Ohio Valley

2014-2015 Season Preview: Murray State, Belmont, Morehead State headline Ohio Valley

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Murray States Cameron Payne (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

The Ohio Valley is one of the few conferences that is still broken up into divisions, and the most interesting of the two divisional races this season will be in the east.

Belmont has been one of the best mid-major programs in the country under head coach Rick Byrd. In the last nine years, the Bruins have won seven regular season titles and six conference tournament titles despite playing in two different leagues. Byrd has done it by building a program that slowly-but-surely develops the guys on the team into stars at this level, which is why he should feel complete confidence in Craig Bradshaw filling in for J.J. Mann.

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Belmont guard Craig Bradshaw (Getty Images)

Belmont’s issue will be in the front court, where they have to replace both starters — as well as “Big Chad” Lang — which is part of the reason why I think that Morehead State will win the East Division. Sean Woods returns four starters from last year’s 20-win team, including his entire back court. It’s headlined by Angelo Warner, a 6-foot-2 senior that averaged 17.5 points a season ago, numbers that could bump up this season if he shoots better than 32.6% from three. With a handful of Division I transfers and a number of JuCo imports joining the ranks this season, Woods will have the depth, particularly in his back court, to make Morehead’s full-court press quite lethal.

While those two programs battle it out supremacy in the East, Murray State looks like they are clearly the team to beat in the West. It starts with Cam Payne, a 6-foot-2 sophomore who came out of nowhere to become one of the best freshman in the country (more on him in a bit). He’s not alone, however, as Steve Prohm returns four starters, including workhorse forward Jarvis Williams, Jeffery Moss and Clemson transfer T.J. Sapp, who should be even better this year after missing the first half of last season. Throw in Utah transfer Justin Seymour, and the Racers should be better than the team that went 13-3 in the league and won the CIT. Remember, they were supposed to be a year away last season.

Eastern Kentucky loses a number of key pieces from last season, including Glenn Cosey, but with Corey Walden and Eric Stutz back, the Colonels should be a factor. Southeast Missouri State will be without Tyler Stone and Lucas Nutt, but they bring back three starters, including Jarekious Bradley, and look like the second-best team in the West. One team to keep an eye on: SIU-Edwardsville. They return four starters and their top six scorers from a team that went 7-9 in the league last year. With five seniors on the roster, if they are going to make a move, this is the year to do it.

PRESEASON OHIO VALLEY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Cam Payne, Murray State

Cam Payne played out of position throughout his freshman season, filling a role that was left vacant when Zay Jackson blew out his knee. But it didn’t matter, as the 6-foot-2 Memphis native finished the year averaging 16.8 points, 5.4 assists and 1.7 steals while making Racer fans quickly forget about Isaiah Canaan.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-OHIO VALLEY TEAM:

  • Jarvis Williams, Murray State, Sr.: The bully inside for the Racers. Williams will play Ed Daniels to Cam Payne’s Isaiah Canaan.
  • Craig Bradshaw, Belmont, Jr.: The next great guard to come through Rick Byrd’s pipeline. Bradshaw averaged 15.7 points as a sophomore.
  • Angelo Warner, Morehead State, Sr.: Warner was the leading scorer for Morehead State a season ago and will be the best player on arguably the league’s most talented team.
  • Jarekious Bradley, SEMO, Sr.: Bradley, a 6-foot-5 forward, was the third-leading scorer in the conference last season at 19.0 points.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCBall

PREDICTED FINISH

East

1. Morehead State
2. Belmont
3. Eastern Kentucky
4. Tennessee Tech
5. Jacksonville State
6. Tennessee State

West

1. Murray State
2. Southeast Missouri State
3. SIU Edwardsville
4. Eastern Illinois
5. Austin Peay
6. UT Martin

Rick Byrd, Belmont looking to continue streak of NCAA tournament appearances

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Belmont Athletics

Only three programs have earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in six out of the last eight seasons — Kansas, Memphis and the Bruins.

The Belmont Bruins.

The latest trip to the Big Dance this past March almost didn’t happen. Belmont head coach Rick Byrd needed two clutch shots, including the game-winner, from senior guard Kerron Johnson to top Isaiah Canaan and Murray State in overtime to punch the Bruins ticket, earning the automatic bid in the team’s first season in the Ohio Valley.

