Every college basketball fan’s favorite time of year, March Madness, is here and starts today in Nashville! While some think the madness of March begins when the brackets are unveiled on Selection Sunday, the truth is the real drama begins weeks before at the conference tournaments.
For many teams the only way to get into the Field of 68 is by winning their league tournament, making for some incredibly compelling basketball along the way. One of the first tickets to the dance punched will come from the Ohio Valley Conference, which is hosting both its men’s and women’s tournaments here in Nashville at Municipal Auditorium in what has been dubbed “Music City Madness.”
The OVC has become a league to be contended with in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, with its champion winning at least one game in the Big Dance in four of the past five years. Teams like Murray State and Morehead State have had tremendous success in recent years, capturing the hearts of the nation as lovably mid-major teams making a splash on the national level. In doing so, the league’s tournament has become one of the most exciting in the nation. Last year was no exception as the local Belmont Bruins, which were in their first season the league, topped Murray State with a thrilling last second shot from Kerron Johnson.
The Belmont Bruins are again top contenders to win the OVC Tournament, finishing the regular season as the No. 1 seed after compiling a 26-7 record that also included a thrilling win over No. 11 North Carolina. The Bruins lost a ton of talent off of last year’s team, including Johnson and NBA Draft Pick Ian Clark, and were not picked to repeat as champions but proved the early season predictions wrong after compiling a 14-2 OVC record. Under the direction of OVC Coach of the Year Rick Byrd, the Bruins are led by senior J.J. Mann who is averaging 18 points per game and is one of the most exciting players in the OVC.
The No. 2 seed in the tournament, Murray State, is no stranger to success in the OVC, having won the league’s tournament 15 times. In a rematch of last year’s exciting title game, the Racers and Bruins battled earlier this year at the Curb Event Center in what was an exciting offensive display, ending with a 99-96 Bruin win. Both Belmont and Murray State received double byes into the semi-finals because of their regular season performances, setting the stage for a potential rematch of these two OVC powerhouses again in Saturday’s title game.
Two teams to watch that may throw a cog into the potential Belmont/Murray State showdown are No. 3 Eastern Kentucky and No. 6 Southeast Missouri State. Eastern Kentucky has been one of the most consistent teams in the league all year but will have to rely heavily on its front court tandem of Glenn Cosey and Marcus Lewis to work its way into contention on championship Saturday.
Coached by Dickey Nutt, brother of former Ole Miss and Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt, the Southeast Missouri Redhawks have been the hottest teams in the OVC of late. Winning their last four games of the regular season, SEMO is definitely peaking at the right time. Despite being the sixth seed in the tournament, the Redhawks have a pair of players, All-OVC First Team member Tyler Stone and OVC All-Newcomer Team member Jarekious Bradley who are both worth the price of admission.
On the women’s side of the tournament, the Skyhawks from the University of Tennessee at Martin are the overwhelming favorites as they are in search of their fourth consecutive OVC Tournament crown. Fans will have the chance to see two of the finalist for the 2014 Nancy Lieberman Award, which is the national player of the year, Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome.
The dynamic guard duo of Butler and Newsome are each the OVC Player of the Year and OVC Defensive Player of the Year respectively this season and Butler is one of the NCAA’s top-20 all-time leading scorers with over 2,800 points. If offense is what you want to see, UT Martin has topped 100 points eight times this season, including a 116 point showing this past Saturday.
If you love seeing quality basketball and student-athletes competing for their only chance at playing on college basketball’s biggest stage, head over to Municipal Auditorium Wednesday-Saturday to catch the OVC’s Music City Madness.