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OVC Tournament Preview: Who reigns amid the chaos?

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Anyone who claims to know the favorite between Austin Peay, Murray State, and Belmont is a liar.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 09 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament - Team v Team Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

All year long, the Ohio Valley Conference title chase has been a three-horse race with the Austin Peay Governors, Belmont Bruins, and Murray State Racers all jockeying for the regular season championship.

After falling to SIU Edwardsville in the first game of OVC play, preseason favorite Belmont faced an uphill battle to get back into title contention. However, the Bruins minimized bad losses and beat both Murray State and Austin Peay in consecutive games during their current 10-game win streak.

Despite having beaten Belmont this year, both the Governors and the Racers fell to Eastern Illinois in the waning weeks of conference play, putting them into a position where their Leap Day showdown decided which one would share the OVC title with the Bruins. Ultimately, Murray State prevailed, meaning that the conference’s tiebreaker rules came into play for seeding purposes:

Bracket

OVC Sports

Schedule

First Round (Wednesday, March 4) — ESPN+

Game 1: No. 5 Tennessee State Tigers vs. No. 8 Morehead State Eagles, 7:30 p.m. ET

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Game 2: No. 6 Eastern Illinois Panthers vs. No. 7 Jacksonville State Gamecocks, 9:30 p.m. ET

Quarterfinals (Thursday, March 5) — ESPN+

Game 3: Game 1 Winner vs. No. 4 Eastern Kentucky Colonels, 7:30 p.m. ET

Game 4: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 3 Austin Peay Governors, 9:30 p.m. ET

Semifinals (Friday, March 6) — ESPNU

Game 5: Game 3 Winner vs. No. 1 Belmont Bruins, 8 p.m. ET

Game 6: Game 4 Winner vs. No. 2 Murray State Racers, 10 p.m. ET

Championship (Saturday, March 7) — ESPN2

Game 7: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 8 p.m. ET

The Favorites

Austin Peay: Led by likely OVC Player of the Year Terry Taylor, the Governors were dead-set on joining the party at the top of the conference after spending last season sitting in Murray State and Belmont’s shadows. Despite losing five key seniors from last year’s team, Matt Figger’s squad has managed to maintain the offense efficiency that made them such a lethal wild card in last year’s OVC race. Yet, their inability to play effective defense sent them to their doom in each of their three OVC losses.

Belmont: After losing a go-to guy like Dylan Windler to the NBA and a head coach to retirement, it was going to take time for the Bruins to get a feel for how they fit together without having a player who can single-handedly salvage any offensive possession. Fortunately for them, Adam Kunkel came out of nowhere this year to lead the team in scoring (16.9 ppg) after seeing only nine minutes of action per game last year. Additionally, sophomores Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy have stepped up in a major way. This is a young team, but they’ve been here before and have finally found a way to play together. They’re more than capable of cutting down the nets in Evansville.

Murray State: Much like Belmont, Murray State suffered from losing a go-to guy to the NBA, as Ja Morant is now busy making money with the Memphis Grizzlies. They also lost Defensive Player of the Year Shaq Buchanan to graduation and standout center Darnell Cowart to an injury that has kept him sidelined since late December. Yet, Tevin Brown has done a phenomenal job attempting to step into Morant’s shoes, as he plays nearly every minute of every game, allowing the offense to go through him. Also worth noting is the emergence of KJ Williams, a sophomore big man who has filled in superbly in Cowart’s absence. This could perhaps be Matt McMahon’s best coaching job yet if he can get this team that has lost so much to another OVC championship.

The Dark Horse

Eastern Illinois: Ordinarily, Eastern Kentucky would be seen as the dark horse in this tournament due to their frenetic pace. However, Eastern Illinois has beaten both Murray State and Austin Peay in the past nine days. In both of those wins, Josiah Wallace was able to go toe-to-toe with stars like Terry Taylor. This team is one of the most experienced and tight-knit squads in the country — two factors that tend to will teams to wins around this time of the year and are needed to pull off multiple wins in a multi-day conference tournament.

Players to Watch

  • Terry Taylor — Austin Peay
  • Tevin Brown — Murray State
  • Grayson Murphy — Belmont
  • Jomaru Brown — Eastern Kentucky
  • Josiah Wallace — Eastern Illinois
  • Nick Muszynski — Belmont
  • Jordan Walker — Morehead State
  • KJ Williams — Murray State

Prediction

I think Murray State cuts the nets down for the third consecutive year. While Belmont has a beneficial draw, the Racers are going to enter their title game matchup with the Bruins tested and toughened after a third go-around with Austin Peay. Belmont might be rolling with a full head of steam into this championship matchup that features a clash of talented sophomore leaders, but it will have been almost a month since they will have actually seen tough competition. Murray State has already shown it can beat this Bruins team even if Belmont is nailing perimeter shots, and I don’t believe Tevin Brown will be denied his chance at glory.