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I begin with a tweet. Not from me, but from one of the most ardent, and often brutally honest Belmont supporters I’ve come to know in my time covering the Ohio Valley Conference:

RT @BelmontByrdCage: I tell you in mid January this team is tied with 8 minutes for a chance to go dancing and you laugh in my face… while I’m laughing.

On January 15th, Belmont fell to 10-7 on the season, after a 15-point loss to the Racers in Murray. Five days previous, Belmont shot 43-three’s, falling by 11 in Charleston to, at the time, red-hot Eastern Illinois. Of the remaining five losses to that point of the year, two came to a Wright State team ranked 263rd in the RPI, and somewhat shockingly, two came on the Bruins home floor. And things didn’t immediately get better either: Belmont lost three straight to start February, including a loss at Jacksonville State. But none of that matters now. Because today, the Bruins are preparing for their second trip to the NCAA Tournament in three years.

…while Murray State awaits their fate.

In so many ways, the Bruins OVC Tournament championship mirrors theirs from two years ago. Belmont beat Murray State on a game-winner, again, after a late game clock malfunction, again, (seriously) against a Murray State team with perceived NBA-talent, again.

But that season, Belmont had NBA-talent. Belmont had Ian ClarkJ.J. Mann, and Kerron JohnsonCraig Bradshaw is none of those. Neither is Taylor Barnette, or Reece Chamberlain. And that’s not me saying that — throughout the year, Belmont head coach Rick Byrd has said he didn’t feel this team was as talented as teams in the past.

Could’ve fooled me in Nashville.

None of those guys may be NBA-bound, but there’s no doubting that Bradshaw is one of the most talented guards in the league. Barnette has been a clutch-shooter all season long, and there are few that find a teammate and get him the ball in less space than Chamberlain. The pieces may not be as great, but the way they complimented each other is one reason they’re champions.

…and why I think this may be Rick Byrd’s greatest coaching job in his short Ohio Valley Conference history.

Byrd gambled throughout the tournament. When he needed a defensive stop to beat Eastern Kentucky in the semifinals, he switched his team into a rare 2-3 zone for a play, before switching back to man following a timeout. And when he needed a bucket to win a title, Byrd didn’t play for overtime against a clearly tired Racers team — he put the ball in Barnette’s hands, as he drained a falling-away three to seal a second OVC tournament championship.

Most coaches wouldn’t do that. They would play to their strengths, and many would play for overtime. Byrd gambled on his guys. The guys he has ridden all year like no team before, the team he’s fought with, called out in press conferences, the player he benched mid-game in the championship. He bet on them, against one of the most talented teams, with one of the most talented players, in the storied history of Murray State.

And he won.

Whether Belmont, a likely 15-seed (C’mon 14?) in the NCAA Tournament, advances isn’t relevant. If they hang tight, or get blown out by 20, what Belmont, and Byrd, did over the last three days is nothing short of extraordinary. They didn’t just vanquish the demons of their regular season, they didn’t just end the longest winning streak in Ohio Valley Conference history. They overcame the biggest thing that’s stood in their way all season:

Themselves.

The guys behind Belmont Byrd Cage are probably still watching replays of that title game, and might be clear ’til this November. And I can’t blame them one bit.

Congratulations to the 2015 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Champions.

 

The great debate: A lot of Racer fans woke up Sunday and yesterday and began lamenting the conference tournament. They began blasting the OVC’s strength of schedule, posting clips on twitter of “missed” calls by referees.

They also joined together in a cause, under the hashtag #RacersDeserveABid.

Racers head coach Steve Prohm is on an all-out offensive this week, giving the Racers resume to anyone and everyone that will give him time to hear it. But what’s interesting about this is that this campaign didn’t start Sunday — it started months ago. For months now, Steve Prohm has been beating the drum of the Ohio Valley Conference, continually telling all us reporter types that the conference is better than people think it is. And every time he said it, I went back, looked at the numbers, scratched my head, and silently thought, “if you say so.”

