OVC – Crowded Near the Top?
(St. Louis, MO) – If one thing came out of the recent Ohio Valley Conference media day, it’s that the conference race will be closer than ever before. Don’t get me wrong, Rick Byrd’s Belmont Bruins are the favorites to win the league for the fifth time in six years, but nipping at their heals are some worthy opponents.
Two other teams, defending tournament champion Jacksonville State and perennial power Murray State look poised to make a run at the champions.
Belmont went an astonishing 15-1 in OVC play last year winning the East Division championship, but last year’s surprise team, the Gamecocks of JSU won 20 games and stole the Music City Madness title and went to the NCAA Tournament. Second-year coach Ray Harper has talented returners and highly regarded newcomers.
Murray State brings back two, preseason all-league players and a team that is angry about finishing below .500 for the first time in 29 years (16-17).
In the polling of the coaches and sports information directors, Belmont was tabbed as the favorite for the third straight season. Eighteen of the 24 first place votes went to the Bruins. JSU and Murray each received three votes for the top spot. Those three teams were the only teams with over 200 accumulated polling points. A distant fourth place was Eastern Kentucky.
Byrd, who typically builds his program around high school recruits, has six freshmen on his squad this year, but says to predict the league race when so many teams make use of numerous transfers, predicting the conference outcome is nearly impossible.
Belmont has two preseason all-conference players in Austin Luke and Amanze Egekeze, but Murray and Jacksonville State each counter with two of their own players on that preseason team.
Murray State head coach Matt McMahon says having Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller back in the line up, means he has something special to build upon.
Harper’s duo of all-OVC players, Malcolm Drumwright and Norbertas Giga are unique talents in this conference and when considering the highly regarded newcomers joining those two, some believe this year’s Gamecocks are far superior to last year’s NCAA Tournament squad.
Harper says he’s glad to have experienced seniors that have played in the NCAA Tournament and that the OVC will be even better this year than last.
Eastern Kentucky has two players on the all-league team as returners Nick Mayo and Asante Gist may be the two most talented teammates in the conference. The rest of the all-conference team includes UT Martin’s Matthew Butler, Aleksa Jugovic of Tennessee Tech and SEMO’s Denzel Mahoney.
Any number of teams could make a surprise run at the OVC’s upper echelon. Eastern Illinois has added some important pieces to a group that already consists of four returning starters and EKU’s team will be much better than last season.
This division-less season could prove to be very competitive.