Nashville’s college basketball scene is earning its share of attention these days.
The city’s highest-ranked program in the NCAA’s NET rankings is a school with a grammatically incorrect nickname you’ve probably never heard of until a year ago. Yes, the Lipscomb Bisons out of the Atlantic Sun Conference are a contender for an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament. Belmont, the Ohio Valley’s co-leader, boasts an NBA prospect and a merciless offense that hung 99 points on Eastern Illinois Thursday. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has reeled after entering the season with some hype and losing one-and-done candidate Darius Garland to injury.
Then there’s Tennessee State. The fourth Nashville school exists behind the curtain while all the others waltz (or in Vandy’s case, sulk) around center stage. The Tigers, 8-19, have dropped four straight games and are engulfed in the mosh pit of four teams with 5-10 OVC records.
They’re lodged in a similar rut to EIU, which is 1-5 in February. The two teams will collide at an impasse Saturday night (7:30 p.m., ESPN+), with each needing a vote of confidence in its abilities and each coming off a stinging loss. One will presumably enter late Saturday night in the Music City signing a confident tune, while the other will walk away with the blues.
“You just worry about yourself, even if a team’s playing great, you really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them very much, especially on these one-day preps,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said.
EIU's mental lapses on defense were the collective dagger in an 88-79 loss to SEMO.
“But we’re both in the same boat, desperate for a win. I’d expect them to play that way.”
Tennessee State lost three straight games by at least 10 points, and then bottomed out with a loss to SIU-Edwardsville at home Thursday night. It was only by a point, but it pulled the Cougars even in the standings and could loom as a costly tiebreaker scenario if they end with the same record.
A win Saturday could put the Tigers as high as sixth in the standings. A loss? Well, that could send them to 11th and into the harsh reality that they may end the season among the OVC’s have-nots and out of the conference tournament bracket.
EIU’s floor remains higher. The Panthers (14-14, 7-8) are still alone in fifth place even after Belmont dismembered them, 99-58. They could clinch an OVC tournament spot with a win Saturday and a loss from any of SIUE, Eastern Kentucky or UT-Martin. Back to Thursday, though, when they resembled a door off its hinges for 40 minutes. Belmont drilled 18 3-pointers and shot 59.6 percent in carving through EIU’s listless defense that has now allowed 80 or more points in five of its last six games. Unsurprisingly, all five were losses.
“You have to get ready for what’s next and can’t obsess over what you’ve done,” Spoonhour said. “But my gosh, we debated whether or not to show very much film of the game. But we thought it was important to show what we looked like and show that these are the things you have to stay away from.”
What each team does to pick itself up is the question. Conveniently for EIU, Tennessee State ranks in the bottom half of the OVC in most offensive categories: 10th in scoring offense, ninth in field goal percentage, ninth in 3-point percentage and last in assists per game. Only 13 teams in the country have a worse turnover percentage.
On the individual end, EIU’s attention will start on Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey. The 6-foot-4 guard is in his first season with the Tigers after two years at Ole Miss, where he averaged 2.5 points. Now, he leads his team in scoring with 14.9 points per game and shoots 39.4 percent on 3-pointers. He has been a bit unpredictable lately, though. He scored 23 points against SIUE, but was scoreless on Feb. 16 at Jacksonville State. Mack Smith and Josiah Wallace are likely candidates to draw the assignment.
Offensively, an uninspired effort was lost amid Thursday’s defensive disaster. EIU, which entered having shot at least 50 percent in three of its five, shot 36.7 percent, handed out just 11 assists and didn’t attempt a free throw until in the first half.
“We got guarded and we didn’t react to it,” Spoonhour said. “Really in all of our previous games, when we’ve gotten guarded, we’ve adjusted to it and made plays to get the ball in the lane where not everything is a 3. It’s not that we even overshot on 3s, we just took guarded jumpers without trying to explore anything else.”