(SportsNetwork.com) - The 51st Ohio Valley Conference Tournament will span from Wednesday, March 5, and run through to Saturday, March 8, at Nashville's Municipal Auditorium. The winner of the OVC Tournament will receive the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament field.
The Belmont Bruins (23-8), who entered the OVC a year ago and won the conference regular season and tournament title in their first year as a member of the league, repeated as regular-season champs after posting a 14-2 conference record in 2013-14. They will be the top seed this year once again, coming out of the OVC East Division. It's the second consecutive season in which Belmont has lost just two games in league play. The Bruins finished one game ahead of the Murray State Racers (18-10), who won the OVC's West Division crown.
The rivalry in the conference between Belmont and Murray State doesn't go back very far, but is continuously fueled even when the programs aren't playing head-to-head. The Bruins catapulted themselves into the spotlight by winning their last six regular season contests, starting with a thrilling 99-96 offensive showcase against the Racers back on Feb. 6. It was the only time during the regular season the two OVC powerhouses met on the court.
Murray State, which was tied with Belmont at 13-2 in conference play heading into Saturday's regular-season finale, dropped a heartbreaking 118-115 double- overtime classic to Southeast Missouri State, setting the Racers back to 13-3 in league action to end the season.
By virtue of Belmont's top overall seed and Murray State's second seed, the two squads will receive double-byes into the semifinal round of the conference tournament.
Eastern Kentucky (21-9) earned the three seed after finishing with an 11-5 conference record and in second place in the East Division. Morehead State (19-12) ended the season at 10-6 in OVC play and will be the fourth seed. Both teams will receive a first-round bye and move straight to the quarterfinal round.
Tennessee Tech (fifth seed), Southeast Missouri State (sixth seed), Eastern Illinois (seventh seed) and SIU Edwardsville (eighth seed) will all play in the first round on Wednesday.
First-round action kicks off with the fifth-seeded Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles playing against the eighth-seeded SIU Edwardsville Cougars. SIUE backed into the conference tournament after losing four three in a row to finish off the year, and dropping four of the team's last five. The Cougars (11-19, 7-9 OVC) made it in by the skin of their teeth, as the OVC ninth-place finisher (Austin Peay) was eliminated from postseason contention with a 6-10 conference mark. This is SIU Edwardsville's first time taking part in the OVC Conference Tournament, and is going up against a team with significant history in the conference postseason. Donivine Stewart paced the Cougars this season in scoring, netting a team-high 12.2 ppg with 135 assists on the year. He was the only SIUE player to average a double-digit point total, though Keaton Jackson (9.3 ppg) and Kris Davis (9.1 ppg) weren't far off. SIUE was near the bottom of the league in scoring defense, checking in at ninth place by giving up 76.3 ppg to opponents.
Tennessee Tech (16-15, 9-7 OVC) won three of its last four games in the regular season, including a season-ending victory over Morehead State, 91-84. The conference tournament hasn't been very friendly to the Golden Eagles in the past, though. Tennessee Tech owns a 23-41 record in the season-ending tournament all-time, and hasn't won a league title since the 1967 season - the program's only OVC title in history. Dennis Ogbe paces the team with a 10.8 ppg average with a team-high 5.9 rpg. Dwan Caldwell chips in 10.7 ppg, and Jeremiah Samarrippas adds 10.3 ppg. Samarrippas dishes out a team-best 4.6 apg. Tennessee Tech's 72 ppg allowed is third best in the conference, but 72.3 ppg offense is ninth-best in the OVC this season. Tennessee Tech is one of two conference teams all season to defeat Belmont. Tennessee Tech got the better of SIUE in the regular season with a 64-63 victory.
The second of two first-round matchups features the seventh-seeded Eastern Illinois Panthers taking on the sixth-seeded Southeast Missouri State Redhawks. EIU (11-18, 7-9 OVC) had an up-and-down season, losing four of the team's last six games in the final stretch of the year. The Panthers own a 5-10 record all-time in the OVC tournament, and have won one conference title - back in the 2001 season. Sherman Blanford was a rock for EIU this season, averaging a team-best 14.3 ppg and 8 rpg (sixth-best in the OVC). Reggie Smith added 13 ppg, and Chris Olivier chipped in 11 ppg. The Panthers sported the league's second-worst scoring offense (67.9 ppg) and didn't exactly make up for it in terms of their scoring defense (73.3 ppg).
