No matter how much time you devoted to watching Ohio Valley Conference basketball this season — be it a couple of minutes here and there or every game you could get within your sight — you were certainly not disappointed. Well, unless you spent most of your time watching Tennessee Tech.
While the bottom of the league may have been exceptionally putrid, this was no doubt a season that featured some of the best teams in conference history, each battling it out for those top four spots in the standings.
Yet, despite the talent on display, it has been Murray State’s Ja Morant, the newly-crowned 2018-19 OVC Player of Year, whose name has dominated national headlines and brought enormous amounts of attention to this conference. However, there’s a decent chance that we may not even get to see Morant play in the NCAA Tournament, as a few other solid teams stand in Murray State’s way.
First Round (Wed., March 6)
ESPN+ ($) will stream both games.
Game 1: No. 8 SIUE Cougars vs. No. 5 Morehead State Eagles, 7:30 p.m.
Quarterfinals (Thu., March 7)
ESPN+ ($) will stream both games.
Game 3: Game 1 Winner vs. No. 4 Austin Peay Governors, 7:30 p.m.
Game 4: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 3 Jacksonville State Gamecocks, approx. 10 p.m.
Semifinals (Fri., March 8)
ESPNU will air both games.
Game 5: Game 3 Winner vs. No. 1 Belmont Bruins, 8 p.m.
Game 6: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 2 Murray State Racers, approx. 10:30 p.m.
Championship (Sat., March 9)
Game 7: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Belmont (25-4, 16-2 OVC): While Ja Morant has grabbed attention from fans nationwide, the Bruins’ own Dylan Windler has put forth a terrific season that has left some discussing his own NBA potential. Averaging a double-double (21.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG), the senior has led his team through it all, and there’s no denying he’d like to finish his career as a Bruin with an NCAA Tournament berth.
Throw in that they’ve taken down Murray State once already this season (albeit against a not-quite-100% Ja Morant), the emergence of OVC Freshman of the Year Nick Muszynski as a lethal post presence on both ends of the floor, and the coaching abilities of Rick Byrd, and it’s easy to see why the odds are high that Belmont will continue its 13-game winning streak throughout the OVC Tournament and into the Big Dance.
Murray State (25-4, 16-2 OVC): Even though Ja Morant is the most-discussed player on this team, you’d be mistaken to think that the Racers’ talent begins and ends with the sophomore guard. While Morant averages over 24 PPG, he’s surrounded by a few key guys whose influence has aided immensely this season.
One such guy is Shaq Buchanan, a senior who is well aware of how to win games in March. As a member of last season’s NCAA Tournament team, Buchanan served a key role in backing up Jonathan Stark. This year, his scoring numbers have improved greatly, and his abilities on the other side of the ball have earned him OVC Defensive Player of the Year honors. His impact will need to be massive if the Racers are to dance once more.
Jacksonville State (23-8, 15-3 OVC): If not for a late-season slip up against UT Martin, Jacksonville State would be in a three-way tie with Belmont and Murray State with a 16-2 conference record. Throughout the season, Jacksonville State has proven itself to be more than capable of taking down the top dogs, namely by beating Belmont twice and dismantling the Racers in 20-point blowout.
Most of that is thanks to their Kenpom top-100 defense, a staple of Coach Ray Harper’s teams. However, their inconsistency has given me pause to have confidence in the Gamecocks. Of course, Jacksonville State is no strangers to March runs, and there’s no denying that Harper will look to work his postseason magic to take this club — the third-most experienced in the country, per KenPom — back to the NCAA Tournament.
Austin Peay (21-10, 13-5): The only reason the Governors are on this list of contenders is that they are the sole OVC team in the top four that owns a win over Jacksonville State. It’s no small feat, especially considering the inability of more talented teams in the conference to do so.
However, the Governors have looked competitive yet a bit shaky in other games against top conference foes, holding Murray State to close battles while also blowing a 14--point lead against Belmont with 13 minutes remaining.
Nevertheless, sophomore Terry Taylor has displayed talent worthy of more recognition than he already receives. He has the potential to completely take over games, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he led the Governors with a Kemba-esque conference title run.
There really are no dark horses in the league. It would be incredibly difficult to imagine any team that isn’t in the top four winning this tournament (besides Eastern Kentucky, whose Nick Mayo possesses NBA caliber talent, but is excluded from the OVC Tournament because of the league’s mindless decision to cap the field at eight teams).
Right now, my money is on Belmont. The Bruins’ offense simply overwhelms opponents with buckets, and their perimeter shooting is profoundly lethal. Dylan Windler is playing the best basketball we’ve seen from him, and their interior game has given even the best teams in the league struggles.
Plus, since they managed to earn the No. 1 seed in the tournament, the Bruins are able to avoid an undesirable matchup against Jacksonville State right off the bat. After all, the Gamecocks have defeated the Bruins in five straight matchups — I’m certain they wouldn’t want to face them again, especially coming right off of a double-bye.
SO Belmont should be the favorite to win this league. Of course, you could not be faulted for picking literally any of the other teams in the top four. Each one possesses its own unique weapons that can make even the toughest foes wilt in opposition.
It’s just a shame that only one of these teams will likely make the Big Dance.