The OVC will look a bit different in 2021-22 with Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky departing the conference to join the ASUN. But with Belmont, Murray State, and 2021 OVC Tournament champion Morehead State, it will still be one of the top mid-major basketball conferences in the country.
Morehead pulled off the surprise last year, defeating Belmont in the OVC Tournament Final, 86-71, and punching its ticket to the NCAA Tournament in the process. With two fewer teams in the league this season, we’ll see if that makes it easier or more difficult for the top of the conference to separate itself from the rest of the pack.
OVC Men’s Basketball Preview 2021-22: Three-Horse Race
The Favorites: Belmont, Murray State, Morehead State
Head coach: Casey Alexander (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 26-4 (18-2 in OVC)
Conference finish: 1st
It shouldn’t shock anyone that Belmont will once again be the team to beat in OVC men’s basketball. The Bruins rank 14th in all of DI men’s basketball for minutes returning from last season, including seniors Caleb Hollander, Luke Smith, Nick Muszynski, and Grayson Murphy.
Muszynski led the team in scoring in 2020-21, averaging 15 points per game. Right behind him was Smith at 12.7 points per contest, who helped fill a much-needed hole left by Adam Kunkel, who transferred to Xavier in 2020. Smith led the squad in three-point percentage, connecting on 39 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
But the most important factor for Belmont is Murphy, the two-time OVC Defensive Player of the Year. He’s been the glue guy for the Bruins since his freshman year. In 2020-21, Murphy averaged 10.9 points, 5.7 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per outing, plus accounted for 63 steals, the most on the team. Along with returners JaCobi Wood and Ben Sheppard, he helps make Belmont the team to beat.
Head coach: Matt McMahon (7th season)
2020-21 record: 13-13 (10-10 in CONF)
Conference finish: 6th
The Racers have been one of the most dominant programs in OVC men’s basketball history but struggled in the 2020-21 season, failing to finish in the top five of the league. But with the absence of JSU and EKU and a year more of experience for Murray State’s youngsters, it’s sure to fight for the top spot again.
A big plus for the Racers is returning two big playmakers in Tevin Brown and KJ Williams. Brown posts 14.7 points, 4.2 assists, and 5.9 rebounds per game a year ago, while Williams led the team with 15.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per outing and 15 total blocks, one fewer than Brown.
Murray State has no seniors this season but does have two graduate transfers in Carter Collins (Davidson) and Jordan Skipper-Brown (Eastern Illinois). Collins started all 22 games for Davidson, four of which he scored 20 or more points, and Skipper-Brown appeared in 32 games last year for EIU with a field-goal percentage of 64. He should help Murray State be more efficient from the field.
Head coach: Preston Spradlin (5th season)
2020-21 record: 23-8 (17-3 in CONF)
Conference finish: 2nd
Morehead State overcame Belmont in March to collect its first NCAA Tournament trip since 2011. It was led by superstars Johni Broome, the 2021 OVC Freshman of the Year, and DeVon Cooper, who both scored in double figures in 2020-21.
The Eagles will be without DeVon Cooper, who transferred to George Mason in the offseason, but the Broome, Skyelar Potter, and Ta’lon Cooper will all still be around.
This group of sophomores and juniors should have more confidence than previous teams this program has seen in the last decade. They’ll have Potter’s scoring, Ta’lon Cooper’s assisting ability and shooting, and everything Broome provides.
The Eagles will definitely be in the mix to stay atop OVC men’s basketball, but it will be difficult without DeVon Cooper. There’s enough talent on this roster for Morehead State to do it again, though.
The Contenders: Austin Peay, SEMO
Head coach: Nate James (1st season)
2020-21 record: 14-13 (10-10 in CONF)
Conference finish: 5th
Austin Peay enters the 2021-22 season without its four top scorers from 2020-21 nor its head coach: Matt Figger left to become the head coach at Texas-Rio Grande Valley, Terry Taylor graduated, Mike Peake transferred to New Mexico State, Jordyn Adams left for Lamar, and Reginald Gee is on to Louisiana-Monroe. There will be lots of changes for the Governors this year.
The program is welcoming Nate James, who spent 12 years winning a lot of basketball games at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski, but he’ll have to navigate his first season without most of the talent from last year.
The hole left by Taylor, specifically a hole sized 21.6 points per game and 11.1 rebounds per night, will be tough to fill. Carlos Paez, who scored 8.9 points and dished 4.2 dimes per outing last year, will be relied upon.
With the leadership of the team’s veterans and the lack of talent on the basement teams, Austin Peay will still have a chance to make some noise. But a step back this season wouldn’t be surprising at all.
Head coach: Brad Korn (2nd season)
2020-21 record: 11-16 (9-11 in CONF)
Conference finish: 7th
Southeast Missouri struggled in yet another season in 2020-21 but did hold its own against the eventual OVC champion Morehead State in the first round of the conference tournament, 61-54. It also picked up wins over EKU and Austin Pray and only lost to Belmont by 11.
The Redhawks’ biggest issues are defense and failing to have a clear-cut top scorer. Chris Harris and Eric Reed Jr. led the team in scoring with 12.3 and 11.0 points per game respectively last year, and both will be back this time around as juniors, which is cause for optimism.
Junior center Nat Johnson will need to step up to help the Redhawks on defense. He only had 10 blocks and four steals in 2020-21 and averaged just 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds per night. SEMO will need him to make major improvements to top Austin Peay and get into the upper echelon of OVC men’s basketball.