Southeast Missouri State (17-13, 8-8 OVC) won its last four games to end the regular season, including the double-overtime 118-115 thriller against Murray State Saturday. The Redhawks finished in second place in the OVC West, but will play in the first round because of their conference record. SEMO is 9-11 all-time in the OVC tournament, and won its only OVC title in the 2000 season. The Redhawks were an offensive power this season, averaging a conference-best 83.3 ppg and sporting two of the top three individual scorers in the OVC in Jarekious Bradley (19.4 ppg) and Tyler Stone (19.1 ppg). Only Tennessee State's Patrick Miller (23.7 ppg) averaged a better offensive game. Stone (9.5 rpg) is third in the OVC in the category, and Lucas Nutt topped the OVC with 5.9 apg. What troubled SEMO during the season, however, was its defense. The team averaged a second-to-last 79 ppg allowed on the year.
The winner of SIU Edwardsville and Tennessee Tech will play Morehead State on Thursday in the first quarterfinal round matchup. The Eagles racked up a five- game win streak from Feb. 1 to Feb. 19, but faltered in the final three games of the regular season, losing them all to finish 10-6 in conference play. Morehead State has a rich history in the OVC tournament, entering this postseason having won 28 tourney games all-time. The Eagles are tied with Austin Peay for the third-most league titles in conference history, each with four. The last Eagles Ohio Valley championship came in 2011. Morehead State averaged 77.3 ppg this season, and gave up 72.9 ppg to its opponents. The team was second in the conference in field goal percentage defense (44.8 percent) and had a plus-8.5 rebounding margin to top the OVC. Angelo Warner led the team with 17.5 ppg (sixth-best in the conference), followed by Brent Arrington (11.7 ppg), Drew Kelly (10.5 ppg) and Chad Posthumus (10 ppg). Posthumus leads the Eagles and the conference in rebounding at 11.3 rpg.
Eastern Kentucky awaits the winner of Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri State in the second quarterfinal matchup Thursday. The Colonels had plenty of success in the conference this season at 11-5, having won their last four games entering postseason play. EKU owns a 35-34 all-time tournament record, and has won the second-most OVC titles in the league's history with five, the most recent coming in 2007. The Colonels had a strong offensive and defensive year, checking in at third in the OVC in scoring offense (78.6 ppg) and topping the league in scoring defense (70 ppg allowed). The team also had the best free-throw percentage in the OVC (74.9 percent). Glenn Cosey topped the Colonels with 18.9 ppg (fourth in OVC) and had a team-best 64 assists, while Corey Walden added 14.4 ppg. Tarius Johnson rounded out the team's double- digit scorers with 12.1 ppg on the season. The Colonels sported the league's worst rebounding average per game at 26.4 per contest.
Belmont will kick things off in the first semifinal contest on Friday, and will await the winner of Morehead State and SIUE/Tennessee Tech. The top- seeded Bruins finished with a 14-2 record in the conference, and won their last six games in of the regular season. Last year's premiere in the OVC saw Belmont win both of its conference tournament contests, including a 70-68 overtime thriller in the finals over Murray State. Belmont's 80.2 ppg is second in the conference, and a plus-5.7 ppg scoring margin is also the OVC's second-best. J.J. Mann averages 18.4 ppg to pace the Bruins (fifth in the OVC), while Craig Bradshaw nets 15.6 ppg and Reece Chamberlain adds 11.5 ppg with 135 assists on the year. The Bruins top the conference with a 50.6 shooting percentage from the field, and a 39.7 3-point field-goal percentage is another league leader.
Finally, Murray State will conclude the semifinal round of the tournament with a bout against the winner of Eastern Kentucky and EIU/SEMO. The Racers had won five straight games before the double-overtime defeat at the hands of SEMO in the regular-season finale Saturday. Still, the Racers won the OVC West Division and went a total of 3-1 against their potential semifinal competition during the regular season. Murray State will be looking for its league-leading 16th conference title, and will try to improve on a 62-33 all- time tournament record. The Racers won the OVC championship and automatic bid last in 2012. Freshman Cameron Payne played well beyond his years this season, leading the team with a 15.9 ppg average and racking up 156 total assists (5.6 apg), which was good for second in the OVC. Jarvis Williams was a monster under the basket, averaging 14.5 ppg with a 10.4 rpg mark (second in OVC) with 41 blocked shots. T.J. Sapp (14.2 ppg) and Jeffery Moss (13.3 ppg) rounded out the Murray State double-digit scorers.