- Ky McKeon
3MW’s All Conference Team:
1. Belmont & Bradds Bedazzle
The Bruins blew through the OVC like the Big Bad Wolf blew through the first Little Pig’s straw house. Belmont finished the season with a sterling 15-1 conference record, and ranked #1 in both offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom.com. The catalyst to this success was senior forward Evan Bradds, who was recently awarded his second consecutive OVC Player of the Year trophy after averaging 20.8ppg and 8.6rpg. Bradds capped off a stellar four years in Nashville, during which he shot a blistering 68.7% from the field and poured in 1,880 points (thus far). Belmont beats teams with their beautifully executed motion offense that runs through quick looks inside to Bradds, who is adept at either finishing at the bucket or kicking out to his capable wing shooters. Austin Luke, the team’s point guard, led the conference in assists posting a ridiculous 40.2 assist rate (9th in the country), while cutting down on his stupidly high 2015-16 turnover rate (40.0). The Bruins have won the OVC regular season four out of the five years they’ve been in the league. However, they've only made the Dance once as the 1-seed of the OVC (2012-13); the year in which they finished second (2014-15), they also punched a ticket.
2. SEMO?! SEMO!
Shout out to Rick Ray and the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks for blowing expectations out of the water and finishing conference play with the school’s first winning record since 2012. SEMO was able to take advantage of the weak West division, finishing ahead of perennial conference power Murray State and a game behind division champ UT Martin. The player to watch here for the Redhawks is senior stud Antonius Cleveland, who turned in his best season in Cape Girardeau, finishing 7th in the league in scoring (17.0ppg) and shooting a scorching 59% from two and 41.5% from deep. The Redhawks’ shooting and ball handling make them a sneaky threat to topple the OVC elite.
3. Governors Won’t Win “Reelection”
After pulling off one of the most unlikely (and awesome to watch) conference tournament championship runs last season, the Austin Peay Governors will not return to the Promised Land this year, finishing 7-9 and outside of the top eight in the OVC. Losing stud muffin Chris Horton proved to be too much, but we’ll always have the memory of 2015-16 to look back and smile upon.
The tournament tips off Wednesday, March 1st, and concludes on March 4th. The Tourney is played in Nashville at the Municipal Auditorium.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
Belmont is hands down the best team in this league, but as mentioned above, that hasn’t meant much in terms of OVC Auto-Bids the past five years. Nobody can compete with the Bruins offensively; they have weapons at nearly every position, a strong point guard leader, and the two-time Player of the Year. Defensively, Belmont shuts down the three-point line and owns the glass, which can be very problematic for many teams in the OVC. They are beatable, however, as Tennessee Tech proved on February 11th. The Golden Eagles were able to turn the Bruins over (one of the few weaknesses they possess), force key players into foul trouble, and hit enough outside jumpers to come away with a victory in Cookeville. If Belmont does win the OVC Tourney ship, we can expect to see them hovering around a 13 seed. With a #58 RPI and a dominant conference run, the Bruins shouldn’t fall below a 14, and could see as high as a 12 depending on how other conferences shake out. The Bruins are one of the most experienced teams in the nation and are led by one of the great coaches of all time in Rick Byrd. 4 seeds beware.
Dark Horse Team
I think Jacksonville State could make a run at the title. The Gamecocks weren’t on anyone’s radar at the beginning of the season but made some noise in the conference, finishing 4th with a 9-7 record. The reason the Gamecocks could pull off an upset is three-fold: 1) They have the best defense in the conference outside of Belmont, 2) they play at the slowest tempo in the OVC, meaning they have the ability to drag out games and limit possessions to well-equipped offensive teams, and 3) they have strong backcourt leadership in tandem guards Greg Tucker and Malcolm Drumwright. Addressing point number one above – it is very difficult to score inside against the Cocks thanks to center Norbertas Giga and forward Christian Cunningham. A cold night can spell disaster to a higher seed (uh oh Belmont).
(8) Tennessee State defeats (5) SEMO
(7) Murray State defeats (6) Tennessee Tech
(4) Jacksonville State defeats (8) Tennessee State
(7) Murray State defeats (3) Morehead State
(1) Belmont defeats (4) Jacksonville State
(7) Murray State defeats (2) UT Martin
(1) Belmont defeats (7) Murray State
The Bruins finally get that monkey off their back, earn a 13-seed in the Big Dance and knock off their 4-seed before succumbing the superior 5-seed.
Watch out for Tennessee State in this tournament. I know I said the Cocks were the dark horse, but TSU actually is the second highest-rated team in the conference per KenPom.com. All-League wing Tahjere McCall and forward Wayne Martin makes this team one of the most physical in the conference. Though the Tigers have lost to JSU twice this season, their ability to force turnovers could spell trouble in the postseason for Drumwright & Co.
Murray State will make the championship game. After beating Illinois State in the first game of the season, the Racers underperformed all year and finished with their first sub-.500 record since 1987. Though they limp into the Tourney after suffering three straight losses, dual point guards Bryce Jones and Jonathan Stark make this squad a tough out.