Undeniably, the story of the Ohio Valley Conference in 2014-15 and for much of the past 30 years starts with the Murray State Racers. The story of OVC basketball at the moment, though, currently features equal parts of the Racers and the Belmont Bruins.
Murray State was one of the most-discussed teams in the country by the end of this season after a blazing run through the regular season. The Racers shook off a shaky start to win 25 straight games, gained a spot in the national rankings and were a hot topic for their at-large candidacy for the NCAA Tournament.
Success is nothing new in Murray, Ky., though. The Racers have won 17 OVC regular season titles and 13 tourney titles for 13 NCAA bids in the last 28 years. Going back three decades now, Murray State is the clear class of the Ohio Valley.
That doesn’t mean MSU doesn’t have a worthy challenger for the title of the OVC’s best program right now. When Belmont stunned Murray State in the OVC tournament final, it gave the Bruins their seventh NCAA Tournament berth in the last 10 years. All seven of those have come via the automatic bid route-first in the Atlantic Sun, now in the OVC-and Gonzaga is the only other school over that time to earn as many automatic bids.
It’s well known that Rick Byrd has a quality program at Belmont, but perhaps not understood just how consistently good that program is. The Bruins have become a full-fledged NCAA Tournament regular-albeit one still looking for their first win in the Big Dance.
Belmont has slipped seamlessly into the Ohio Valley since moving over from the A-Sun. If there was any question how the Bruins would adjust, there is no more.
The addition of the Bruins has been everything the OVC could’ve asked for. The league now has two sturdy programs who are regularly in at least the top 75 nationally. Belmont and Murray State have met in the OVC tournament final two of the last three years, and both were down-to-the-wire thrillers. In fact, the series between the two the last three years has been as entertaining as any in the country, full of well-played offense by both squads.
Murray State and Belmont are leading an upswing for the ancient OVC. The conference set a league record with five teams advancing to postseason tourneys, and for the second straight year performed well in those events. Murray State advanced to the NIT quarterfinals before losing on a buzzer-beater to Old Dominion. Tennessee-Martin also advanced to the CIT semifinals and Eastern Kentucky made it to the CIT quarters before falling to UT-Martin. Even Eastern Illinois won its opening game in the CIT. One of the better secrets in the country is that OVC teams are now 15-8 in the postseason over the last two years. That’s a positive that shows the league has been more than just the now-two signature programs it currently houses.
|SE Missouri State||7-9||13-17|
Murray State was easily the OVC’s best team in the regular season, but the Racers never quite completely showed it in the conference tourney. Meanwhile, Belmont turned the tables from a year earlier, this time playing the part of underdog with a red-hot shooting performance a year after being victimized as the favorite in such a role.
It all led to a memorable OVC title game, with the top-seeded Racers and No. 2 seed Bruins facing off. Murray State and Belmont both shot better than 50% and combined for 26 three-pointers. The Bruins hit 15 of them, and the final one by Taylor Barnette came with 3.2 seconds left. Belmont earned an 88-87 win in a game with ebbs and flows that had 10 ties and 12 lead changes. The Bruins gained a measure of revenge in the OVC final a year after Eastern Kentucky hit five three-pointers in the first six minutes, racing out to a quick 15-point lead and never trailing in defeating then-top seed Belmont.
The semifinals were equally suspenseful. No. 5 seed Morehead State gave Murray State all it could handle in the first semi, coming back from an 11-point halftime deficit to take an 11-point lead with 6:31 to play. The Racers clawed back, though, taking the lead on a three-pointer by Payne with 54 seconds left and surviving two missed threes by the Eagles in the final seconds for an 80-77 win. Belmont also came ever so close to being knocked out in the semifinals, trailing No. 3 Eastern Kentucky most of the game and withstanding a missed shot at the buzzer by Corey Walden to win 53-52.
