2016-17 OVC Preview: Belmont and Murray State set to battle for top spot

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Ohio Valley Conference.

The league’s recent traditional powers, Belmont and Murray State, appear again to be the OVC’s best bets to make the NCAA tournament and perhaps bust some brackets.

The Bruins return the league’s Player of the Year in big man Evan Bradds, who is a scoring machine who rarely misses his mark. He’s led the nation in field goal percentage for the last two seasons despite being just 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds. Belmont will need to figure out how to replace dynamic guardCraig Bradshaw, but Rick Byrd has four returning starters in his arsenal. Retooling has never been an issue for Byrd, and we don’t expect it to be one this season.

Matt McMahon’s Racers lost his top two scorers from last year’s 17-14 squad, but Murray State welcomes highly-touted Tulane transfer Jonathan Stark to join three returning starters. Improving the defense will be key after a season in which the Racers allowed opponents to register an effective field goal percentage of 52.2, which ranked 289th nationally, but the Racers should be improved now that they have had a chance to recover from the departure of Steve Prohm and Cam Payne.

Tahjere McCall is one of the country’s best thieves with 2.3 steals per game, and he’s an integral part of the Tennessee State defense that turned opponents over in droves. The Tigers will need to find a way to build an offense around him as well. Jay Spoonhour’s Eastern Illinois squad finished above .500 in league play for the second-straight season last year, and returns four starters from that group, making them an interesting option to push the conference leaders. 5-foot-7 Cornell Johnston is the name to know on that roster.

Morehead State finished 11-5 in the OVC last season, but with Brett Arrington gone and Corbin Collins transferring to to Alabama, Sean Woods is going to have his work cut out for him replacing his back court. Tennessee Tech has even more to replace, as they lost their top two scorers and four starters in total. Austin Peay reached the NCAA tournament with the OVC’s auto-bid last season, but they were a 7-9 team that lost three starters, including Chris Horton, who averaged 19 points and 12 boards.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON OVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Evan Bradds, Belmont

The 6-foot-7 senior has led the nation in field goal percentage for the last two seasons, shooting a blistering 71.4 percent last year. Look for him to average a double-double this season as Belmont looks to reach the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON OVC TEAM:

  • Tahjere McCall, Tennessee State: The OVC’s defensive player of the year last season, McCall also averaged 14.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.
  • Nick Mayo, Eastern Kentucky: The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 14.5 points and 4.9 assists per game a year ago.
  • Josh Robinson, Austin Peay: When from contributor as a freshman to impact player as a sophomore, putting up nearly 17 points.
  • Jonathan Stark, Murray State: The transfer from Tulane will take over at the point for coach Matt McMahon as he looks to recapture what made him one of Conference USA’s top freshmen two years ago.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Belmont
2. Murray State
3. Tennessee State
4. Eastern Illinois
5. Eastern Kentucky
6. Austin Peay
7. Morehead State
8. Tennessee Martin
9. Tennessee Tech
10. SIU Edwardsville
11. Jacksonville State
12. Southeast Missouri