Rick Byrd knows only trouble can come from talking about the NCAA Tournament in late January.
The Belmont coach, however, understands his Bruins are in a unique situation in their first year in the Ohio Valley Conference. With a 16-4 record, a 7-0 mark in league play following a 64-63 victory at Morehead State on Thursday and an RPI of 23, Belmont fits the profile of a mid-major program with a chance to snag an at-large berth from a power conference.
“I’ve said to this our team — we could be playing for an NCAA Tournament berth every time we take the floor,” Byrd said. “And that’s worth playing for. And not everybody else in this league can say that. It makes every game for us more important than a normal year.”
Even so, a perfect or near-perfect mark in OVC play might not be enough for the Bruins if they slip up and fail to win the conference tournament and the league’s automatic berth.
That is the analysis of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who has served as the network’s resident bracketologist for more than 17 years. Lunardi, who correctly projected 67 of the 68 teams in last year’s field, currently sees Belmont as a 12 seed and the OVC's only representative in the NCAA Tournament. He says the Bruins sit on the good side of the at-large bubble but their margin of error is miniscule.
“The best possible scenario is that Belmont runs the table [goes undefeated in league play] and then loses in the final 90-89 at the buzzer in quadruple overtime, right?” Lunardi said. “There is almost no loss that they can have at this point from a team evaluation perspective that is a good loss. That is more of a comment on Murray [State] than it is on Belmont. Murray is clearly nowhere near where it was a year ago. Therefore, even beating Murray in the regular season and then losing in the conference tournament, Belmont’s numbers are only going to go down at this point. They’ve maxed out what they can do.”
With the addition of Belmont, the OVC hoped to strengthen its case for receiving two bids to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — something it has done just once, in 1987.
But Lunardi believes crippling that case is last year’s national darling, Murray State, isn’t as dominant. A year ago, the Racers lost just one game in the regular season — to Tennessee State — and stayed in the RPI top 30. They won the OVC tournament crown but with a 29-1 record most likely would have received an at-large bid if they had lost.
This year, they have a respectable 14-4 mark and sit atop the OVC West Division at 5-1 but the NCAA’s weekly RPI ranks them 95th. According to WarrenNolan.com, Murray State has just one win over an RPI top 100 team (St. John’s) with four losses (Colorado, Dayton, Valparaiso and EKU).
Belmont is 6-2 against RPI top 100 teams, with road losses to Kansas (No. 3) and VCU (No. 27). While the Bruins pulled off a road upset at Stanford in November that win carries less weight now. Stanford is just 11-7 and 2-3 in the Pac-12. In fact, Belmont’s biggest RPI win was at home in December against Middle Tennessee State, which ranks 36th in the NCAA and 37th at WarrenNolan.com.
“Frankly, Murray’s schedule has been a disappointment probably because nobody wanted to play them,” Lunardi said. “But the reality is neither of them has the beef on the résumé that is needed. It is not so much an RPI issue as it is who you’d beat that is going to be in the field? That fundamentally is what it is all about.”
According to Lunardi, the opportunity for building signature wins at this point for either program — beyond playing each other — is scarce. In conference RPI ratings, the OVC ranks 16th among 33 leagues. Though Belmont, EKU, Murray and TSU all are in the top 100, half of the league’s 12 teams have RPIs worse than 200.
But a big-time, non-conference win could be there for the taking for the Bruins.
On Feb. 4, ESPN will announce the matchups for its 11th annual BracketBusters, which pits potential mid-major NCAA Tournament hopefuls from across the country against each other. This year 112 teams from 15 conferences will participate, including Belmont and the OVC. The Bruins, along with Murray and TSU, are designated as hosts on Feb. 23. Of the visiting teams, No. 17 Creighton is the best available. If Belmont and the Bluejays (17-3) are paired, a Bruins' win could be an NCAA Tournament game-changer.
“Is that a win that could change the math a little bit?” Lunardi said. “If they get the best available team and win then that’s a different picture all together. But it is just extremely unlikely. When one-bid leagues are not one-bid leagues, that’s the exception. They’re called one-bid leagues for a reason. It is not a derogatory term; it simply means historically this league gets one bid 95 percent of the team.”
Byrd, Belmont and the OVC just hopes this year they fall in that remaining five percent.
“There is a case for any team,” Byrd said. “I think you take the teams individually. It is harder for the OVC, the Atlantic Sun, the Southern Conference and the Big South and on and on and on to maintain an RPI that looks attractive when [the NCAA Tournament committee] all sit down at the table.”