Despite the trials and tribulations and problems the Eastern men’s basketball team encountered this season, the Panthers find themselves as the sixth seed of the OVC Tournament this week.
It is the same seed Eastern had last season, but things should turn out differently this year.
Eastern meets Jacksonville State in the first round Wednesday at 8:30 p.m., but before the Gamecocks and Panthers face off, Tennessee State and Morehead State will play at 6:30 p.m. in what could be a thriller of a game.
Here is everything you need to know about the two first-round games of the OVC Tournament Wednesday.
Tennessee State (5) vs Morehead State (8)
In all honesty, Morehead State was the team, out of the four playing Wednesday, that I thought would have been the biggest threat to Eastern’s chance of getting to the second round Thursday.
When Eastern defeated Morehead State Feb. 8, Jordan Walker, the Eagles’ leading scorer, only had seven points on 1-of-11 shooting. Last year, when Morehead State defeated Eastern at home, Walker led everyone with 30 points.
Walker is able to catch fire and take over a game, and I believe he will do so in this tournament to give Morehead State a chance at a run. Walker is also a senior, and what senior would not want to go out by giving it their all.
The teams are pretty evenly matched: Tennessee State scores more points per game, but Morehead State gives up fewer points per game.
Tennessee State had a good conference season, bouncing back after not making the tournament last year, but I think Morehead State will prove itself.
Even last year, Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour said Morehead State was a team that was underrated and more dangerous than what they were given credit for.
The Eagles also have experience in this game: last year in the tournament, Morehead State was the five seed, playing eight-seed Southern Illinois Edwardsville. Morehead State had a big lead out of halftime but only won 72-68, after the Cougars forced the Eagles to make free throws down the stretch to earn the victory.
Also, just two weeks ago, Morehead State defeated Tennessee State, so maybe there is a little momentum from that recent victory.
Prediction: Morehead State wins by five or fewer points and Jordan Walker leads the game in scoring, dropping 25 or more points.
Eastern (6) vs Jacksonville State (7)
Eastern plays Jacksonville State in a somewhat familiar position, with the familiarity coming from the number four.
When Eastern faced Jacksonville State this season, the Panthers just finished a four-game losing streak when they opened the conference schedule with four road games.
Eastern’s conference home opener was against Jacksonville State, and the Panthers won 70-69, with Jacksonville State missing a layup as time expired.
After that win, Eastern won three more for a four-game winning streak, and the win against Jacksonville State was crucial for Eastern to get back where it needed to be and get some momentum going.
But now, going into Wednesday’s game, Eastern is already on a four-game winning streak and already has momentum to help carry it into the tournament.
Jacksonville State is a great defensive team and is always dangerous, but I think Eastern is going to cut out all the crap it put itself through this season: Giving up leads, falling apart late in games and not moving the ball.
These three things are what killed the Panthers this season, and all three hurt them when they had leads in games.
I think Eastern will be behind at halftime and will have a slow first half, but the Panthers will come out in the second half and take over.
For the whole season, the narrative was that the Panthers missed out on wins and kept hurting themselves.
But after a historic comeback win against Murray State, and another big comeback win against Austin Peay, I think the Panthers have put all those bad tendencies behind them and will get a convincing win Wednesday.
Prediction: Eastern wins by eight, maybe 10 points.
Dillan Schorfheide can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]