This is the day that Ohio Valley basketball fans have had circled on their calendar since summer. The defending champions, and arguably the top program in OVC, hosting the new kids on the block, who have Murray’s grasp of the conference directly in their sights.
For Belmont, it doesn’t seem to matter they’ve already beaten two OVC teams with higher RPI’s. It doesn’t matter they’re the final undefeated team in the conference, and seem to be easily soaring over the rest of the league. The one thing they’ve haven’t done: They haven’t beaten Murray. Even if the Racers aren’t the team many expected, even if they aren’t the team that lit the nation on fire last year, they’re the defending champs. And for the national narrative that exists about the conference, for the guys that only pay attention to the conference twice a year, this game is for the conference.
Except it’s not.
A Murray State win still puts the Racers behind the Bruins. A Bruins win keeps them above the conference, but with the current setup of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, nothing short of a major collapse by either team will cost them a double-bye in Nashville. From a pragmatic point of view, this game means virtually nothing.
From a status point of view, this game means everything.
Murray State is the pride of the OVC. Belmont, in just their first season, is already threatening to dethrone them. A Racers win proves the road to the title goes through Murray. A Belmont wins proves otherwise.
It’s rare in the OVC, but tonight’s game isn’t about the standings. It’s about something more It’s about bragging rights.
And it’s about the balance of power.
It’s been slow, but the national media is slowly coming around to the Bruins, and their sharpshooting guard Ian Clark. After being virtually ignored just weeks ago, the hype around Belmont is growing exponentially. A win over Murray State, and it may just explode.
Unlike many teams in the conference, Murray State will be able to attack the Bruins biggest weakness, rebounding. Ed Daniel is a rebounding beast, and with Latreze Mushatt getting healthy, there’s no doubt the Bruins will be challenged on the inside. What makes the Racers different isn’t just their rebounding, it’s that their forwards are talented enough to turn those rebounds into point, something many other teams have struggled to do.
On the flip side, the Bruins are also well setup to exploit one of the Racers weaknesses: turnovers. Belmont leads the league, and is 11th in the nation in forced turnovers. The Racers aren’t the worst in the OVC, but they’re far from the best.
Clark seems to be cooling down, if only a little. His 4-9 night from the field last Saturday against Tennessee Tech was his worst shooting night since Kansas in mid-December. While it’s just one night, (and 4-9 is hardly terrible) Clark’s shooting is somewhat trending downward, back from the ranks of the superhuman to the mere great. (Note: as mentioned in the comments, Clark is 10-14 from three-point range over his last four games. While his overall FG% is slightly down, to a still impressive 57% over the same stretch, his 3pt% really isn’t) I guess we can’t keep expecting Clark to keep shooting 70% and up every night.
Or maybe we can. He’s been doing it for quite a while now.
One other advantage for Belmont: depth. The Bruins can go much deeper in to their bench than Murray State with less dropoff. Could be important in a close game in the final minutes.
The Racers are as healthy as they’ve been all season, but still can’t seem to shake their slow starts. Getting behind double-digits to Belmont, even early, could spell some major trouble.
There’s also the Isaiah Cannan question. The guard is slumping as of late, and the Racers have tried taking the ball out of the All-American’s hands to put him in more catch-and-shoot situations. This creates somewhat of a dilemma. As mentioned above, the Bruins are among the best in the nation in turnovers, and Cannan is by far the best ball-handler on the court. But that could also be what’s contributing to Canaan’s recent struggles. So, which is the lesser of two evils, so to speak?
Defensively, the Racers are even with the Bruins in conference play. The difference has been on the offensive end, where Belmont has shined, and Murray State hasn’t. If they can find a way to get three’s to fall, they’re in a great position for what would be considered an upset on their home floor. If not, they’re going to have to find ways to stop Belmont.
Even with the concerns above, the Racers are in a much better position to take on Belmont then they were even just a few weeks ago. Mushatt is healthy. They’re getting much better production out of freshman C.J. Ford and Jeffery Moss. And they’ve pulled many more games out of the fire than the Bruins. They’re battle tested, and they know how to respond late. But this is by far their biggest test. Bigger than Dayton. Bigger than Valparaiso. Bigger than Eastern Kentucky. All losses. But the Racers now are better than the Racers were during those three games.
The question is, are they good enough to take down the very dominant Bruins?