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Can Belmont sweep the Ohio Valley?

The Bruins play second-place Morehead State on Saturday

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four- Belmont Bruins vs Temple Owls Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Belmont University has shared the Ohio Valley Conference spotlight with Murray State during their eight-plus years in the league. This year is different as the Bruins (21-1, 15-0) have dominated the league and it has been an off year for the Racers (9-9, 6-7).

There are new contenders and programs on the rise, but the real question is: Can Belmont sweep the OVC? The Bruins’ program success has spanned decades, coaches and players, but this team is something special.

Belmont ranks with the blue-bloods of college basketball in terms of winning percentage, conference titles, efficiency ratings and ranks most of them academically. But going undefeated in-conference during a pandemic-challenged season would be something special.

The closing gauntlet

Belmont’s final five games include this weekend’s contest with second-place Morehead State (16-6, 13-2). If any team will challenge the Bruins’ streak it will be Preston Spradlin’s Eagles or Eastern Kentucky. Thursday’s win at Tennessee State was Morehead’s program-tying 12-straight victory.

Morehead is the surprise team of the OVC. The Eagles were picked eighth in the league’s preseason poll after winning 13 games last season. Spradlin’s four previous teams won 14, 8, 13, and 13 games. Stingy defense has been the Eagles’ calling card. They are first in the OVC in scoring defense and defensive field goal percentage. MSU is the OVC’s top rebounding team, grabbing almost 38 per game and averaging eight more rebounds per game than their opponents.

Morehead rookie sensation Johni Broome leads three Eagles in double-figures scoring (12.8 PPG) and at 6’10 is one of the OVC’s top rebounders and shot blockers. Wright State transfer Skyelar Potter (11.1) and De’Von Cooper (11.5) are the other leading scorers.

The two teams play at Belmont on Saturday (4 p.m. CST on ESPN+) and at Morehead on the final day of the regular season. MSU is 10-1 at home. But, with just four games to play after Saturday, the Bruins could create a three-game cushion with a weekend home victory.

What about the Colonels?

Eastern Kentucky presents a different kind of problem. The Colonels press from the moment the opponent gets off the bus. They lead the nation in steals and are second in turnover margin. Though the Bruins handled them Thursday night (92-74), Belmont must make a return trip to Richmond, Kentucky the second-to-last game of the season.

EKU (15-5, 9-4) is off to its best start since the 1940s. Coach A.W. Hamilton’s team has been without All-OVC guard Jomaru Brown and leading scorer Brandon Knapper virtually all season and haven’t missed a beat. While they have lost three of their last four games, they come at you in waves and will be a dangerous team in Richmond. EKU is 8-2 at home, and due to COVID complications, the Colonels have just six games left. Except for the Belmont game, each contest is with a team in the lower half of the OVC standings.

Four active Colonels average in double figures and each of those players knows their specific role. Tre King leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Freshman Wendell Green scores well (14.5 ppg), but leads the conference in assists (5.5 per game). Michael Moreno is one of the OVC’s top long-distance marksmen. Another freshman, Curt Lewis, averages 10.2 points and all four of those players rank in the league’s top 10 in steals.

But can Belmont sweep?

Belmont’s offense is outstanding. Precision sets and cuts create easy shots and the Bruins lead the OVC in scoring, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Not surprisingly, they hand out the most assists (18.5 per game) of any OVC team as well and are sixth best-nationally.

Transfer guard Luke Smith says none of his Bruin teammates care who scores as long as they win. He suggests the 6’11 Nick Muszynski sets the tone. As OVC broadcaster Bob Belvin says, “Muszynski just gets it.” ‘He leads the team with a 15.1 scoring average, but is also handing out almost two assists per game.

The Bruins are versatile. Five players average double figures and Smith, a Division III transfer, leads the OVC in three pointers. Fellow guard Grayson Murphy is the guy that makes the offense function. Murphy is second to EKU’s Green in assists, leads the Bruins in rebounding (7.6 per game) and makes 63% of his field goal attempts.

Murphy and Smith are the OVC’s top two players in assist/turnover margin.

Belmont can also defend. It is third to Morehead and Murray State in scoring defense and the Bruins are second to EKU in team steals. Murphy may be the best defender in the league and Muszynski is third in shots blocked.

The Bruins will be favored to win the rest of their games, but it won’t be easy and despite their previous success, have never accomplished the feat in OVC play.

Difficult road games late in the season with the conference title likely wrapped by that time could create a letdown. While coach Casey Alexander would love an undefeated season, he’d prefer to win the OVC Tournament and play in the NCAA Tournament. Belmont has won 33 of its last 34 games and 27 straight against OVC competition. Alexander can feel the historical nature of this season.

The final five should be fun to watch.