For the first time ever, Ohio Valley Conference powers Belmont and Murray State will play one another twice during the regular season. This turn of events adds intrigue to a transitional season for the conference with the fourth-oldest championship tournament in America.
During Belmont’s seven years in the OVC, the Bruins (four) and Racers (two) have won six and shared one of the regular season titles. They have both earned two OVC tournament championships. Due to past divisional arrangements the two OVC titans have met just once during each conference season.
In 2017, the league did away with divisions and went to an 18-game schedule. The OVC still uses the old divisions for scheduling and travel purposes. Teams that previously played in the same division still play one another twice (10 games). They then play four of the remaining six teams once (home or away and it rotates each season). Then on a rotating basis they play two of those “other division” foes in a home-and-home situation.
This is the first year Murray and Belmont have rotated into each other’s paths.
Belmont and Murray State face big changes. The Bruins will experience their first season in their Division I era without legendary coach Rick Byrd. After 33 years, 713 Belmont victories and 14 conference championships, Byrd retired. Murray faces a season without the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, Ja Morant. All Morant did last year was put together a historic season of scoring, assisting and dunking his way into the national consciousness.
Murray State head coach Matt McMahon is optimistic about his returning players and incoming recruits, and Belmont replaced Byrd with former Bruin player Casey Alexander. The 47-year-old Alexander had great success in Belmont’s backyard as the head coach at Lipscomb and seems poised to successfully take the reins.
But those two adjustments are major.
The next two in line
Last year’s OVC race was a great one. The Bruins, Racers, Jacksonville State and Austin Peay were the top four teams in the league and the regular season title was up for grabs late into the season. JSU (24-9, 15-3) and APSU (22-11, 13-5) are snapping at the heels of the OVC’s most recognizable programs.
As a matter of fact, the Gamecocks won the 2017 tournament title and the Governors turned the trick in 2016. Austin Peay’s Terry Taylor is arguably the best returning OVC player. The 6’7 senior was the 2016 freshmen of the year and has been a first-team all conference player during his first two seasons.
JSU head coach Ray Harper has reloaded with Division I and junior college transfers every season, and his team plays tenacious defense. These two programs have changed the OVC from “Belmont and Murray and everyone else” to a legitimate four-heavyweight conference.
Why the schedule favors Jacksonville State
While the home-and-home between Belmont and Murray State is the headlining thought, Jacksonville State possesses the most favorable Ohio Valley path. The Gamecocks play Belmont twice, but their games against Murray State and Austin Peay are both at home. Belmont has six games against its chief rivals, and Murray and Austin Peay play five. JSU battles the other top contenders only four times during their 18-game OVC schedule and three of those contests are at home.
Ray Harper’s team was 11-1 at Pete Matthews Coliseum including victories over Belmont and Murray State. Their only loss at The Pete was to Austin Peay.
Belmont’s Death Valley
The Bruins play five games against their top rivals in one six-game stretch. How they survive that grind will likely determine their conference fate. From Jan. 23 to Feb. 8 they (in order) travel to Murray State, Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State. Then they return to the Curb Center to entertain Murray and APSU.
Six Key Ohio Valley Conference Dates
January 9 – Murray State at Jacksonville State
January 23 – Belmont at Murray State
February 1 – Belmont at Jacksonville State
February 6 – Murray State at Belmont
February 13 – Murray State at Austin Peay
February 29 – Austin Peay at Murray State