT win against Samford, despite hitting just 21% from three, EIU hasn't played a game against a team we can really judge them on, UTM relied heavily on its starters to build a lead at the half, only to come out slow in the second half against ETSU, and we know SEMO can't hit 44% from three every night, but they may have a few deep threats this year.
College basketball is often a random sport when it comes to one game. Over the course of the season, most of the randomness evens itself out, but part of what makes this sport great is the idea that on any night, any team can beat another.
...and that makes judging November basketball so different. Each of those teams is going through big changes: no Morant in Murray, no Windler and a new coach at Belmont, a lot of newcomers around Terry Taylor in Austin Peay, and four seniors gone in Jacksonville. We tend to over-analyze. (Those of us who write about the game have to say something, else, why would you read us?) Teams are still figuring it out, and what they look like in March, or even January, is often much different then they look today.
So, what can we say about the first week?
Honestly, it's that nothing has really changed from what we thought a week ago. And that's fine.
Of course, that makes for a boring article to read, so let's talk about what does matter.
The new three-point line is like the old three-point line, more-or-less
According to KenPom's podcast, through the first few days of the season, three-point shooting percentage nationwide is down...about 1% after the NCAA extended the three-point line. That's really not that much, and is in line with a similar drop seen in the 2009 season when the three-point line was moved back. That wasn't a permanent drop, either, as players soon adjusted.
Offensive efficiency, though, hasn't really been impacted either way, as a slight uptick in two-point shooting and free-throw rate have balanced it out.
So, what does it mean for teams like Belmont, who have traditionally relied more on the three? It doesn't appear that will be much of an impact at all. But, what is interesting and will be worth watching: Just 29% of Belmont's shots against Illinois State were three-point shots. It's just a one-game sample, but that's a low percentage for Belmont teams of the past, which were often above 40% of their total shots being from deep over the course of a season. And if you're wondering if Casey Alexander's offense is the difference, it's not likely: Lipscomb shot 39% of its' shots the last two years from behind the arc. The four years previous? 46, 45, 43, and 44% of their attempts were from three.
There are easily a few explanations: the Bruins have Nick Muszynski inside, and he was having a strong night, and it's not like the Bruins three's were falling late when Illinois State went zone, so why stick with them?
(Also worth noting, Illinois State hammered Belmont from three in their win.)
Murray State (13% of shots from three-point range), Austin Peay, (16%) Morehead State, (20%) SIUE, (20%) and SEMO, (23%) largely backed off the three in their first game(s), whereas teams like Tennessee Tech (38%) Tennessee State (39%) were letting it fly.
Sure, much like everything else here, it's too early to draw any meaningful conclusions, but it's something worth following as this season progresses.
Yeah, EKU still wants to get out and run, and they don't care who they're playing.
I'm not sure I would have gone into the UK game trying to play up-tempo, but sure, when you played the second-fastest tempo in the nation the year before, I guess it's just how you play.
...it's also how you commit 21 turnovers and get blown out. Not that I believe that close losses are somehow better, but it's just interesting to see EKU still putting up so. many. quick. shots.
...even though their offense last year was...ho-hum?
This is how A.W. Hamilton wants to play. Does he have the personnel yet to play that way? Even if you take out the UK game, (and you should) the offense was good, but it wasn't outstanding against Chattanooga. (0.98 points-per-possession is below the national average of ~1.05) Again, one-game sample, but it also reflects this team last year.
Playing a style that doesn't necessarily fit your players isn't a new issue for OVC teams: Sean Woods had a style he wanted to play at Morehead State, and he just could never get the personnel that could play his level of aggression without getting into foul trouble night after night. They weren't bad, but they were never able to take that next step either.
Also worth noting: Tempo hasn't been a recipe for success in this league in recent history. The last OVC team to lead the league in possessions per game and win the league was...well, I can't actually tell you, because I can only find numbers for that stat dating back to 2002, and it hasn't happened since then. What I can tell you is that only twice since 2012 has the team that led the league in tempo finished above .500 in league play.
Running that style of play absolutely can work, but it takes certain players, and those players are just a bit harder to get at this level.
It's always great to see Tennessee State, or any school, pack the house
Last year we had an average attendance of 965 fans. In our season opener we had 5600 fans in attendance. I BELIEVE we can do it even bigger... TSU Alumni and fans let’s make The Gentry Center the toughest place to play in the OVC!!! #BigBlueRising pic.twitter.com/903SSWQee1— Brian “Penny” Collins (@coachpenny1) November 7, 2019
5,600 is fantastic, and as Penny points out, well above last year's average. Backing up their impressive offensive night against Alabama A&M (64 first-half points!) with a stronger showing at Chattanooga would have been beneficial to his cause, but it's great to see TSU getting fans to the Gentry Center.
To get that kind of crowd for a game takes effort, and it's one that more schools should take. There should have been more than 685 fans on hand for SEMO's strong win against Purdue Fort Wayne (I miss calling them IPFW) or 2,043 for Morehead State's thrilling Double OT win against Samford. I really wish schools were, in general, much more aggressive with pricing and offers to get fans in the building.
