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Ohio Valley Conference Preview: Belmont reigns supreme

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Ohio Valley Conference.

The Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game didn’t lack any drama. Taylor Barnette drilled a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to send the Belmont to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. It handed Murray State, which was undefeated in conference play, an invitation to the NIT.

The Bruins and Racers are expected to top their respective divisions again this season despite going through two very different offseasons.

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd, entering his 30th season, brings back four starters. Barnette, the OVC Tournament MVP and Craig Bradshaw, the Ohio Valley Preseason Player of the Year, make up the conference’s top back court, while Evan Bradds mans the frontline after a breakout sophomore season. Belmont is one of the nation’s best mid-major programs year-after-year, and that shouldn’t change this season.

Murray State, however, experienced an offseason of change. In April, Cameron Payne left for the NBA, becoming a lottery pick that will continue his career alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Then in June, head coach Steve Prohm left to take over the Iowa State program. Despite the coaching change and the loss of three of its top four scorers, Murray State remains a contender in the OVC. First-year head coach Matt McMahon has an all-OVC caliber guard in Jeffery Moss, the lone returning starter. Justin Seymour also returns, but the perimeter will be enhanced by the additions of Texas transfer Damarcus Croaker, Chattanooga transfer Gee McGhee and JuCo transfer Bryce Jones. 

In total, there are four new head coaches in the league: McMahon, Dan McHale (Eastern Kentucky), Rick Ray (Southeast Missouri State) and Jon Harris (SIU-Edwardsville). 

Even after graduating two all-OVC players, McHale and the Colonels could still be Belmont’s toughest challenge in the East Division, relying on the returning back court of Ja’Mill Powell and Isaac McGlone. Morehead State won five of its last six games, narrowly losing to Murray State in the OVC Tournament semifinals, to close out 2014-15. The Eagles could build of last season’s strong push with Brent Arrington returning to lead the team’s hard-nose defense. But Jacksonville State poses as a deep sleeper, a cast of newcomers headlined by well-traveled forward Cameron Biedscheid.

UT Martin, coming off one of the better turnarounds in the nation a season ago, will likely be Murray State’s toughest competition in the West Division. Twymond Howard and Alex Anderson make up a solid 1-2 punch, while Myles Taylor, another double-digit scorer, returns from a shortened 2014-15 season. Chris Olivier transferring hurts Eastern Illinois up front, but Trae Anderson and Cornell Johnston should be enough to keep the Panthers in play this year.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “I think Belmont is the best team. They won the conference tournament last year. They have bulk of the guys coming back and they definitely have the best coach coming back.”
  • Sleeper: “I would say Morehead State. I think they’re going to have a really good team. They play hard, they play physical, they guard you. You really have to prepare for them. Heck, they were close to making the conference championship game last year.”
  • Star to watch: “I think Craig Bradshaw from Belmont. He can score from anywhere on the floor. He plays with a great motor and within the team concept. He can put points on the board, really quickly too.”

PRESEASON OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Craig Bradshaw, Belmont

One of the best mid-major players in the nation, Bradshaw is coming off a junior campaign of 18.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, shooting 42 percent from behind the 3-point line. An intense competitor, the 6-foot-3 senior had arguably his best game against one of the nation’s premier defenses, scoring 25 points (10-of-19 shooting) and nine rebounds against Virginia in the NCAA tournament.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE TEAM:

  • Evan Bradds, Belmont: The anchor in the middle for the Bruins, the 6-foot-7 junior averaged 14.2 points and 7.2 boards per game, shooting 69 percent from the field, second in the nation in that category.
  • Chris Horton, Austin Peay: One of the bright lights for the Governors in 2014-15, Horton averaged a double-double: 13.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Tops in the conference with 2.3 blocks per game.
  • Twymond Howard, UT Martin: One of the top newcomers in the league from a season ago, the 6-foot-6 forward recorded five of his six double-doubles during conference play.
  • Jeffery Moss, Murray State: A long, athletic guard who can connect from three should see a bump in his offensive numbers with Cameron Payne in the NBA and two of the Racers’ other double-digit scorers gone from a season ago.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCBall

PREDICTED FINISH

East Division

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

West Division

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

Duke lands Steward, third commitment in the Class of 2020

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Duke landed their third commitment in the Class of 2020 on Wednesday, as Chicago shooting guard D.J. Steward pledged to play his college ball for Coach K.