I’m starting to think he may have been right. Well, mostly so.

If Belmont, if Eastern Kentucky, and especially if Morehead State went back and played their non-conference schedules again, right now, I’m convinced all three would have better records. I’m convinced that Murray State wouldn’t lose to Houston today, and probably not Portland either.

But the problem with all that is — to the NCAA Tournament committee, none of that matters. And it probably shouldn’t.

The greater problem is, that what we’ve told does matter to the committee, doesn’t favor Murray State in the least. As of this morning, Murray State’s RPI is 68th, and isn’t moving much over the next five days. They’re strength of schedule number is abysmal. And unless Western Kentucky slips back into the RPI top-100 (they’re at 103) Murray State will have but a single top-100 win.

But, in a lot of ways, that’s really not the point. According to ESPN’s bracketology, the last team into the field is Indiana. The Hoosiers are 19-12, 9-9 in the Big 10, and have lost three straight games. Their RPI is 58, 10 higher than Murray. Of course their SOS is better — they play in the Big 10, but their non-conference SOS is a ridiculously low 276th. They’ve played 12 games against the RPI top-50, but nine of those were gifted by the conference. (Which they lost seven of)

Why are we so quick to ignore opportunity? Indiana was given numerous chances for “great” wins by the luxury of playing in the Big 10, which they arguably didn’t do much with. Murray State did almost everything you could ask for given their opportunities in playing in the Ohio Valley Conference. Which team is more deserving — one that takes everything of what their given, or one that stumbles through and is given these great numerical benchmarks almost by default.

This isn’t so much about Indiana, who also has zero bad losses, and did win four of their 12 RPI top-50 games, as it is any team that’s likely to be at the bottom of the at-large pool. You can say Murray scheduled badly — but they’ve also been about as unlucky as a team could be when it comes to where opponents finished. You can lament the OVC schedule, which is a legitimate point, if I’m being honest.

But Murray State did just about everything they could with what the schedule that was laid out in front of them. Indiana didn’t. Neither did Texas, Temple, or BYU, the next three in, according to ESPN. This isn’t about comparing Murray State to one team,  about matching numbers.

It’s about recognizing that if not for a great shot at the end of a great game, Murray State would still be without a loss since November. Are we really punishing the Racers for one bad month, when just one or two good games over the rest of the week is enough to put one of these teams “in.”

The Racers ARE deserving. And Racer Nation shouldn’t stop saying it until Selection Sunday is over.

Maybe not even stopping then.

 

UT Martin to the CIT: The Skyhawks postseason future is secured — they’ll go defend the Ohio Valley Conference’s title (okay, Murray State’s title) in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. It’s just another step in a great year for this program.

The challenge now: we’ve seen UT Martin have great years. Now it’s time to string them together.

I’d expect to see EKU getting the chance to play in the postseason as well, if they so choose.


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Vote for my OVC preseason ballot (2017-18 basketball edition)

2016 Football Standings

OVC Overall
Jacksonville State 7-0 10-2
UT Martin 6-2 7-5
Tennessee Tech 5-3 5-6
Tennessee State 4-3 7-4
Eastern Illinois 4-4 6-5
Murray State 4-4 4-7
SEMO 3-5 3-8
Eastern Kentucky 2-6 3-8
Austin Peay 0-8 0-11


2016-17 Basketball Standings

OVC Overall

EAST

Belmont 15-1 23-7
Morehead State 10-6 14-16
Jacksonville State 9-7 20-15
Tennessee State 8-8 17-13
Tennessee Tech 8-8 12-20
Eastern Kentucky 5-11 12-19

WEST

UT Martin 10-6 22-13
SEMO 9-7 15-18
Murray State 8-8 16-17
Austin Peay 7-9 11-19
Eastern Illinois 6-10 14-15
SIUE 1-15 6-24


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