With two wins this weekend Belmont can make Ohio Valley Conference history for the second time in as many as weeks.
Since the conference was founded in 1948, no first-year member, outside of that inaugural year, has won either the regular-season or tournament championship. The Bruins, in their first year in the OVC after leaving the Atlantic Sun, are halfway there.
After locking up the outright regular-season title last week, Belmont eyes another crown when the Tournament begins Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium. But a trio of contenders, including the teams that handed the Bruins their only conference losses – Murray State and Tennessee State – stand in the way.
“I think there are more teams legitimately capable of winning the championship game than we’ve ever faced,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “I think there is a lot of balance. I don’t think there is any question the quality of depth we’re facing this year is probably tougher than any other time than we have been able to win the championship in the tournament while we were in the Atlantic Sun.”
By earning the No. 1 seed, Belmont (24-6, 14-2) receives a double bye into the semifinals and won’t play until Friday night. Murray State (20-9, 10-6) secured the No. 2 seed and the other double bye by winning the West Division title. Eastern Kentucky (23-8, 12-4) and TSU (17-13, 11-5) are the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, respectively, after finishing behind Belmont in the East Division.
All four boast legitimate shots at taking away the crown.
“When you’re talking about this time of year you talk about one-possession games,” EKU coach Jeff Neubauer said. “I think that is what everybody expects as we go to Nashville. The teams that have defensive mentality and really guard those are the teams that are successful in tournament play.”
Murray is attempting to become the tournament’s first repeat champions since it won three in a row from 1997-99.
But last year’s national darling limps into the eight-team tournament. Despite bringing back All-American and reigning OVC Player of the Year Isaiah Canaan, the Racers have fallen short of expectations created by last season's 30 wins. Murray has victories over Belmont and TSU but has lost four of its last six, including its final two home games.
“I think this year’s team plays the best when they have to be on edge a little bit,” Murray State coach Steve Prohm said. “I think everybody has counted us out. If you talk to everybody they say, ‘Murray is probably done.’ We’re OK with people thinking that. We’ll be there Friday night ready to go.”
Besides Belmont, EKU is the only other OVC team with an RPI better than 100. The Colonels check in it at 66 with a school-record 23 wins.
Armed with sharp-shooting point guard Mike DiNunno, EKU is one of the more balanced scoring teams in the league. The Colonels knocked off Murray earlier in the year, split with TSU and lost two tight battles to Belmont.
“I think Jeff’s teams have played consistently as good and as hard as anybody in this league,” Byrd said. “They bring a lot of energy and effort every time. As I’ve scouted teams, I don’t know if I saw any team all year long play harder every time I watched them play than they do.”
Last year, TSU was just five minutes from winning the conference tournament and punching its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Four returners are back from that near miss against Murray State.
“I think it has motivated them a lot,” TSU coach Travis Williams said. “You could touch it, taste it and feel it, they came so close. So they have a sense of appreciation of what it takes. So hopefully we get the opportunity to take it all the way. We’ve just got to make sure guys stay focused – that is the key.”
Behind the trio of NBA draft hopeful Robert Covington, versatile wing Kellen Thornton and point guard Patrick Miller the Tigers have shown glimpses of brilliance. But they have fallen victim to inconsistency and slow starts, which have cost them. The latest dry spell occurred in a thrilling 101-100 loss to Morehead State last week.
Morehead is the only team to beat TSU twice this season and those two could meet for a third time in the quarterfinals if Morehead beats No. 8 seed Tennessee-Martin in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
If TSU advances to the semifinals, it will set up a local showdown against Belmont for the third time. The Bruins held off a late TSU charge in January. But the Tigers dominated their Valentine’s Day matchup, handing Belmont an 80-69 loss – the Bruins’ worst loss of the season behind a 29-point drubbing by then-No. 9 Kansas.
“We don’t have to remember very far back to know that Tennessee State whipped us straight up,” Byrd said. “If it turns out to be them I may be doing commentating on that [championship] game Saturday.”
Since that loss to TSU, the Bruins have won four straight. In fact, their record is 15-2 since the beginning of January. A balanced, high-scoring, veteran squad with a deep backcourt, Belmont has an RPI of 23 and a non-conference strength of schedule of No. 2 nationally.
A serious candidate for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, Belmont is the favorite to leave with the title. But several contenders hope to throw a wrench into the Bruins’ history-making run.
“It is going to be a grind. A lot of these games are going to go down to the wire,” Williams said. “The teams that are making good plays, executing their offense, getting good defensive stops are usually the teams that win the championship.”