Now that the calendar has turned to March, it is finally time for one of the greatest months of the sports calendar, March Madness. This is the time of year that favorites like Kentucky, Virginia and Duke have even bigger targets on their backs, and the nation adopts a few “Cinderella” teams to cheer through the tournament as the next Butler or Gonzaga in the making. In order to get to the excitement of the Big Dance though, teams must first get through their conference tournaments.
The first NCAA Tournament ticket of this year’s field will once again be punched in Nashville by the winner of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, which starts Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium. The tournament, dubbed “Music City Madness” has become a staple in Nashville, having been played here 21 times in the last 22 years, and as a league not likely to receive more than one bid to the NCAA Tournament the competition is always intense.
This year’s tournament is expected to be no different, so to get you ready here is what to watch for at this year’s OVC Tournament.
On the men’s side can anybody beat Murray State?
The Racers come into the tournament riding a 24 game win streak which is second-longest in the nation, ranked in the national Top 25 and having just completed a perfect 16-0 OVC record. As the No. 1 seed, Murray State receives a double bye straight into Friday night’s semi-final round, and when they do lace it up in Nashville they will be led by Cameron Payne who is the best guard in college basketball that the national pundits aren’t talking about. If there is a team that is going to dethrone the Racers, it’ll start by shutting down Payne.
With Murray State as the obvious favorite, who has the best chance at upsetting the Racers?
While anything is technically possible in a tournament, there are really three teams that have the best chance at pulling an upset: Eastern Kentucky, Belmont and UT Martin.
Eastern Kentucky: When healthy the No. 2 seeded Colonels can play with anybody in the country, as they demonstrated early in the year by throttling the Miami Hurricanes by 28 on the road. In their only match up of the year EKU took the Racers to overtime before falling, but with a double bye and extra time to get healthier EKU’s size in the post could be enough of an equalizer on a neutral court to end the Racers run.
Belmont: You can never bet against a Rick Byrd coached team, especially come March, and when it can shoot three-pointers the way the Bruins can this year. Belmont hit 15 3-pointers in their season finale against Tennessee State, and after stumbling out of the gates a bit in OVC play, the Bruins have really begun to blossom as the tournament nears. The biggest obstacle for the Bruins may be stamina though, because in order to see the Racers again they will have to face them as the third game in a 48 hour span.
UT Martin: If you have followed OVC basketball at all the last few years you know how bold of a statement this really is. Prior to this year UT Martin had only won a combined 12 OVC games since the 2008-09 season when it won its only OVC Championship. This year though, under first-year head coach Heath Schroyer, the Skyhawks are one of the 10 most improved teams in the nation and have a conference record of 10-6. The Skyhawks also pushed the Racers to the limits in both regular-season matchups, only to be held back by cold shooting in the final minute of each and see Murray State pick up slim three and six point wins. The Skyhawks have a balanced attack that can play physical in the paint, or get up and down the floor in a hurry with point guard Deville Smith who came from UNLV with Schroyer.
Player to watch out for….
Aside from the obvious selections like Murray State’s Payne, or Craig Bradshaw from Belmont a player you don’t want to miss seeing is Cornell Johnston of Eastern Illinois who is listed at 5-7, 150 pounds. When you see him in person though, those appear to be fairly generous on both accounts. The small stature of the freshman only set the stage for you to overlook him but when he is feeling it, he can light up a score sheet in a hurry. His defense and quickness also torment every opponent and give his EIU Panthers a chance to not just compete but make a run in this year’s OVC Tournament.
On the women’s side UT Martin is looking to build a dynasty
The UT Martin women enter the tournament having just completed a perfect 16-0 run through the OVC and will be looking to win their fifth straight OVC Tournament title and berth into the NCAA Tournament. It is a bit of a surprise the Skyhawks are where they are, given they lost both the OVC’s all-time leading scorer and fourth all-time leading scorer, plus the reigning OVC Defensive player of the year from last year’s roster. Head coach Kevin McMillian has his new team built around the 22.9 points per game of reigning OVC Freshman of the Year Ashia Jones, and will be looking to show the last four years of dominance were not solely tied to a single recruiting class.
Who has the best chance of beating UT Martin?
The Skyhawks won their league games by a nearly 17 point average, but during the regular season two teams played them closer than any other.
Eastern Illinois: The eighth-seeded Panthers pushed UTM to the limit last week, falling by only three, but earlier in the season it was a 30-point blowout when they visited Martin. The two meet again in the first round, so depending on which EIU team shows up will determine whether they are in Nashville for the long haul or a one-and-done.
SIU Edwardsville: The No. 2 seeded Cougars gave the Skyhawks their closest game of the year, a one point loss in Martin a month ago and held UTM to a seven point win at home two weeks ago. If the two meet again, it will be Saturday’s championship game and could prove to be UT Martin’s biggest hurdle to a fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.