Basketball season officially started back in November, but with the Super Bowl finally putting a bow on the football season until August, many just now catching up. There have been some great hoops played already this season, and it is not just by the big boys in the major conferences. As we head into the final month of the regular season, some of the most exciting action in college basketball will be played right here in the Music City.
Nashville is home to the Ohio Valley Conference league offices, and will be the site of some of the most exciting games down the stretch in determine the league’s regular season champion, and eventually tournament champion which comes with the first bid of the year to the 2015 NCAA Tournament. If you are just catching up with basketball season, here is what you need to know as the season hits the homestretch.
Local story lines
- League parity: At this point it is a three-team race to the top in both the East and West division. Belmont and Murray State appear on track to claim the division crowns and with that a bye straight into the semi-finals of the OVC Tournament, but with each of the division’s top teams still to play one another the current standings could turnover quickly.
- In the East: Rick Byrd and his Belmont Bruins struggled early in the conference season with cold shooting but managed to pull out some nail biters against a few teams near the bottom of the standings. Now that the Bruins have found their shooting touch, winning their last five straight, they face the toughest stretch of their schedule, starting Thursday night on the road against defending OVC champion Eastern Kentucky (8 p.m. on ESPNU).
In the West: perennial favorite Murray State is undefeated in OVC play and won’t face another team with a winning record in league action until its final two games of the year. The Racers will close their home schedule with Eastern Illinois, who opened the year as the surprise team of the OVC, but have been falling quickly, losing three of the last four, and have the most challenging schedule still ahead of them. Murray State’s season finale will be a short 30 minute ride to UT Martin where they will have to face the resurgent Skyhawks, which are one of the 10 most improved teams in the nation, and came one rimmed out three-pointer from beating the Racers in Murray Saturday night.
- Tough road ahead for Bruins: East leader Belmont will face Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky, who sit second and third respectively in the East standings, in four of their next five games. Some years the schedule just works in your favor, and that was certainly true for Belmont this year. Working through their shooting woes against the lower half of the league, Belmont now has to face Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky on the road, on what is known as the “Death Valley trip” where anytime a team can pick up two wins it should really count as three, because a road sweep of the two is extremely rare in the OVC. The Bruins then make another long road trip to Jacksonville State, before returning home to face Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky yet again.
- Spoiler Alert: The team to watch in the OVC down the stretch is UT Martin. The Skyhawks currently sit in third in the West with three league losses, but those three have come to the three top teams in the league, and each of them was a one possession game in the final minute. A team that was 3-13 last year and now has a new coach, new roster and new mentality is just now coming into its own. UT Martin has played the toughest schedule in the league so far, and now has six games against teams with losing records on its schedule, and a fledgling Eastern Illinois before ending the year at home with a rematch against Murray State. It is not unrealistic to think the Skyhawks could come into that Racer rematch with a 12-3 league record, looking to not only return to the OVC Tournament but also secure a bye.
Players to watch
Cameron Payne, Murray State – The sophomore leads the OVC in scoring with 19.2 ppg, and has already reached the 1,000 point plateau. Payne is also a Lou Henson Award candidate, which is the “Mid-Major” Player of the Year. A human highlight reel, Payne is incredibly exciting to watch as he is unafraid to drive the lane and take on the big guys and if there is a big shot to be made, you can almost guarantee it will come from his hands.
- Corey Walden , Eastern Kentucky – Walden, also a Lou Henson Award candidate, is the second leading scorer in the OVC, putting in 19.1 per game, but is also the top defender in the league, swiping 2.9 steals a night. Walden has scored 33 twice this season, but his best performance may have been his 18 points and two steals in EKU’s 28-point drubbing of No. 18 Miami.
- Craig Bradshaw, Belmont: Bradshaw, a Nashville area native from Christ Presbyterian Academy, is scoring a 18.7 per game and is a deadly threat from 3-point range. He has hit 50 3-pointers this year, which is only bested in the OVC by his teammate Taylor Barnette’s 57.