- Jim Root
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Ja Morant, So., Murray St. (but this race with Windler is waaay closer than most think it is)
Coach of the Year: Rick Byrd, Belmont
Newcomer of the Year: Nick Muszynski, R Fr., Belmont
Freshman of the Year: Nick Muszynski, Belmont
1. Welcome to Ja’s Bounce House
Ja Morant caught the country’s attention early in the year with his gaudy statlines and even gaudier baptisms at the rim, rocketing into the top 5 of most draft boards. Side note: it’s pretty awesome that I could have linked at least 5 different dunks there, and they all would have been a satisfying click. Morant’s backcourt mates are no slouches - Tevin Brown is a deadly sniper, and Shaq Buchanan is an incredible athlete in his own right - but Morant is the featured act. He may be the single most relied-on player in the country to generate offense (#3 nationally in usage rate, #1 in assist rate), and so the Racers will go as he does this postseason.
2. Rick Byrd’s Baby Bruins
Entering the year, we knew Belmont had a stud atop its roster in Dylan Windler, but plenty of questions existed beyond the Bruins’ senior star. Windler has delivered this year, posting impossibly efficient numbers across league play (72% from 2, 48% from 3, 89% from the FT line), but it has been the emergence of two redshirt freshman stars that has pushed Rick Byrd’s bunch into at-large contention. Nick Muszynski is doing his best Evan Bradds impression, a hyper-efficient post scorer with elite touch around the rim, and Grayson Murphy has proven to be an excellent Austin Luke facsimile as a point guard maestro in transition. Their play has many (including me) hoping Coach Byrd can finally get his elusive first ever NCAA Tournament win.
3. Bold Preseason Calls - Right and Wrong
Here are two excerpts from my preseason preview:
On Eastern Kentucky, who I ranked 5th and who did not even qualify for the OVC tournament - “Ranking the Colonels in Tier 2 is probably my boldest OVC call - Blue Ribbon ranked them 11th, Athlon 7th - but Austin Peay showed last year what a solid coaching hire and a group of talented newcomers can do.”
On Tennessee Tech, who I ranked 11th and who finished dead last - “Let’s just get this out of the way – I’m concerned about the Golden Eagles this year. The inverse of my ‘high on EKU’ pick, Blue Ribbon ranks TTU 5th in the OVC, and I just don’t see that at all (not picking on Blue Ribbon! Just a reference point).”
The first was idiotic, the second prescient, which just goes to show how fine the line between those two places can be.
The OVC understands what more leagues need to embrace: the conference benefits most if its best teams make the NCAA Tournament, so tilt the format to those squads. Belmont and Murray State won’t get any homecourt advantage (the entire tournament is in Evansville, IN), but they are immediately in the semifinals. There’s some concern that they’ll face a team that’s gotten hot over the previous couple of days, but only having to win two games, rather than three or four, is a clear advantage.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
The league’s best two teams are clear: Belmont and Murray St. With byes to the semis, they’ll be the heavy favorites to square off in the title game, and that is definitely what I’m hoping to see. The Bruins edged the Racers in Murray during their lone matchup of the season, but the potential fireworks from a Saturday night championship game should have all college basketball fans hoping both squads gets through tough semifinals tests. Both teams would sit on the 11/12 precipice, with each likely becoming a popular upset pick no matter who they square off against. One small note: Belmont is positioned right on the bubble, and coule maybe sneak into the field even with a loss to the Racers.
Dark Horse Team
The Ohio Valley wild card is Jacksonville St., who went an impressive 3-0 against Belmont and Murray State this year. The Gamecocks are a mercurial bunch, but when they’re locked in, they’re a real threat, especially given the high-level athleticism dotting the roster. Belmont in particular will be glad the Gamecocks are on the other side of the bracket (0-2 vs. the ‘Cocks), hoping that Morant and the Racers can eliminate the Bruins’ nemesis prior to the tournament final. Of course, Jacksonville State would be smart to not look past a UT Martin squad that has played quite well since Craig Randall became eligible at the end of January (and who has already beaten the Gamecocks once)…
(5) Morehead St. over (8) SIU Edwardsville
(7) UT Martin over (6) Eastern Illinois
(4) Austin Peay over (5) Morehead St.
(7) UT Martin over (3) Jacksonville St.
(1) Belmont over (4) Austin Peay
(2) Murray St. over (7) UT Martin
(1) Belmont over (2) Murray St.
I think the Bruins take the title, making the Racers a highly controversial at-large candidate (Belmont has a much more compelling case). By all traditional/historical conventions for making the field, Murray has very little hope to get in. But Ja Morant’s superhuman highlights will make the Racers a media lightning rod, and a gaudy record with zero bad losses will at least give Dick Vitale some talking points as he berates the committee on Selection Sunday.