Three games to watch
Samford (135th in KenPom) at Belmont (92nd), Monday 6:30 p.m., ESPN+
I mentioned this earlier, but the former OVC member was better than people thought last year. Against Morehead State in their opener, the Bulldogs team played a lot of iso ball on offense, (just 9 assists on 29 made field goals) with senior John Sharkey leading the charge. They were strong on the offensive glass (so was Morehead) but struggled to score against Morehead State's defense.
So this will be a challenge for Belmont's defense, which, on paper, didn't have a great opening night performance against Illinois State, especially in the final 10 minutes. (But, the Redbirds also hit 13-26 from three-point range, and Samford doesn't really have a lot of great long-range shooters.)
Overall, Belmont head coach Casey Alexander seemed fine with Belmont's offense in their opener, even if the three-point shots weren't falling. Nick Muszynski was strong on the inside, and while the Redbirds going zone largely stopped Muszynski, Alexander said they're "too good of a shooting team," for that to work consistently against them.
Historically, Belmont often makes teams pay that go zone. But there's also not a 45% three-point shooter on the roster like Dylan Windler last year, or even just a returning 40% three-point shooter. Between Windler and Kevin McClain, about 41% of all of Belmont's three-point shots are gone. The highest volume guy still on the roster: Nick Hopkins, who took just 134 last year. (He did hit 38%, though, but was just 1-5 against Illinois State.) Adam Kunkel is already up to 1/4 of his total for three-point attempts as a freshman, hitting 4-9 in the opener.
I'll be there tonight, (and in Knoxville Tuesday night for UT - Murray) so follow along @CatlinBogard.
Lipscomb (187th) at Tennessee State (301st), Tuesday 7 p.m., ESPN+
Okay Tennesee State, here's a second change at following up that big offensive night against Alabama A&M.
Honestly, that's going to be a tough act to follow, if for no other reason that most Division I teams are just better than the Bulldogs, who have not finished ranked in the top 300 nationally in KenPom since 2007. TSU hit 50% from three against them, and 24-28 on shots inside the arc. You're not going to replicate that against many D-I teams.
But you can get to the free-throw line more than just 5 attempts, like against Chattanooga by being more aggressive offensively, and get more than five offensive rebounds. One-and-done works well for players, not so great for offenses.
While it's not Belmont - Lipscomb, it's still a nice short trip across town for Lipscomb fans, so maybe we'll see another strong turnout at the Gentry Center.
Austin Peay (216th) at Tulsa (117th), Saturday 2 p.m., ESPN3
It's the KP rating of Tulsa that put this game on my radar. Why? Because the team ranked 116th is Murray State. This is one of those early season games that's a good benchmark: this is a similar quality of a team that could win the OVC. (WKU, who Austin Peay lost to by 18 on Saturday, is right there as well, if a bit better) How competitive can you be?
Here's the thing: there are quite a few positives from Austin Peay's loss to WKU. Their offense was largely fine. They struggled from three (4-21) but pulled down 20 offensive rebounds, and finished with a 1.10 points-per-possession. (Again, national average is ~1.05, so this is better than average) They only turned over the ball 9 times, and forced 16. Those are all good things.
They just couldn't stop anyone. And on the rare occasion they did, they couldn't stop the Hilltoppers from getting an offensive rebound.
But Tulsa hasn't been an offensive powerhouse in their first two games. In fact, they put up just 59 points in a loss at UT Arlington and weren't all that explosive against Houston Baptist. This probably isn't a team that's going to shoot 60% from the field against you like the Hilltoppers. (Unless you let them...)
The early returns on Austin Peay is they're going to have to outscore teams this season. Tulsa has a pretty good defense; this will be a real test to see if they can do that against quality competition.
A number probably only I care about
11th: Eastern Illinois' strength of schedule ranking, through the first week of the year.
Things get a whole lot easier going forward, but also kind of doesn't: they don't play a team currently ranked in the top-200 of KenPom rankings until December 21st, their final non-conference game against Grand Canyon.
...but they also don't play many of these at home. after their game on November 18th against Indiana Northwest, they're on the road 10 of their next 11 games, including their first three in conference. (Including a rare neutral site game against a non-Division I team)
It's really hard to judge how good or bad a team is when they play such a lopsided road-heavy schedule.
Finally, some real basketball to talk about.
This first week has been more disjointed than in the past. Not every team played the first night (Murray State waited until Sadurday for their first regular season game) and even the first Saturday of the year had a lighter-than-usual slate of games.
This i js part of college basketball's early season "issue," so-to-speak. There's no doubt that the sport doesn't really enter many sports fans' consciousness until January (or, maybe even March) but it doesn't help matters that, outside the Champions' Classic, there's not much to clamor about in November for a lot of teams, especially mid-major programs that spend so much time on the road between in-season tournaments and buy games.
But November and December matter. November and December is what helped Belmont earn an at-large last year. It's a big factor for mid-major in determining NCAA tournament seeds -- and there's a big difference in being a 13-seed compared to a 15.
And it's also where "any team can beat any other" happens. When we say that, we're not talking about Wake Forest over Duke. We're talking Murray over Memphis, or Belmont over North Carolina.
November and December basketball is fun. It's just a shame only the 'hardcore' basketball fan notices.