A high-volume scorer and potent shot-maker, the 6-foot-2 Steward visited Duke over the weekend before committing.

“Me and my family were amazed on our official visit, we loved the principals of Duke, and how united Duke is as a basketball program,” Steward told Rivals.com. “At Duke I will be able to get the best of both worlds; education wise and on the court playing on the biggest stage possible night in and night out.

“I will get to chase my goals and be one step closer to achieving my dream of playing in the NBA. Also I will be able to develop as a person off the court and as a ball player while playing under the most winningest coach in history, Coach K.”

Steward joins five-star forward Jalen Johnson and five-star point guard Jeremy Roach in Duke’s 2020 recruiting class. Johnson is the quintessential small-ball four that we have seen arrive in Durham in recent classes, while Roach appears to be the heir apparent to Tre Jones at the point guard spot. Steward should fit in nicely playing off the ball for the Blue Devils, who can always use some excess shot-making.

Duke is far from done here, as they are in the mix for the likes of Walker Kessler, Ziaire Williams and Henry Coleman.

New York senator the latest to propose bill to abolish amateurism

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A second state now has legislation in the works that would make it legal for college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness.

Kevin Parker, a New York state senator from Brooklyn, has proposed a bill similar to California’s Fair Pay To Play act, not only giving college athletes the ability to sell their NIL rights but also requiring athletic departments to give a 15 percent share of their annual revenue to the student-athletes. California’s bill, which will go into effect in 2023 if it is signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, would make removing a student-athlete from their scholarship for accepting endorsement money illegal.

“It’s about equity,” Parker told ESPN. “These young people are adding their skill, talent and labor to these universities.

“You don’t need the shortcuts and the end-arounds because now we’re providing some real support for these student-athletes.”

New York joins the growing list of organizations that are pushing back against the NCAA’s rules on amateurism. South Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and Washington have had legislators discuss whether or not to make similar changes to the law, while Congressmen from North Carolina and Connecticut have made pushes at the federal level. Democratic Presidential candidate Anrew Yang has blasted the NCAA over their amateurism rules, while just last week, NBA agents made public the fact that they will be refusing to register for the NCAA’s proposed certification process.

Rick Pitino, Louisville settle lawsuit

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals looks on in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 19, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The University of Louisville and former head coach Rick Pitino have reached a joint agreement to drop their lawsuits against each other.

The two sides “have mutually agreed to dismiss their legal claims against each other, designate his departure as a resignation and move forward,” according to a joint statement that was released by the University and Pitino. Pitino will not be paid any money as a result of this settlement, but he departure will now be classified as a resignation, effective Oct. 3rd, 2017.

Pitino had sued Louisville for somewhere around $40 million.

“For 17 years, Coach Pitino ran a program that combined excellence on the court with a commitment to the program’s student-athletes, their academic achievement, and their futures in and out of basketball,” the state said. “Nevertheless, there were NCAA infractions during his term which led to serious consequences for the university. Although these infractions may not have occurred at Pitino’s direction or with his knowledge, the problems leading to NCAA infractions happened under his leadership. We thank Coach Pitino for his years of service to the University of Louisville basketball program and wish him well.”

“Today I move on to a new chapter in my life,” a statement from Pitino reads. “Against my lawyer’s advice, I’m dropping my lawsuit with ULAA. I am very proud of the many accomplishments my teams achieved at Louisville. I’m so thankful and honored to coach such dedicated athletes. I’m also disappointed in how it ended. But as head coach I am held responsible for the actions of all team members. I still have so much passion for the game and so many goals I want to achieve. From this day forward I start my climb.”

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

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John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.

On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.

Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.

Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.

Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.

Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension

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Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.

This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.

What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.

“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.

“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.