Even though the conference is split by divisions, the Ohio Valley Conference was a distinct three-team race last year. And though just one of those three made the NCAA Tournament, it can be said that all three ended their seasons on a high note.
Eastern Kentucky won the OVC Tournament and the league’s automatic NCAA bid, as the Colonels’ veteran team knocked off the top two seeds. The season was a success for EKU, a perimeter-oriented team that was expected to be around the top of the OVC, maximized its talent and gave Kansas a serious run in the NCAAs.
Belmont wasn’t expected to be the OVC’s best regular season team again, but the Bruins reloaded once more and were just that. A loss in the OVC tourney final was a small blight on the season, but Belmont advanced to the NIT quarterfinals and was just a couple minutes from a trip to New York for the semifinals, leading Clemson by five late before losing 73-68.
Expectations also were relatively modest for Murray State after it returned just one starter. Instead, the Racers also reloaded with new talent and finished just behind Belmont for the best record in the league. Murray was knocked out in the OVC semifinals in a dandy game with Eastern Kentucky, but then won five straight games and the College Insider Tournament title.
Unfortunately, the OVC’s play last year fell off after those top three, as evidenced by a 24th-place finish in conference RPI. Having a few teams carry the torch hasn’t done the OVC too much wrong of late, though, with wins in the NCAA Tournament four straight years from 2009-12, Murray State’s top 10 ranking two years ago and Belmont receiving some national recognition in its first two years in the conference. If the worst that can be said of this proud regional conference full of mid-sized schools is that its quality at the bottom doesn’t always match that at the top…why, the OVC is still doing pretty well for itself, thank you.
|SE Missouri State||8-8||18-14|
Eastern Kentucky earned the OVC title with three wins in three days from a No. 3 seed in a tourney that is built to get the top two teams to the championship game. The two division champions receive byes to the semifinals, while teams 5-8 play an opening round and must win four games to take the title.
The first two rounds went according to form. No. 5 Tennessee Tech quickly ended eighth-seeded SIU-Edwardsville’s first OVC tourney 74-67, and No. 6 SE Missouri State handled No. 7 Eastern Illinois 79-61. No. 4 Morehead State then eliminated Tennessee Tech 76-61, and Eastern Kentucky held off SEMO 84-76 after the Red Hawks cut a 22-point deficit to six late.
Top-seeded Belmont pounded Morehead State 86-63 in the first semifinal, while the second one was terrific. No. 2 seed Murray State led just once (briefly, early in the first half) but the Racers hung around and finally tied the game when T.J. Sapp hit a three-pointer with 1:42 left. Eastern Kentucky’s Corey Walden responded with a three-point play and a layup, and the Colonels held on for an 86-83 win.
Belmont was the favorite in the title game, but Eastern Kentucky took control from the start. The Colonels hit four straight three-pointers for a 12-0 lead less than four minutes in, and Belmont could do no better than tie the rest of the way. EKU hit 11 of 22 three-pointers, with Corey Walden scoring 29 points, Glenn Cosey 23 and Tarius Johnson 15 in a 79-73 win that sent Eastern to the NCAA Tournament and Belmont to the NIT.
Player of the Year: J.J. Mann, Belmont
Freshman of the Year: Cameron Payne, Murray State
Defensive Player of the Year: Corey Walden, Eastern Kentucky
Coach of the Year: Rick Byrd, Belmont
Glenn Cosey, G, Sr., Eastern Kentucky
J.J. Mann, G/F, Sr., Belmont
Patrick Miller, G, Sr., Tennessee State
Cameron Payne, G, Fr., Murray State
Tyler Stone, F, Sr., SE Missouri State
- Belmont won at North Carolina, one of the signature non-conference upsets of the season. The Bruins owned the OVC’s top three wins out of conference, also winning at Middle Tennessee State and defeating Indiana State
- Murray State won the College Insider Tournament, while Belmont advanced to the NIT quarterfinals
- The OVC featured plenty of scoring. Five OVC squads finished in the top 45 in NCAA Division I in scoring, and Tennessee State’s Miller was fifth nationally in scoring (23.7 ppg).
What we expected, and it happened: Three of the four prohibitive favorites to compete for the OVC title-Belmont, Eastern Kentucky and Murray State-were the best teams in the conference.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: SE Missouri State was a minor disappointment, never challenging for the OVC title despite having one of the league’s top players in Stone.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Tennessee State fell off a cliff, from 18-15 in 2012-13 to just 5-25 this year. A step back for the Tigers was expected; 5-25 was not.
Team on the rise: Murray State. The Racers are set up for another excellent year and will be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the country.
Team on the decline: Eastern Kentucky, at least this year. It’s going to be hard for the Colonels to duplicate last season with the departure of four of their top five scorers.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Teams who return a lot of starters typically are favorites (and rightfully so in many cases), so Murray State is likely to be tabbed the team to beat in 2014-15. And the Racers deserve to have high expectations-no less than four players will be serious candidates for the all-OVC first team. Get to know the name Cameron Payne. The soon-to-be sophomore guard has All-American potential and maybe was the best freshman in the country last season that you never heard about.
Don’t overlook Belmont, though. Rick Byrd has adapted to personnel losses time and again, and his teams have earned the benefit of the doubt. The Bruins have been to six NCAA tourneys in the last nine years, and the NIT or CIT quarterfinals in two other years. Belmont will seemingly always shoot the three well and always wear teams out with its system.
The other team to keep an eye on is Morehead State. Four starters return, plus the Eagles add three Division I transfers, two from LSU. Morehead is another program that has built up equity to be considered a first division team every year until proven otherwise.
The rest of the OVC is something of a mystery. Eastern Kentucky should slip back to the pack. SE Missouri State is a giant question mark-it’s hard to imagine SEMO will be better without Tyler Stone, but Dickey Nutt’s teams have surprised before. Austin Peay and Eastern Illinois would seem ready to make a jump, maybe SIU-Edwardsville, too. Tennessee Tech, Tennessee State, Jacksonville State and Tennessee-Martin all look to be rebuilding. On paper it looks like another top-heavy league. And the OVC has proven in the past that isn’t always such a bad thing.