By Alex Crow
The Ohio Valley Conference schedule has been a rollercoaster this season to say the least, with the top three teams within one game of each other. We’ve seen a couple teams look unbeatable in conference play, only to follow those performances up with questionable outings versus middling teams. Austin Peay started conference play 10-0, before splitting their remaining eight games, while Belmont started their OVC season 5-3 before rattling off 10 straight wins to close the regular season. And, in the midst of it all, a Ja Morant-less Murray State team gained a share of the OVC regular-season crown after compiling a 15-3 conference record. With such a top-heavy conference, viewers should be in for a great tournament, which begins tonight at 6:30pm, especially as it gets closer to the finals Saturday, March 7. Here are my thoughts on what will be arguably the most competitive tournament among non-power conferences.
Team To Watch: Belmont, 24-7 (15-3)
This may seem like an easy out considering they won a share of the regular-season title, but you can’t miss how hot the Bruins have been to close out their season. 10 straight victories is tough in any conference, and Belmont seems to be playing their best basketball at the perfect time leading into the tournament. The Bruins were undefeated in February, including wins at Eastern Kentucky and at home vs. Murray State and Austin Peay. One thing to note is that Belmont did split the season series with latter two teams, so they aren’t unbeatable, but they have been scorching hot, led by arguably the best trio in the conference in Adam Kunkel, Nick Muszynski and Tyler Scanlon, who combine to average 44.4 points per game. Add in a glue-guy like point-guard Grayson Murphy, and you’ve got a great core. As good as these players are on offense, the difference in the Bruins win streak has been on defense, where their opponents only broke the 70 point mark twice in the month of February. The bottom-line is that Belmont is hitting their stride at the right time and will be a tough out in the conference tournament.
Player To Watch: Terry Taylor, Guard, Austin Peay
Despite the Governors finishing third in the OVC, its hard to make a case against Terry Taylor, the 6-foot-5 guard for Austin Peay. Taylor leads the OVC in both points and rebounds per game, averaging a double-double with 21.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. It seems that when he is in the zone, Austin Peay is a tough team to beat, so his production should determine how far the Governors will go in the conference tournament. The game to watch will be the semifinal matchup with Murray State, who is looking to three-peat as the OVC Tournament champion, with that matchup set to happen on Friday (this is assuming Austin Peay defeats the winner of Eastern Illinois/Jacksonville St. in the quarterfinals Thursday). In the win vs. Murray State on February 14, Taylor posted a 16 point, 14 rebound statline in route to a three-point Governors win, while in a 14-point loss on February 29, he was only able to put up 9 points, 10 rebounds. With a guy like Taylor, the you can’t count out the Governors for the OVC tournament championship.
Tournament Champion Prediction: Belmont
With the top offense and second-best defense in the OVC, combine with the 10-game winning streak, Belmont looks to be the favorite to win the conference championship. They have the double-bye to begin the tournament, and then would likely play Eastern Kentucky (who, like Austin Peay, I predict to win their quarterfinals matchup), followed by the winner of Austin Peay/Murray State in the finals. I think there are really only two things that could stop the Bruins. One would be that the extended layoff cools them off, and they start slowly and fall behind vs. Eastern Kentucky and can’t dig themselves out of a hole. This phenomenon has been observed in all sports, so it will be first-year coach Casey Alexander’s job to keep the Bruins chomping at the bit during their little layoff. This is not his first coaching job, as prior to this year he was a very successful coach at Lipscomb, who made the NIT finals last year after advancing to the NCAA tournament in 2018, so this is not unfamiliar territory for Alexander. The second potential pitfall would be that the Bruins are undone by a superstar performance. I say this more with Austin Peay in mind, as the aforementioned Taylor, along with Jordyn Adams, can both go off any given night, considering that they rank first and fifth in OVC scoring respectively. In a game in which both of them come to play, Belmont could struggle, however they are still the number one offense in the OVC and will probably be able to offset any superhuman performances by individuals.
Overall, the OVC should provide lots of entertainment for college basketball fans who are waiting for the power conference tournaments to get rolling, and viewers should get a great show in the Thursday and Friday games, which will lead to one OVC team punching their ticket to the Big Dance, while the other teams are left out. With lots on the line, be sure to catch some Ohio Valley action all throughout this week, beginning tonight at 6:30pm.
Edited by Garrett Jones | firstname.lastname@example.org