All things considered, it looked like we were going to have a fairly quiet year when it came to unlikely conference tournament losers sparking major debate as Selection Sunday nears.
You can already throw that out the window. In a result that surprises but shouldn’t shock anyone, Belmont defeated Murray State 88-87 in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game Saturday night, clinching the first bid in this year’s NCAA Tournament field. The Bruins’ Taylor Barnette hit an incredible off-balance three-pointer for the winning points with 3.2 seconds left.
Murray State’s defense, improved much of the season after a brutal start, simply wasn’t enough in the OVC tourney. Morehead State was red-hot much of the second half until the Racers rallied late in the semifinals, and Belmont shot better than 50% in Saturday’s game, which was terrific and very enjoyable to watch.
What to do with Murray State now? Despite a 27-5 record, the vast majority are going to dismiss its NCAA Tournament candidacy solely on numbers. The Racers have just one top 100 win-over No. 71 Illinois State (one that ironically looks much better today than it did yesterday). They only played three top 100 teams. Fifteen of their wins are over teams ranked below 200 in the RPI.
This is one case, though, where the numbers do not tell the entire story. Murray State was a far different team in its last 25 games or so than in its first couple of the season. Anyone who watched this team in its opening six games and then later in the season could see it-there was no comparison. The Racers had the talent to be this good, but it took a couple games to get going. Since a 2-4 start, though, Murray was the second-hottest in its state-behind Kentucky-and perhaps the second-hottest in the country.
We also know that some TV heads love to talk about the “eye test.” For those who insist on this, please apply it to Murray State. In its win streak, the games were rarely close; the Racers won by an average of 15 points per game. The national ranking was not a mirage; Murray State earned it. And it’s a team that features a star in Cameron Payne but also an outstanding starting five as a whole. (Also, in this season of so much “unwatchable” basketball, the Racers are anything but, averaging nearly 80 points per game.)
The discussion this week will often center on whether a team like Murray State deserves a bid over someone like Texas, Illinois or North Carolina State. What will be pushed by many is that the latter deserve the bids based on more top 50 wins.
The fact is, Texas is 3-11 against top 50 teams. Illinois is 3-6. N.C. State is 4-7. Given multiple opportunities to beat top 50 teams (mainly based on the birthright of their conference affiliation), we know these teams can pick off an occasional win but, as a group, will lose more than 70% of the time against top 50 teams. The evidence seems to practically guarantee it: they can win A game, but these are teams almost completely incapable of stringing together more than a win or two in the NCAA Tournament.
We don’t know if a team like Murray State is capable of doing so, because teams like Texas, Illinois and N.C. State refuse to play them. That’s why evaluating the Racers needs to come down to far more than pure numbers, because it’s flat-out wrong to penalize them for being snubbed in scheduling. That doesn’t mean Murray deserves a guaranteed spot in the field, but the Racers certainly do deserve a long, hard look for a bid, and should get it over teams that have already proven with plenty of opportunities that they have basically no chance to go deep in the NCAAs.
- Jerome Allen will not return as coach at Pennsylvania after this year, multiple sources reported on Saturday. A former star player at the school in the 1990s, Allen just never could get it going at Penn: he is 65-103 in his six-year career, with one game left against Cornell on Tuesday. (You can track all the coaching changes right here.)
- Bids No. 2, 3 & 4 are on the line with the Big South, MVC and Atlantic Sun championships. Winthrop will face host Coastal Carolina in the Big South, (12:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2), and while the Chanticleers are the defending champions, they did lose at home in the tourney in 2010, 2011 and 2013, including to the Eagles in the title game in 2010. No. 11 ranked Northern Iowa takes on upstart Illinois State in the title game for Arch Madness (2 p.m. EST, CBS). USC Upstate and North Florida face off in what should be an outstanding A-Sun final.
- America East semifinals include New Hampshire at Albany and Stony Brook at Vermont. Quality final four teams. Semifinals also will take place in the CAA (Hofstra vs. William & Mary, Northeastern vs. UNC-Wilmington, 2:30 & 5 p.m. EST, NBCSN), MAAC (Monmouth vs. Iona, St. Peter’s vs. Manhattan), Patriot League (Lafayette vs. Bucknell, American vs. Colgate) and Southern Conference, where top seed Wofford faces No. 4 Western Carolina and No. 3 Mercer takes on Cinderella Furman, the 10th seed which shocked 2 seed Tennessee-Chattanooga on Saturday.
- The final two Summit League quarterfinals feature South Dakota vs. IPFW and IUPUI against Oral Roberts.
- Tulsa and SMU (3 p.m. EST, ESPNU) battle for the AAC regular season title.
Have a terrific Sunday.