When Belmont announced nearly two years ago it would join the Ohio Valley Conference, Kerron Johnson’s ears perked up.
Through occasional non-conference games against Tennessee State and Austin Peay, the Bruins’ point guard knew the OVC would offer more athleticism and physicality than the Atlantic Sun Conference. But Johnson and his teammates drooled over the opportunity to annually play another emerging mid-major power — Murray State.
“When we heard we were moving to the OVC, I think everybody circled that on their calendar as a big game,” Johnson said. “Two big programs going head-to-head to see who is on top of the OVC Who wouldn’t want to play in that game? I think that is a game we’ve looked forward to all year.”
The OVC’s top two teams clash for the first time this season when first-year member Belmont plays at Murray State on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPNU). The Bruins (19-4, 10-0) lead the East Division while Murray (16-5, 7-2) is atop the West Division.
“These are the kind of games that are fun about conference games,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd, whose team has won 10 straight. “The leading team in the East. The leading team in the West. If you can’t have fun in this game you need to play intramurals.”
According to Murray State coach Steve Prohm, the addition of Belmont is a welcome one that has bolstered the league’s reputation.
Last year, while still in the Atlantic Sun, Belmont drew an average of 2,012 fans per 14 home games. This season, in just 10 home games, the attendance has increased to 2,678 a game.
“Belmont brings another well known, very well respected program and one of the top coaches in the country into our league,” Prohm said. “The crowds are better. The rivalries are better. I think it is great for our league. The addition of them has been terrific but it also makes you have to raise your level in everything you do from day-to-day preparations and a recruiting standpoint. Because you know Belmont is going to be very, very good every year.”
After going 31-2, reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament and winning both the conference regular-season and tournament championships last year, the Racers have found it difficult to put together a similar record-breaking season. They’ve already doubled their conference losses from last year with one at home to Eastern Kentucky one on the road to Jacksonville State a couple weeks ago. On Saturday, they had to rally late and force overtime in order to dispatch of struggling Austin Peay.
Murray State still has All-American point guard Isaiah Canaan, who leads the league with 21 points a game was last season's OVC Player of the Year.
“I think a whole host of Belmont players will be guarding him at different times,” Byrd said. “He is explosive and he can get shots on his own any time down the floor. If he has one of those days where he makes a whole bunch of them we’re probably in trouble.”
Belmont’s backcourt tandem of Ian Clark (18.9 points per game) and Johnson (13.7) chose Belmont over Murray State. Clark leads the country in 3-point shooting at 51.1 percent (76-of-148).
Byrd expects forward Blake Jenkins to be back in the lineup after he missed Saturday’s game against Tennessee Tech with a wrist injury. Byrd said Jenkins (9.5 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game) was limited in practice on Tuesday and it would be a game-time decision whether he starts against Murray. Senior Brandon Baker grabbed five rebounds and went scoreless in his place.
“I’m totally confident [in Baker]," Byrd said. “It is more a depth issue that will hurt us more than anything else. Blake is a long, athletic, rebounder that we really could use in that game.”
This marks just the sixth time the programs have met. Belmont’s only win in the series came in the last meeting at Chattanooga on Dec. 30, 2007.
The winner will have a leg up on earning the top seed for the conference tournament in March. Byrd expects the CFSB Center to be near or at its capacity of 8,600. Murray is 50-6 at home over the last four years.
“They’ve got the tradition and they certainly have the greatest fan base in this league,” Byrd said. “We’ll get all the best that Murray has to offer in terms of the effort by their players and the anticipation by their fans. So it will be quite a test for us.”