The Ohio Valley Conference tournament begins on Wednesday with a pair of first round games. The action should heat up once the quarterfinals begin and especially in the semifinals. That's because the top three teams, Belmont, Murray State and Austin Peay will be in action, with each legitimately having a claim to winning the tournament title.
Tournament schedule (all times Central)
All games will be played at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana.
Morehead State/Tennessee State vs #4 Eastern Kentucky, 6:30, ESPN+
Jacksonville State/Eastern Illinois vs #3 Austin Peay, 8:30, ESPN+
Game 3 winner vs #1 Belmont, 7:00, ESPNU
Game 4 winner vs #2 Murray State, 9:00, ESPNU
Game 5 winner vs Game 6 winner, 7:00, ESPN2
Belmont is the top seed and on a 10-game winning streak despite losing Dylan Windler to the NBA and legendary coach Rick Byrd to retirement. Adam Kunkel has stepped in to fill the void, leading the team in scoring (16.9 ppg) and free throw percentage (82.7). He's complimented by Nick Muszynski, who missed the OVC final against Murray State last year, Tyler Scanlon and Grayson Murphy, who led the conference in assists per game (6.3), assist to turnover ratio (4.0) and steals per game (2.7) while Muszynski led the OVC in blocks per game (1.5).
Murray State also suffered a major loss to the NBA as Ja' Morant is now a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. Shaq Buchanan also departed via graduation and Darnell Cowart has been injured since December. Enter Tevin Brown. The junior guard averages 17.7 points per game, good for sixth in the league while being the OVC's top three point shooter (41.5%) and leader in minutes per game (37.3). Anthony Smith and KJ Williams take care of the glass, averaging 7.7 and 7.3 rebounds, respectively.
Third seed Austin Peay led the conference for much of the season thanks to OVC Player of the Year Terry Taylor. Averaging a double-double (21.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg), he's also second in blocked shots (1.8) and fourth in field goal percentage (55.1). Guard Carlos Paez gives the Governors a steady ballhandler as evidenced by his 2.8 assists-to-turnover ratio. Coach Matt Figger has done his best coaching job yet after losing five seniors from last year's team.
Sixth seed Eastern Illinois is playing well at the right time. The Panthers have knocked off Murray State and Austin Peay in the last nine days. Josiah Wallace averages 16.6 points per game and shoots 46.4 percent from the floor, Mack Smith makes 2.5 three-pointers a game while checking in with a 35.2 percentage while George Dixon averages 8.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals a contest. All of these figures are in the top 10 in the OVC, making EIU a very balanced team.
Who will win the tournament?
This is going to be a lot of fun. Murray State and Belmont have always provided us with classic finals and in the years that they don't win it, you have great stories like 2017 when Jacksonville State won the tournament. This year, it's Austin Peay's turn to play spoiler, but the Governors are legit. Let's not forget about Eastern Kentucky, whose frenetic pace on offense can wear down any defense.
Both Belmont and Murray State have had remarkable seasons considering how much each program has lost. It's a credit to the culture they have built that they are here as the top two seeds in what is considered a "down year" for both schools. The Bruins are the best offensive team in the OVC, Murray State the best defensive team while the Governors sport the best player.
In a tournament that should produce thrilling games, especially later on in the week, i'll pick the team with the best player in what is a wide-open year for the conference.
Prediction: Austin Peay def. Belmont