It marked Belmont’s third straight trip to the NCAA tournament, but in each of those three seasons, Belmont was outed in the first game. The same thing happened when Byrd led the Bruins to three straight tournaments from 2006-2008. The Bruins string of postseason appearances largely goes unnoticed because they haven’t had a Cinderella-type run like its former Atlantic Sun foe Florida Gulf Coast.

Nonetheless, what Byrd has done over his 28 years — and most recently in the last eight years — has been an impressive feat.

“A whole lot of things go into that,” Byrd told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “Being lucky. The first time we made it and the last time we made it, we won overtime games that could have gone the other way.”

During Byrd’s tenure at Belmont, he has transitioned the former NAIA program to a Division I conference title winner and NCAA tournament regular.

“I think Belmont University deserves a lot of credit,” Byrd added. “Over that same period of time, it has grown in so many ways.”

The university, a liberal arts college in Nashville, TN, has seen their enrollment increase from 3,000 to 6,918 since 2000 and in that time added a law school and built new residence halls. Like the changes on campus, the basketball program took time to build.

“The best thing we’ve done as a staff is decisions in the recruiting process, and identifying players,” Byrd said.

“We went from NAIA to Division I in ’97-’98. We could have gone after guys who were kicked off their teams or JuCo transfers and taken chances on guys with questions academically or character wise and maybe you could win games quicker that way. I don’t think that’s what Belmont deserved. That’s not the program that I wanted to build. We took our lumps, we took it slowly. We sort of incrementally got there.”

source: Getty Images
Rick Byrd (Getty Images)

The Bruins roster has been made up of high-character players, ones who will stay four or five years and provide experience to the Belmont program. A glance at the roster this season shows returning starter J.J. Mann is an older senior after spending a year at Hargrave Military Academy (Va.). The likely successor to Johnson is Reece Chamberlain, a redshirt junior. One of the key newcomers is Drew Windler, a redshirt senior following his transfer from Samford.

“I think when you have a program built on four and five year guys, you have guys who play supporting roles and then [over time] have to become the go-to guys,” Byrd said. “We’ve got a lot of experience.”

To Byrd, it’s like a revolving door, where players come in and take on larger roles over the years when other standouts graduate. He mentioned all-OVC selection Kerron Johnson, the OVC tournament hero last year, who had to wait his turn to be the go-guy, and went onto point out that Ian Clark didn’t even lead the team in scoring as a junior, before averaging 18.2 points per game last season.

The Belmont program has built a culture, and its starting to feed itself. Players come in, and work their way up through the system, from contributor to bigger roles as a starter or even an all-conference caliber player. In return, the team has won games, conference titles and made tournament appearances. All have helped on the recruiting trail, but another pitch Byrd and his staff make to potential players is the team’s non-conference schedules, which is usually considered one of the best. Games in the past at Duke and Kansas — this year against North Carolina and Kentucky — not only offer a challenging early season test, but catch the attention of prospects. especially in 2011, when Belmont nearly upset Duke.

“When we schedule those games, I’d rather schedule people and places that our players will remember for the rest of their lives, rather than take a check and play a team that doesn’t mean a lot,” Byrd said. “That’s what this whole thing is about. They are going to remember those games at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and Cameron Indoor Stadium, and now at Chapel Hill and Rupp Arena.”

Belmont will have a tough road again with non-conference games against, not only against Kentucky and North Carolina, but also at VCU. The Ohio Valley Conference, the same league that has seen players drafted in three consecutive years, will have a strong conference again this season with teams like Eastern Kentucky and Southeast Missouri State filled with key returners and teams like Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois posing as potential sleepers. Belmont has a difficult ladder to climb in order to secure its seven automatic bid in nine years, as the Bruins attempt to return to the Big Dance and get that elusive tournament win.

“We may never get back,” Byrd said of the NCAA tournament. “If we don’t even win one, I hope we get back. People don’t really appreciate it until you get there.”

The head coach at small liberal arts college in Nashville, Tenn., has put in close to three decades of work, building and growing his program. The hard work was part of the equation that’s led to an under-appreciated string of success. The other portion according to Byrd:

“We’ve been lucky.”

2013-2014 Ohio Valley Season Preview: Is this the year for Eastern Kentucky or Southeast Missouri State?

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Facebook/Southeast Missouri State Redhawks

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of our preview lists, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last season, the Ohio Valley Conference title game ended in a thriller between Murray State and Belmont. Kerron Johnson hit a game-winner to advance the Bruins to the NCAA tournament in Belmont’s first year in the conference.

