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Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Primer: The title is Belmont’s to lose

Can Belmont hang on, or is there a team that can replicate Austin Peay’s 2016 run?

NCAA Basketball: Belmont at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Each time a mid-major conference tournament begins, I get a bit nervous.

Some conferences have, perched at the top, a team that looks like it possesses the skills necessary for an upset or two if they’re given the chance to make the tournament. However, the nature of these conference tournaments and the automatic bids they award is cruel, and it’s inevitable that some Cinderella hopes are extinguished before having a chance to spark.

The Ohio Valley Conference is a one-bid league, and history has shown us that it will almost certainly continue to remain that way. The question now on everyone’s mind is whether Belmont will take advantage of the path given to it and earn a spot among the 64 programs anointed by the Selection Committee.

All season long, the OVC has been dominated by the Bruins, who have certainly become accustomed to winning conference games since joining the league in 2012. Led by a corps of highly-experienced players, Belmont has only one blemish on its OVC record (a 83-70 loss to Tennessee Tech), clinching the No. 1 seed almost ten days ago.

Besides Belmont and UT Martin, the tournament’s two seed, the OVC has been fairly weak this season: Only two other teams even finished with a winning record. One team, SIU Edwardsville, just won its first conference game in a whole calendar year.

Beyond that, the East Division has been markedly better than the West, with all but one team making the conference tournament. The only other West Division teams joining the Skyhawks in the tournament are Murray State and Southeast Missouri.

Tournament Format

The OVC bracket is set up to give the top two seeds (both division winners) double byes, while the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds both receive a bye. Only eight total teams from the OVC qualify for the tournament, meaning that four unlucky squads are left out of the fun entirely.

As The Tennessean noted a few weeks ago, the OVC tournament has called Nashville home 23 times over the past 24 years. If I may paraphrase the cinematic sage Walter Sobchak: That’s twenty-three years of beautiful tradition, from Fly Williams to Kenneth Faried!

However, that great tradition has come to an end, and this season’s tournament will be the last held at the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville. The tragic news came earlier this month that the OVC Tournament will be moving to Evansville, Indiana, in 2018.

How to watch

This year, both the first round and the quarterfinals of the OVC Tournament will be streamed live on the OVC Digital Network. Televised games begin on March 3rd, with both semifinal matchups being shown on ESPNU before the title game airs on ESPN2 this Saturday.

March 1 (First Round)

  • Game 1—7:30 pm ET: #5 Southeast Missouri (14-17, 9-7) vs. #8 Tennessee State (17-12, 8-8)
  • Game 2—9:30 pm ET: #6 Tennessee Tech (12-19, 8-8) vs. #7 Murray State (14-16, 8-8)

March 2 (Quarterfinals)

  • Game 3—7:30 pm ET: Winner of Game 1 vs. #4 Jacksonville State (17-14, 9-7)
  • Game 4—9:30 pm ET: Winner of Game 2 vs. #3 Morehead State (14-15, 10-6)

March 3 (Semifinals)

  • Game 5—7:30 pm ET: Winner of Game 3 vs. #1 Belmont (22-5, 15-1)
  • Game 6—9:30 pm ET: Winner of Game 4 vs. #2 UT Martin (20-11, 10-6)

March 4 (Finals)

  • Game 7—8:00 pm ET: Winner of Game 5 vs. Winner of Game 6

Three things to watch

1. Does Belmont bring home the hardware?

In 2015, Murray State illustrated the importance of conference tournaments and how, even if you don’t lose a single OVC game all year, one off night in Nashville can leave your dancing shoes collecting dust. In this year’s iteration of the OVC Tournament, Belmont has a lot of things working in its favor.

For starters, the rest of the field is quite weak, and there’s a higher chance that Gonzaga will lose a WCC game Indiana will hire Brad Stevens than there is that Belmont will face Tennessee Tech, the only team that beat it in conference play this season. If that were to happen, it’d be in the title game after the Golden Eagles had already won three games to get there.

Plus, it goes without saying that Belmont has some of the best personnel in the league. Rick Byrd—who won his 750th game as a head coach this season—is a legend in the sport, and he’s surely going to have his guys ready to compete, win, and fight adversity if necessary. And, leading the Bruins is Evan Bradds, who won his second consecutive OVC Player of the Year Award this season after putting up roughly 20 points per game. The tools are all available for the Bruins to get it done.

2. Any Austin Peay imitators out there?

Last season, one of the best stories of March was written by the Austin Peay Governors, who pulled off the unthinkable: winning four games in four days as the conference’s eight seed. It was another memorable moment in the career of Dave Loos, the OVC’s winningest coach and one of the game’s most criminally underrated leaders.

Conference tournament time is always good for a sensational underdog story or two, and this season should be no different. Now, the top of the OVC was not as strong last year as it is this season, making it unlikely that a miracle run like what occurred last year will happen again. Nevertheless, we would be fools to count anything out...

For the record, if you did force me to pick a team to pull off such a run, I would have to go with the Tennessee State Tigers, whose defense is the best in the OVC by quite a large margin. There, I have that in writing now; so, if they do win, you know who to rain compliments on.

3. Ray Harper’s first tournament

Five years ago, Western Kentucky was struggling. Sixteen games into the season, the Hilltoppers were 5-11 and in need of a change. After firing Ken McDonald, they named Ray Harper head coach. He was able to turn the entire season around, taking a WKU team with a losing record charging into the NCAA Tournament, fresh off a Sun Belt Tournament win.

However, Harper didn’t stay in Bowling Green forever, resigning from Western Kentucky at the end of the 2015-16 season in the wake of the suspension of three players. He landed at Jacksonville State. In the one year he has been in Jacksonville, Alabama, Harper has already guided a significant turnaround. Last season, the Gamecocks went 8-24 (4-12 OVC), and lost nine players in between then and now.

Now, Harper has Jacksonville State sitting at 17-14 (9-7 OVC), and his squad currently owns a first-round bye in the OVC Tournament. It’s quite the impressive feat, and it’ll certainly be worth watching to see whether or not Harper’s Gamecocks can replicate the conference tournament magic he conjured up while with the Hilltoppers.

Prediction

After considering all of the facts surrounding them, looking at their KenPom rankings, weighing past results, and raving about them for what is now going on 1300 words, I have to pick the Bruins to win the OVC title.

A few weeks ago, I would have said Belmont over Murray State for the title, but due to the loss of the Racers’ Damarcus Croaker to a broken foot, I can’t see them making it that far. However, I’m not going total chalk, as I don’t think UT Martin will make the championship game either.

March 4th. The title game. Give me Belmont over Morehead State.