Let's be honest from the jump: this is Belmont's tournament to lose. Belmont is the odds-on favorite to capture the title (53% per Kenpom), and the other competitors have their ups and downs, while the Bruins are pretty much up and climbing. So where does everyone stand?
Obviously, the Belmont Bruins. They've won six in a row and 11 of their last 12, with only two total conference losses this year. They led the nation in two-point field goal percentage last season, and they actually improved on that number this season. J.J. Mann will be gunning for his fourth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament and heads into this conference soiree averaging a robust 22.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as well as shooting a ridiculous 51% from distance.
Not surprisingly, the Murray State Racers are also coming together at the right time. With only one senior and three juniors remaining after Isaiah Canaan's departure, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and it started off looking like one as they entered conference play at 5-7 overall and 0-6 on the road. However, their juniors stepped forward and freshman Cameron Payne proved he was the real deal; over the same ten games span I referenced earlier, he averaged 17.2 points and 7.1 assists. Forgive them the season-ending loss in a nothing-to-play-for road outing: they're ready.
The Eastern Kentucky Colonels are the last team that can slide into this group after rattling off a four game winning streak (plus seven of their last nine) to slide into the tournament's #3 seed. This is perhaps a minor miracle considering they were out-rebounded in all but one of those games, but it's not surprising. EKU is next-to-last in the entire country in rebounding. Their team FG% (.485) is 18th in the country, but only fourth in the conference, which combined with their rebounding is unlikely to get them far, but perhaps recent success has changed them.
The Southern Illinois-Edwardsville Cougars are playing in their first ever OVC tournament, and they're sneaking their way in the back door. They were as high as fifth in the conference recently, but dropping four of their last five games has given them nothing to really hang their hat on coming into this bracket. They are very average at everything except rebounding, which they do pretty poorly, and they don't do anything else very well to compensate for that. I'm not sure what it says about the team that Donivine Stewart leads them in points, assists, steals and free throw percentage despite being one of only two underclassmen on the entire team, but expect an early exit from a team that only won nine games against Division I opponents.
Eastern Illinois joins SIU-E here even after handing the Cougars their third straight loss to end the regular season - a win they needed to make the tournament instead of Austin Peay. They are the least efficient offense in the tournament by every metric, and even scored fewer points per game than several teams that didn't make the bracket. Sherman Blanford has been a beast down low for the Panthers in his senior season, averaging 19.8 points and 9.7 rebounds over the last 10 games - but it hasn't kept EIU from going 5-5 in that span. Blanford is one of only four players on the team to play at least 20 games and at least 20 minutes per game.
The Southeast Missouri State Redhawks would appear to belong in the "Who's Hot" category given that they ended the season with a four-game winning streak, but this team went 8-8 in conference play for a reason. They played every team in the OVC West twice and didn't sweep anyone, including a Tennessee-Martin squad that only beat five other Division I squads all season. You might expect better from a team that finished sixth nationally in points per game (83.3) and feature's the conference's second and third leading scorers in Jarekious Bradley and Tyler Stone. Stone's gaudy 21 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.5 steals per game over the past 10 contests haven't been enough to win consistently, but "ridiculously good offense" is a nice skill to have as a fallback.
I'm putting Morehead State here because their three-game losing streak to end the season included a loss to Tennessee State (the team that won only four other games all year) and was preceded by needing double-overtime to defeat Austin Peay at home. Are the Eagles fading? I'm not sure, but they need to get the ball back to Chad Posthumus. The senior is averaging 10 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, and the team is 7-1 when he gets at least 10 field goal attempts, as well as 10-4 when he shoots at least six free throws - neither of which has happened in that three-game slide.
The Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles are probably the most unpredictable team in this tournament. Their quality wins this season have been over Belmont, Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State; they've also managed to lose to Tennessee State and Texas-Pan American, and nearly blew an eight point lead in the last 30 seconds against Lamar. Dwan Caldwell is perhaps the Golden Eagles in microcosm - five games with 16+ points, and another five games with four or fewer points.
I understand that there's only a 60 percent mathematical chance that this conference tournament results in a Belmont-Murray State final, but realistically I think the odds are substantially higher than that, and Rick Byrd should get ready for extended March practices.