Chris Horton wants a No. 15 seed. In fact, Austin Peay’s 6’8” senior center is motivated by the prospect of his team earning one in the NCAA tournament, even though No. 15 seeds have a 6.1% winning percentage (8–124 alltime) in the Big Dance.
“At first I was hearing play-in game and all that stuff in Ohio,” Horton said, referring to the First Four in Dayton, “which is still possible, but now they’re talking about us being a 15 seed. That’s even better as a motivation standpoint for us. It’s like, O.K., they’re respecting us enough to bump us up a seed.”
Entering the final week of Ohio Valley Conference regular season play, Austin Peay was far from a lock even to qualify for the conference tournament, let alone the NCAA tournament. On Feb. 20, the Governors had lost at home to Murray State by 16, falling to 5–9 in conference. They haven’t lost since, finishing the season on a six-game winning streak and becoming the first team in the country to punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament.
Previously, their longest winning streak of the season had three games and they hadn’t made the conference tournament since 2012.
“It’s terrific,” said coach Dave Loos, who has now guided Austin Peay to the Big Dance four times in his 26 seasons at the helm. “[I] didn’t see this one coming, to be quite honest. We said from the beginning, we were [at the conference tournament] to try to win and we had to win four games, but you could only do it one game at a time. So we tried to focus in on that game. That worked for us.”
In consecutive days, Austin Peay beat No. 5 seed Tennessee Tech, No. 4 seed Tennessee State, No. 1 seed Belmont (in overtime) and No. 2 seed UT Martin. In the regular season, the Governors had gone 0–5 against those four teams.
“We had a rough season,” said Horton, who led the team in points (18.9), rebounds (12.0) and blocks (1.8) this season. ”We already knew how it felt to lose so we wanted to know how it felt to win. We had our backs against the wall trying to get into the tournament in a must-win situation for the last two or three weeks of that season and once we got in there, it was like ‘O.K., that’s a big relief. ... It was like, we’re going to keep trying to push this thing to see how far we could get.”
If the Governors are not slotted into the First Four, they will be pitted against one of the eight best teams in the country in the first round.
“It’s big,” said freshman guard Jared Savage, who averaged 6.5 points in 19.5 minutes a game. “Most of us have never played against a team like that but once again, we don’t got nothing to lose so we’re going to give it our all.”
The 6’5” Savage averaged 16.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 35 minutes per game while shooting 19 of 34 from three-point range (55.8%) in the tournament, well above his season averages. The increases came after Loos moved two-guard Josh Robinson to the point and inserted Savage into the starting lineup. He hit half of the team’s school-record 16 threes in the OVC tournament championship game as the Governors strayed away from Loos’s inside-out principles that he has long established in Clarksville, Tenn.
“We’re an inside-out team, that’s been my philosophy throughout my career,” Loos said. ”I thought we were kind of falling in love with the three-point jump shot and as bad as I wanted to say ‘Stop it,’ I didn’t because they just kept going in.”
The Governors shot 42.5% from outside during their four-game tournament run, and Austin Peay players said the makeover in the team’s starting lineup gives the team a taller, more versatile offensive attack.
“Especially with Horton down low, it just made the other teams have to have a harder chance to guard us,” senior guard Khalil Davis says, “because with that lineup, you can’t just focus on one person.”
Horton, the nation’s leader in offensive rebounds, is the team’s only regular rotation player taller than 6’6” and the Governors surround him with guards and wings. Horton’s best game of the postseason so far was his 37-point, 21-rebound performance against Tennessee Tech.
“I think he’s been a monster out there,” Loos said. “His numbers are just outrageous but he’s been doing that most of the year.”
Such an early conference tournament—and now the university’s spring break—have given the Governors a chance to rest and get refreshed. Austin Peay reconvened Wednesday evening for a light practice to transition back into its preparation for the team’s next game. Loos identified the team’s man-to-man defense as the main area in need of improvement. The Governors are allowing five more points per 100 possessions than the national average this season.
Ball screen defense and defensive rebounding are on the short list of areas in which Austin Peay wants to improve. But with time “four or five good, hard practices” to tune up for the NCAA tournament, Loos thinks the long layoff will be an advantage for his team. At the same time, the Governors hope to maintain their momentum from winning their last seven games straight.
Austin Peay has picked up a third of its wins since Feb. 25 and hopes to extend its winning streak to seven games, if not more.
“I think, honestly, we’re probably one of the hottest teams in the nation just (based) off of what we’ve done,” Horton says.
The Governors have already pulled off an improbable postseason run in March and they’re hoping to keep Austin Peay name in the public conscience a little bit longer.
“These guys really are now getting to the point where they expect to win,” Loos said, “and I think that’s big.”