The Ohio Valley tournament begins tonight in Nashville with a pair of first-round games. The top two seeds are familiar faces: Belmont and Murray State. The Bruins beat the Racers in their lone regular season matchup to earn the number one seed.
While most people expect a second game between Belmont and Murray State in Saturday night's final, third seed Jacksonville State and fourth seed Austin Peay may have something to say about that. Here's how the tournament in Nashville should play out:
Tournament schedule (all times Central)
The top two seeds receive double byes into the semifinals. The third and fourth seeds receive a single bye into the quarterfinals. Seeds five through eight play in the first round. All games will be played at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana.
First Round (March 6)
#8 SIU-Edwardsville vs #5 Morehead State, 6:30 (ESPN +)
#7 Tennessee-Martin vs #6 Eastern Illinois, 8:30 (ESPN +)
Quarterfinals (March 7)
SIU-Edwardsville/Morehead State vs #4 Austin Peay, 6:30 (ESPN +)
Tennessee-Martin/Eastern Illinois vs #3 Jacksonville State, 8:30 (ESPN +)
Semifinals (March 8)
SIU-Edwardsville/Morehead State/Austin Peay vs #1 Belmont, 7:00 (ESPNU)
Tennessee-Martin/Eastern Illinois/Jacksonville State vs #2 Murray State, 9:00 (ESPNU)
Final (March 9)
Semifinal winners, 7:00 (ESPN2)
Bruins, Racers tie for regular-season title in stellar seasons for both
Top seed Belmont (16-2, 25-4) had another brilliant season, with Rick Byrd winning OVC Coach of The Year for third time, guard Dylan Windler averaging a double-double (21.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg) and Nick Muszynski claiming Freshman of The Year with a stat line of 15 points per game, 69 percent from the field and a conference-leading 2.2 blocked shots a contest.
On the other side is second seed Murray State (16-2, 25-4) led by Player of The Year Ja Morant. The sophomore is averaging 24.1 points, 10.3 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 49.8 percent from the floor and 81.2 percent from the foul line. Guard Shaq Buchanan was named Defensive Player of The Year after stepping into a starting role this year.
Jacksonville State, Austin Peay serious threats
Third seed Jacksonville State (15-3, 23-8) has the distinction of being undefeated against the top two, beating Belmont twice this season and routing Murray State in their only matchup. Forward Jason Burnell is a force with a stat line of 17.0 points, 9.6 rebounds a game as well as 50.1 percent from the field and 79.5 percent from the free throw line.
Fourth seed Austin Peay (13-5, 21-10) shouldn't be counted out especially with the services of do-everything guard Terry Taylor (20.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 53.6% FG). The Governors lead the conference in three-point shooting with four players at or around 40 percent from deep.
Who will win the tournament?
The obvious choice would be Belmont or Murray State. With the two best players in the conference and the benefit of a double bye to the semifinals, it seems logical either the Bruins or Racers will be cutting down the nets late Saturday night.
If any other team can beat the top two, it would be Jacksonville State. As mentioned above, the Gamecocks didn't lose to either Belmont or Murray State and Burnell is a load to handle. Taylor's presence and the ability Austin Peay has from beyond the arc gives them a puncher's chance, as well.
It's good that the conference has two strong programs like Belmont and Murray State to look to while Jacksonville State seems to be the biggest threat year-in and year-out. The key is once a while another team breaking through, as the Gamecocks did in 2017, to keep some semblance of parity.
It's very tempting to pick Jacksonville State to win this, but Morant is too good and Belmont-Murray State deserves an encore. They are quickly becoming one of the premier rivalries in mid-major basketball and they'll face off again with an NCAA bid on the line. Give me the team with the NBA prospect on it.
Prediction: Murray State def. Belmont