Stuck in Purgatory: SIUE, Tennessee Tech
Head coach: Brian Barone (2nd season)
2020-21 record: 9-17 (7-12 in CONF)
Conference finish: 8th
SIUE struggled last year after having to postpone or cancel 11 games due to COVID-19. But its biggest problem was keeping possession of the ball and shooting efficiently. In 2020-21, the Cougars averaged about 65 points per game while giving up almost 73 points per contest to opponents. They also had 416 turnovers but only forced 357. On top of it all, SIUE lost its two best scorers this offseason in Sidney Wilson and Mike Adewunmi.
But on the bright side, the Cougars bring back a handful of players who got a ton of experience last season, like Cam Williams and Shamar Wright. Williams put up 8.9 points per game and shot 45 percent from the field, while Wright scored 9.0 points and hauled in 4.6 rebounds per night, plus blocked 20 shots. SIUE will definitely not be fighting for a top spot in the league, but it could be one of those teams that steals a win from a contender.
Head coach: John Pelphry (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 5-22 (5-15 in CONF)
Conference finish: 11th
Tennessee Tech is coming off an abysmal season but will bring back most of its top scorers, which will allow it to grow and compete with experience. Jr. Clay, who’s back for his junior season, was the team’s top point producer, averaging 13.4 points and 3.6 boards per outing, and was the only player who scored in double figures. TTU also returns sophomore Keishawn Davidson, who put up 9.0 points per contest and shot 38 percent from the field last year.
Because of the team’s youth, the Golden Eagles will have difficult defending against teams like Belmont and Murray State, but with them bringing back players with some scoring experience, there is hope for a competitive campaign.
The Basement: UT Martin, Tennessee State, Eastern Illinois
Head coach: Brian Barone (2nd season)
2020-21 record: 8-16 (6-14 in CONF)
Conference finish: 9th
The Skyhawks had another unsuccessful season last year but were able to pick up wins against other OVC bottom feeders and steal a W from Austin Peay. The team’s biggest issues were scoring off the bench and a lack of team assists. Scoring was largely limited to Cameron Holden, Jaron Williams, and Eden Holt, and the ball wasn’t shared much.
How UT Martin will solve that problem is anyone’s guess, because Holden, Williams, and Holt are all gone now. UTM’s upperclassmen are just three juniors and two grad transfers. Yikes.
There are few positives for the Skyhawks heading into the 2021-22 campaign.
Head coach: Brian “Penny” Collins (4th season)
2020-21 record: 4-19 (3-17 in CONF)
Conference finish: 12th
Tennessee State’s biggest questions going into the season is head coach Brian “Penny” Collins, who comes from the Rick Byrd coaching tree. He is entering his fourth season at the head of the program and will need to show progress this year, especially after the team lost its seniors and top scorers from 2020-21.
The Tigers are bringing back Marcus Fitzgerald Jr., who was second on the team in scoring but only played in 14 games. A full year from him should make a difference in 2021-22.
TSU needs to fix its three-point shooting and rebounding. It shot 28 percent from behind the arc last season and lost by battle on the glass by an average of five rebounds per game. It’s probably that Tennessee State will be near the bottom of OVC men’s basketball again, but with its youth, this team does have room to grow.
Head coach: Marty Simmons (1st season)
2020-21 record: 9-18 (6-14 in CONF)
Conference finish: 10th
Like the other bottom OVC teams, the Panthers have lost a handful of seniors in the offseason. They have just one redshirt junior, one senior, and one grad student on their roster for this season.
Sammy Friday IV transferred in from Siena and should provide some help, and a player of his size and caliber will have to dominate the paint if the Panthers want any chance of fighting for the middle of the pack. He shot 60 percent from the field in his last season with Siena, and EIU will need something similar.
Redshirt senior Keshawn Charles led Eastern Illinois in three-point percentage last season, shooting 35 percent and averaging 7.7 points per outing. But he only played in 20 games and averaged 21.1 minutes per game. We will likely see a lot more of him in 2021-22, and EIU will hope his shooting and scoring see bumps, too.
2021-22 OVC Men’s Basketball Players to Watch
Tevin Brown – Guard – Junior – Murray State
Tevin Brown has been one of the best scorers in the OVC for a couple of years now, and there’s no reason to think that will change one year further into the future.
Brown was named to the All-OVC First Team in each of the last two seasons and is poised to dominate in 2021-22. He’s 56 threes away from surpassing Isaiah Canaan for the most triples in Murray State men’s basketball history and is on track to become the fourth Racer ever to have 500 rebounds and 300 assists in a career. He’s an all-time player for Murray State, and he should be hungry to prove he’s an all-time OVC player, too.
Grayson Murphy – Guard – Junior – Belmont
Back for his fifth season at Belmont, Grayson Murphy figures to be one of the best players in OVC men’s basketball this season. His presence on the offensive end is helpful for the Bruins, but his true impact is felt on the defensive side of the ball.
He’s the reigning OVC Defensive Player of the Year, and he led all of NCAA Division I point guards in rebounding in 2020-21. He takes care of the ball, he can lock down opposing teams’ best players, and he can get a bucket or two when you need. He figures to be a huge part of what Belmont does in 2021-22.
Skyelar Potter – Guard – Junior – Morehead State
Skyelar Potter established himself as a prolific scorer in the OVC last season, and he should do even more in the upcoming campaign. The Wright State transfer was twice named the OVC Newcomer of the Week last season and found a spot on the league’s All-Newcomer Team after scoring and shooting with efficiency. He also has high-flying capabilities.
Potter had five double-doubles in 2020-21, and that number should be at least matched again this time around. He’s going to be a huge part of what Morehead State does and whether or not it can return back to the NCAA Tournament. His shooting has improved with each passing year. Can Potter take another step forward and push Morehead State back into the Big Dance?
2021-22 Men’s & Women’s College Basketball Conference Previews
Learn more about the upcoming 2021-22 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons with Nothing But Nylon’s extensive conference previews, with a new conference covered every week before the campaign tips off in November.