Belmont probably hoped for more competition from the Ohio Valley Conference after winning the Atlantic Sun's regular-season title and conference tournaments in back-to-back years. They haven't found it so far, going 14-2 en route to a regular-season title. Will somebody stop them in the conference tournament?
All signs point to no. The Bruins were the cream of the crop in their old conference, winning the regular season in three of their last four years in the league. So far, they've blasted the doors off their new one as well, with three times as many wins by 30 points or more than losses. And although they didn't always find success winning the Atlantic Sun Tournament in Macon, Georgia, they'll find the location of their new league tourney quite pleasing. The Nashville Municipal Auditorium is just 3.6 miles away from their typical home site, the Curb Event Center, so the tournament could have a home-court feel.
Throw in a weird format that gives the Bruins a bye all the way until the tournament's semifinals, and one would expect Belmont to appear in the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year.
The OVC Tournament has one of the odder setups in the nation: now at 10 teams, the league split up into East and West. The winners of the two divisions — Belmont and Murray State — have byes to the semifinals, while the other six teams play a staggered bracket. It looks like this:
March 6: No. 6 SE Missouri vs. No. 7 Eastern Illinois, No. 5 Morehead State vs. No. 8 Tennessee-Martin
March 7: Winner SE Missouri/Eastern Illinois vs. No. 3 Eastern Kentucky, Winner Morehead State/Tennessee-Martin vs. No. 4 Tennessee State
March 8: Semifinals: SE Missouri/Eastern Illinois/Eastern Kentucky vs. No. 2 Murray State, Morehead State/Tennessee-Martin/Tennessee-State vs. No. 1 Belmont
March 9, ESPN2: Finals
Convoluted, huh? Considering the league has a pretty normal size — 10 teams — it would've been easy to just go with a pair of play-in games. If they really had their heart set on only eight teams making the conference tourney, an eight-team single-elimination bracket is one of the easiest to draw up. But instead, we have this. It's also weird that division winners get the double-byes, but the bracket itself has no relevance to the bracket — the teams on Murray State's side are not all necessarily from their division. The set-up hugely favors the Racers, who would have gotten the fourth seed, but won the West Division.
Belmont, and it's not particularly close. Their offense is superb — they have the No. 21 three-point percentage in the nation, shooting 38.1 percent from downtown. They up that by shooting a ridiculous 56.9 percent from inside the arc, the second-best figure in the country. They can also wreak havoc on defense, forcing steals on 13.8 of opposing possessions, the tenth-best percentage in the country. Ken Pomeroy's numbers show that this tournament really shouldn't be close, with the Bruins coming in at No. 40 in the nation and nobody else in the conference coming above No. 112. Sure, Belmont didn't have many great wins — of their 27 victories, only three came against teams in the top 100 of Pomeroy's numbers — but they aren't going to need to pull any off to win this tournament. They did lose two games in conference play, so they're not unstoppable, but it's worth noting that both of those games were on the road. They aren't technically playing at home, but just down the road at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, something the RPI would count as a semi-home game.
Murray State, winners of two of the last three OVC Tournaments, shouldn't be in the position that they're in: at 10-6, the Racers really should be the No. 4 seed. But luckily, the OVC opted to switch to reward division winners with a bye to the semis. Now that they're in that position, Murray State could be primed to capitalize. They just need to win one game against a team that will have played the day before, and they'll be in the conference championship game. If they do face Belmont, it's a matchup they'll take: the Racers already knocked off the Bruins, 79-74, behind 26 points from Isaiah Canaan in their only regular-season meeting. And when you remember Murray State's most famous basketball moment was a 13-4 upset of Vanderbilt a few years back, it's clear they already have a knack for upsetting teams from Nashville come March. The Racers boast some strong seniors: the conference's top scorer in Canaan, who averages 21.6 points per game; and its top rebounder in Ed Daniel, who brings down 10.3 boards a game; and starting center Brandon Garrett.
Eastern Kentucky is also a team to look out for — they finished with the second-best record in the conference and its second-best Kenpom number, and their knack for not turning the ball over will match up well against a ballhawking Belmont team. Tennessee State also knocked off the Bruins in February, but the nature of the bracket makes one of those squads winning less likely.
Players to watch
Ian Clark, Belmont: Clark went from a strong player for Belmont to one of the most efficient offensive players in the country in between his junior years. Clark was always a nice player, averaging 12.7 points on 9.9 shots per game last year. Solid? Sure. Elite? No. Something clicked this year: his three-point average jumped from 40.5 percent to 46.2 percent, and he boosted his ability to score off the dribble, hitting 64 percent of his twos — not something you expect from a guy who stands only 6'3.
Ed Daniel, Murray State: Canaan will draw the most attention for the Racers, but their power forward shouldn't be overlooked. He's an elite rebounder — his 10.3 boards a game is tops in the conference — even more impressive considering he's just 6'7. He also has a knack for drawing contact — his 7.3 fouls drawn per 40 minutes is the sixth-best ratio in the nation. Unfortunately, he only hits 61 percent of those.
Patrick Miller, Tennessee State: Miller can do some incredible things, including scoring 28 points on just eight shots against Eastern Illinois and a averaging league-high 5.6 assists per game. But the 6'0 guard from Chicago can also crash and burn. His 10 boards and 12 rebounds against Belmont were nice, but he went just 4-for-15 from the floor and had six turnovers as the team lost. In a win against the Bruins, he had 15 points, six boards, and four assists. If he can avoid turnovers, the Tigers could be a team to watch for.