This season, Murray State no longer has one of the conference’s all-time greats in Isaiah Canaan, aand Ed Daniel and Stacy Wilson graduate as well. Belmont lost the back court of Johnson and leading scorer Ian Clark. That gives several teams then chance to take over the conference in 2013-2014.

Eastern Kentucky is one of the preseason favorites, bringing back two OVC all-newcomer selections in Glenn Cosey and Corey Walden. The Colonels return three other starters besides Cosey, but one of the starters they lost was point guard and all-OVC selection Mike DiNunno.

Southeast Missouri State is coming off a 17-win season this past year, and with Murray State without three key players — as well as sophomore point guard Zay Jackson, who tore his ACL earlier this month — the Redhawks should be able to make that jump atop the West Division this season. SeMo brings back Tyler Stone and Nino Johnson, a combo that makes up the conference’s best frontline.

source: Getty Images
Rick Byrd (Getty Images)

Eastern Illinois and Austin Peay lead the group of sleepers this season in the OVC, while Belmont can’t be counted out. Rick Byrd has created a winning culture at the Nashville school, and the Bruins will contend if J.J. Mann, Reece Chamberlain and Samford transfer Drew Windler embrace their bigger roles this season.

PRESEASON OHIO VALLEY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Stone, Southeast Missouri State

Tyler Stone helped the Redhawks finish second in the West Division, behind Isaiah Canaan-led Murray State, last season. The 6-foot-8 Stone led the team in scoring at 15.5 points and was second in rebounding at 7.8 boards per game, which put him top-10 in the conference in both those categories.

FOUR MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Patrick Miller, Tennessee State: The 6-foot-1 senior guard was the best playmaker last season with 5.9 assists per game. Miller is one of two returning starters following a junior campaign averaging 14.8 points per game.
  • J.J. Mann, Belmont: No more Ian Clark or Kerron Johnson or Trevor Noack. Rick Byrd will have to rely on more production from returning starter J.J. Mann. The 6-foot-6 wing is the only returner to average double figures last season.
  • Glenn Cosey, Eastern Kentucky: Leading an experienced Colonels team that returns four starters as well as Corey Walden. He put in 15.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
  • Chris Horton, Austin Peay: The Austin Peay sophomore has a lot of upside after a freshman campaign that saw him average 8.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Governors also return Travis Betran, who averaged 17.2 points a night.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCBall

PREDICTED FINISH:

East

1. Eastern Kentucky
2. Belmont
3. Morehead State
4. Tennessee State
5. Jacksonville State
6. Tennessee Tech

West

1. Southeast Missouri State
2. Eastern Illinois
3. Murray State
4. Tennessee-Martin
5. Austin Peay
6. SIU-Edwardsville

Murray State comeback over St. John’s puts Racers in the Charleston Classic final

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Murray State will take on Colorado for the Charleston Classic title, following an exciting 72-67 win over St. John’s on Friday night.

The Racers trailed 59-52 with 7:31 to play. Isaiah Canaan and Murray State responded with a 12-0 run over the next three minutes. St. John’s went scoreless for just under four minutes during that stretch.

The Red Storm missed both three-point attempts to tie the game, adding to a dismal shooting total behind the arc, 2-for-14.

The Johnnies got it within two at 64-62, but Stacey Wilson drained a three. St. John’s had two chances at the end to tie the game at 70, but missed both. Wilson, who had 23 points, secured the win with a dunk.

Canaan and Ed Daniel added 15 each for Murray State. D’Angelo Harrison had a game-high 27 points.

Murray State was facing a 13-point deficit with under three minutes to play, the Racers were able to put together a 13-3 run to end the first half to cling to within three of the Johnnies.

That was the turning point of the game. St. John’s could of entered the locker with a double-digit lead. Credit to the Murray State defensive, that allowed only one field goal and forced two turnovers in the final three minutes of the half.

Twice in this semifinal, St. John’s held a solid lead only to see it fade away quickly. The Johnnies, a talented, but young team, couldn’t put the Racers away. Murray State is a senior-heavy team and it showed with big plays from not just their All-American, but from Wilson and Daniel.

St. John’s did get some good news today, as Marco Bourgault, who played five minutes on Friday, was cleared by the NCAA. Steve Lavin is still waiting to hear on Orlando Sanchez’ eligibility.

Murray State will take on Colorado Sunday night. Colorado pulled off an upset over No. 16 Baylor in the first semifinal.

St. John’s returns home to play Holy Cross on Wednesday.

Terrence is also the lead writer at NEHoopNews.com and can be followed on Twitter: @terrence_payne