After rolling through the Ohio Valley Conference unscathed, the Murray State Racers enter the conference tournament as the heavy favorite. Led by Player of the Year Cameron Payne, Murray State enters the month of March as one of the most dangerous teams in the country, having won 24 consecutive games. It doesn’t hurt that they only have to win two games to get themselves into the Field of 68. The OVC has one of the easiest conference tournament paths for a No. 1 seed, as they get a double bye and face a No. 4 seed, at best, in the opening game. Eastern Kentucky and Belmont could challenge on the other side of the bracket, but look for Steve Prohm’s team to become a dangerous Cinderella candidate.
When: March 4-7
Where: Nashville Municipal Auditorium
Final: Saturday, March 7, 7:00 p.m., ESPN2
Favorite: Murray State
Winners of 24 straight games, the Racers look like one of the nation’s best mid-major teams and a serious threat to win a NCAA Tournament game if they make the field. Cameron Payne is a star at guard and Jarvis Williams is a great second option inside.
And if they lose?: Eastern Kentucky
The Colonels made the NCAA Tournament last season and also get the benefit of the double-bye straight into the semifinals as the No. 2 seed. Eastern Kentucky also came closed to knocking off Murray State this season in the OVC, taking the Racers to overtime on Jan. 29 before losing by seven. With the duo of Corey Walden and Eric Stutz — both top-five scorers in the conference — the Colonels have reliable scorers.
- Belmont: Winners of four straight games, the Bruins split with No. 2 seed Eastern Kentucky and beat them in the most recent meeting on Feb. 19.
- UT Martin: The No. 4 seed in the tournament, the Skyhawks get a bye and only lost to Murray State, their potential semifinal opponent, by six points in the final game of the regular season on Feb. 28.
Player of the Year: Cameron Payne, Murray State
An obvious choice, as the 6-foot-2 sophomore was the conference’s leading scorer (20.2 ppg), second in assists (5.7 apg) and third in steals (2.0 spg). Payne is also shooting 46 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range and contributing 3.6 rebounds per game.
Coach of the Year: Steve Prohm, Murray State
Prohm took the Racers to the Round of 32 in his first season but he did something this season that even Mick Cronin and Billy Kennedy had never done at Murray State: go unbeaten in conference play. At 16-0, the Racers were the class of the league and Prohm has done a tremendous job rebuilding the program after that initial NCAA Tournament appearance.
All-Ohio Valley Team:
- Corey Walden, Eastern Kentucky – The conference’s second-leading scorer (18.6 ppg) and leader in steals (3 spg). The 6-foot-2 senior is shooting 54 percent from the field.
- Craig Bradshaw, Belmont – Already with a 40-point game under his belt, the 6-foot-3 junior averaged 17.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
- Jarvis Williams, Murray State – A reliable second option to Payne, the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 15.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game on 57 percent shooting from the field.
- Eric Stutz, Eastern Kentucky – Shooting ridiculous splits (61 FG%, 46 3PT%, 80 FT%), the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 15.5 points, 5.8 rebounds per game.
CBT PREDICTION: Murray State over Belmont