For two decades, the Ohio Valley Conference served as little more than a doormat in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The league suffered 20 straight first-round losses from 1990 to 2009. Just four of those games were decided by fewer than 10 points. OVC teams were a steppingstone for powerhouses like Michigan State, Duke, Illinois, North Carolina and Kentucky.
But after two forgetful decades, the Brentwood-based league has shown a flair for the dramatic in its last two first-round appearances — both of which were victories.
Murray State snapped the skid in 2010 with a buzzer-beater over Vanderbilt and went toe-to-toe with eventual national runner-up Butler in the second round. A little more than a week ago, Morehead State stunned Louisville as Whites Creek grad Demonte Harper drained a 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds left to lift the Eagles to a one-point triumph.
Both Murray and Morehead were 13 seeds and shocked a pair of No. 4 seeds that brought a lot of tradition with them.
“OVC is not that conference that people can say, ‘Oh, you’re going to get a 16 seed and you’re going to get run over by the No. 1 seed,’ ” Morehead State center Kenneth Faried said. “It’s a league that people respect now. They look at us and say, ‘OK. This is a threat.’ ”
Morehead State wasn’t the only representative of a mid-major conference this season that made it to the round of 32 or beyond. Richmond, of the Atlantic 10, also picked up an opening day win against No. 5 seed Vanderbilt and followed that up by defeating Morehead to advance to the Sweet 16. And Butler (Horizon) advanced to the second weekend for the second straight year.
Virginia Commonwealth (Colonial) became the first team from the newly expanded field of 68 to win three games in five days — including victories over Georgetown and Purdue — as it reached the Sweet 16. BYU and San Diego State — both out of the Mountain West — joined the Rams there.
“There is a lot of parity in college basketball,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “You always hear that word, but it’s true.”
What the OVC has done in the last two years, though, is rare. Having a mid-major conference with two different teams to win an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive years doesn’t happen very often.
Of course, the Atlantic 10 (if you can even call it "mid-major") might be the exception. Xavier, Temple and Richmond have all picked up first-round wins in the last two years. The West Coast Conference is primarily a one-team show with Gonzaga; St. Mary’s emerged last year, making it to the Sweet 16, but has shown little since. Butler has helped put the Horizon League on the map. And while Northern Iowa shocked the college basketball world by upsetting overall No. 1 seed Kansas last year, the usually competitive Missouri Valley Conference failed to get out of the first round this year as Indiana State lost to Syracuse.
But those three leagues are considered a lot larger than the one-bid Ohio Valley Conference, which spans five states and has four teams in Tennessee.
“I certainly think we’re one of the best mid-major conferences in the country,” Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall said. “When you talk about the Missouri Valley, you talk about the Atlantic 10, those leagues may be slightly better than us top to bottom. But the upper echelon of our league — the Murray States, Morehead States, Austin Peays — can be in any mid-major league in America.”
Until a few years ago, there was a reason the Ohio Valley wasn’t getting much love from outsiders. The conference hasn’t had a team reach the regional semifinals since 1978, eight years before the tournament field expanded to 64 teams. Plus, the league didn’t have much parity, as Murray State reached the tournament 10 times during a 20-year span from 1990-2009.
While Murray State pulled the league out of the slump (technically Morehead State won a tournament game in 2009 when it defeated fellow No. 16 seed Alabama State in a play-in game before falling to overall No. 1 Louisville), this past season showed the OVC is not a one-horse race. With a month left in the regular season, under-the-radar Tennessee State shared the conference lead with Austin Peay. Murray State eventually won the regular season title but was upset by Tennessee Tech in the tournament semifinals.
And Morehead State proved that having a star-caliber player doesn’t hurt your chances of pulling off an upset.
Faried, a 6-foot-8, 228-pounder, was the pivotal piece to the puzzle. The New Jersey native was recruited by only one other school — Marist (N.Y.) — but eventually was revealed as a diamond in the rough. As a senior in 2010-11, he led the nation in rebounding (14.5 per game), broke Tim Duncan’s modern era career rebounding record and finished with 86 career double-doubles — one shy of Duncan.
But along with Faried, Morehead picked up key Notre Dame transfer in Ty Proffitt. The Eagles also had a quick shooter in guard Terrance Hill. And Demonte Harper, who got little recruiting interest from outside of the OVC, grew into the team’s second-leading scorer behind Faried.
“We’re not going to sign McDonald’s All-Americans. We’re not going to sign top-50 players at our schools,” Tyndall said. “But we can develop those guys we do sign to the point where they compete with those guys in year three and four.”
And not just compete, either. With its results in the last two NCAAs, the OVC has proven it can beat top teams.
“We have a bunch of gritty guys in this league who are underrated, and everybody just didn’t think we could make it in their league,” Faried said. “Now they say, ‘Hey, we may be kind of intimidated by the OVC because they do have guys that can play in our league and play at our level.’ ”