The earlier two rounds of the tourney were light on intrigue save for a terrific opening game. Morehead State and No. 8 SE Missouri State engaged in a terrific back and forth, with 18 ties and 17 lead changes. The Eagles hit six free throws in the final minute, though, and won 79-74. The other first round game saw sixth-seeded Eastern Illinois over 7 seed SIU-Edwardsville, while the quarterfinals saw a light upset with Morehead State eliminating No. 4 UT-Martin 76-65 before Belmont blew out Eastern Illinois 97-64.
Player of the Year: Cameron Payne, G, So., Murray State
Freshman of the Year: Cornell Johnston, G, Eastern Illinois
Defensive Player of the Year: Corey Walden, G, Sr., Eastern Kentucky
Coach of the Year: Steve Prohm, Murray State
Craig Bradshaw, G, Jr., Belmont
Cameron Payne, G, So., Murray State
Eric Stutz, F, Sr., Eastern Kentucky
Corey Walden, G, Sr., Eastern Kentucky
Jarvis Williams, F, Sr., Murray State
- Murray State won 25 straight games at one point, the longest win streak in the OVC’s 68-year history, and also appeared in the national rankings.
- UT-Martin posted a 13-win increase from 8-23 to 21-13, the fourth-largest in NCAA Division I behind only Temple (17-win increase), UC Davis (16) and Northern Iowa (15).
- Murray State and UT-Martin tied Albany for the nation lead for most true road wins with 12 each.
- Murray State’s Payne was named a third team All-American by CBSSports.com and an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press.
- The OVC was well represented among the NCAA statistical leaders. Belmont’s Evan Bradds led the country in field goal percentage (68.8%), while Eastern Kentucky’s Walden was first in steals (3.6 per game). EKU also led the nation in turnover margin (+7.2) and was second in free throw percentage (77.9%) and steals per game (9.7).
What we expected, and it happened: Murray State was the runaway best team in the OVC, one of the most entertaining teams to watch anywhere, and Cameron Payne continued a very rapid rise from unknown freshman to one of the best players in the country.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Morehead State looked primed for serious contention in the OVC but did not make a jump, holding steady at 10-6 in the conference and failing to pull out wins in a number of close shaves against good teams out of league.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: One of the biggest surprises in the nation was at Tennessee-Martin, where first-year coach Heath Schroyer took the Skyhawks from 8-23 to 21-13 and a trip to the CIT semifinals.
Teams on the rise: Belmont, Eastern Illinois. It’s not that they’re anywhere near the bottom already, but the Bruins could be a threat to run the table in the OVC the way Murray State did this year. Jay Spoonhour looks set to take the next step at EIU, establishing the Panthers as a consistent first-division club.
Team on the decline: Murray State. Look, the Racers will always be a contender in the OVC, but new coach Matt McMahon is reloading after the departure of four starters.
2015-16 Conference Outlook
It gets harder and harder to pick against Belmont, and that’ll be especially true next year. The Bruins will return four starters, including the high-scoring Bradshaw and super-efficient Bradds, who continues to get better. Belmont must replace point guard Reece Chamberlain, who was one of the better distributors in the country, but if a suitable replacement is found, the Bruins can be even better than last year’s team that finished so strong.
Another reason why Belmont is easy to pick is that every other top OVC team is facing significant personnel losses. Murray State loses Payne and three other starters, Eastern Kentucky will dearly miss Stutz and Walden, and UT-Martin, Morehead State and Eastern Illinois were all hit hard by graduation. In that regard, it looks like a reloading year for the conference, though the winning tradition of Murray State and the coaching talent in the league suggests most of these teams won’t fall too far.
Coaching changes also will be a story to watch. Along with Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, SE Missouri State and SIU-Edwardsville all will welcome new coaches. There is room for new coaches at Murray and EKU to make a big splash right away, or perhaps for a team like SEMO or SIUE to make a big jump in the first year under new leaders the way Schroyer elevated UT-Martin in his first year.