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Belmont the team to beat in the OVC, again

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Austin Peay, Morehead State and EKU are threats, but the Bruins remain the favorites

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Kentucky at Xavier Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhat underrated in the “best one-bid league” discussion, the Ohio Valley Conference was the only conference in the country this season to produce three 20-win teams.

Yes, that number is inflated by Belmont, Eastern Kentucky, and Morehead State fattening up on wins over a truly bad bottom tier of the league, but 20 wins in a pandemic-shortened season is no joke.

Belmont again enters as the favorite after running off a historically great conference winning streak, but recent stumbles and a tough field make this far from a cake walk. The aforementioned EKU and Morehead State will pose serious threats, while Austin Peay is home to the most dangerous player in the conference (Terry Taylor forever!).

One factor to watch: Normally, the top two teams in the OVC earn double-byes and the third and fourth-place finishers get single byes. This season, everyone is on equal footing with a traditional 1-8 tournament bracket.

Bracket:

Schedule:

Note: All games take place at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana. All times central.

Quarterfinals (Wednesday, March 3 and Thursday, March 4), ESPN+

Game 1: No. 1 Belmont vs. No. 8 SIUE, 7 p.m.

Game 2: No. 2 Morehead State vs. No. 7 SEMO, 9:30 p.m.

Game 3: No. 4 Jacksonville State vs. No. 5 Murray State, 7 p.m.

Game 4: No. 3 Eastern Kentucky vs. No. 6 Austin Peay, 9:30 p.m.

Semifinals (Friday, March 5), ESPNU

Game 5: Winner of game 1 vs. Winner of game 3, 7 p.m.

Game 6: Winner of game 2 vs. Winner of game 4, 9:30 p.m.

Final (Saturday, March 6), ESPN2

Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 7 p.m.

The Favorite:

Belmont (24-3, 18-2): Two straight losses to end the regular season may have ended their campaign for an at-large bid, but keep in mind that leading scorer Nick “Moose” Muszynski missed both due to injury. Moose and his efficient 15.2 points per game will be back in time for the first round matchup with SEMO.

The Bruins were unable to round up their usual stringent non-conference slate due to COVID-19 scheduling chaos, so they are just 0-1 in Q1 and Q2 games combined. But the prolific, egalitarian offense (six players average nine or more points per game) is still there and Swiss army knife point guard Grayson Murphy runs it to perfection.

The road to a title won’t be easy; there are six teams that could make a run to the OVC final. But the eye test says Belmont is once again one of the top mid-majors in the nation. They just have to take care of business over these next three contests.

The Dark horses:

Morehead State (20-7, 17-3): I’m not fully convinced in Morehead’s chances to dethrone Belmont. The Eagles were blown out at the Curb and it took overtime for them to beat a Moose-less Bruins in the regular-season finale. But Morehead is good. They have the best defense in the league and jack up 3s without abandon, a recipe for short-term, single-elimination success. Morehead and EKU split their two regular season matchups. If the Eagles can get past the Colonels in a potential semifinal showdown between two contenders, anything can happen in a championship game.

Eastern Kentucky (21-6, 15-5): This Eastern Kentucky team can score. They even score more than Belmont, a tough feat. If any one team is going to take down the Bruins, the Colonels are the best bet. They took care of a (again, Moose-less) Belmont late in the regular season in more impressive fashion than Morehead did. Freshman Wendell Green Jr. has been a revelation in the backcourt. He and Tre King lead a strong contingent of scorers that can play with anyone in the league.

The Longshots:

Jacksonville State (17-8, 13-6): The Gamecocks are a serious threat to make some surprise noise. They’ve won seven of their last eight, with the lone loss coming by four at Belmont. They’re peaking at the right time, and Darian Adams can get a bucket with the best of them. Landing as the 4 seed puts them on the Bruins side of the bracket, so a championship run will need a big semifinal upset.

Austin Peay (14-12, 10-10): This was supposed to be Austin Peay’s year. Coming off of a strong 2019-20 and returning most of their production, they were finally going to break-up the Belmont-Murray State duoply. Instead, it’s been an up-and-down year. But with Terry Taylor in tow, anything is possible.

Murray State (13-12, 10-10): This isn’t the same Murray State contender of recent seasons, but the Racers have competed with the top dogs throughout the regular season. KJ Williams and Tevin Brown make for a formidable duo.

Players to Watch:

Nick Muszynksi, Belmont (15.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 58.9% FG%)

Grayson Murphy, Belmont (10.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 5.4 APG)

Luke Smith, Belmont (12.3 PPG, 3.1 APG, 43.5% FG%)

Johni Broome, Morehead State (13.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 57.6% FG%)

DeVon Cooper, Morehead State (11.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 41.7% FG%)

Skyelar Potter, Morehead State (11.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 43.4% FG%)

Tre King, Eastern Kentucky (15.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 49.5 FG%)

Wendell Green Jr., Eastern Kentucky (15.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 5.1 APG)

Darian Adams, Jacksonville State (15.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.2 APG)

Jalen Finch, Jacksonville State (11.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 4.9 APG)

Terry Taylor, Austin Peay (21.9 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 52.5% FG%)

Jordyn Adams, Austin Peay (10.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.2 APG)

KJ Williams, Murray State (15.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 57.0% FG%)

Tevin Brown, Murray State (14.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.4 APG)

Chris Harris, SEMO (12.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.4 APG)

Mike Adewunmi, SIUE (12.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 47.7% FG%)

Prediction:

Despite a shaky end to the regular season the Bruins earn their second consecutive tournament crown and third straight NCAA bid, but not without a fight from upset-minder Austin Peay in the final.