Ja Morant Murray State Belmont 012419

Murray State's Ja Morant (right) drives at a defender during a 79-66 loss to Belmont at the CFSB Center on Jan. 24, 2019.

Every year, plenty of folks in college basketball media and fan circles tweet and write pleas to the selection committee that usually read something like this:

Dear committee, exclude the mediocre high-major teams with 12-plus losses that played a not-so-challenging non-conference slate and have a bad loss or two. Instead, please put in the mid-majors that rolled through their league but lost in their conference tournament.

It usually doesn’t get granted. Just ask 2015 Murray State, 2016 Monmouth and St. Mary’s, 2017 Illinois State or 2018 Middle Tennessee, to name a few.

I won’t spend the rest of this column issuing such an entreaty. But I will outline how a two-bid Ohio Valley could happen. There’s already some desire for it, which I certainly understand. Who doesn’t want to see Ja Morant or Dylan Windler (more than 40 NBA scouts and executives watched them square off Thursday) in the NCAA Tournament?

If it’s going to happen, the two teams will be Murray State (53 in the NET rankings) and Belmont (72). Jacksonville State and Austin Peay are currently above Belmont in the standings, but each is autobid-or-bust at this point.

The Gamecocks, owners of two wins over Belmont, are No. 136 in NET but play Murray State and Austin Peay only once in the regular season. The Governors (139) meet Belmont once (a 96-92 loss Saturday) and Jacksonville State once. Neither team’s strength of schedule is ranked higher than 240 and each has two losses to sub-200 teams.

The Racers (53 NET) and the Bruins (72) need to win out, with plenty of blowouts, and meet in the OVC title game. If they do, they’ll be 27-3 and 26-4, respectively. Turns out, though, that Belmont might be better equipped to snag an at-large bid, as Bart Torvik’s algorithm predicts.

The Bruins went 4-2 in non-conference road games, including wins over UCLA and Lipscomb. The latter is No. 39 in NET. They defeated Murray State already and beat Lipscomb at home as well. That’s three top-53 NET wins. Belmont also beat Western Kentucky and Illinois State, neither of which is close to the NET top 100 but will be contenders to win their conference tournaments.

Murray State, meanwhile, owns zero top-100 wins and won’t have an opportunity at another unless it meets Belmont again. Its strength of schedule is No. 307 nationally, to Belmont’s 123. The Racers’ one advantage is zero bad losses, while Belmont has one to Green Bay (221 NET). But we’ve learned that, more often than not, good wins trump a bad loss or two. Belmont has more of those (and upon closer examination, the bad loss isn’t quite as bad).

In 2017, Wichita State and Illinois State faced a similar situation. Each was 17-1 in conference, split the season series and met in the Missouri Valley title game. Wichita State won. Illinois State, despite an RPI of 39, SOS of 112 and a 27-6 record, was the second team out of the NCAA tournament field due to a dearth of good wins. Its best was No. 87 RPI New Mexico, which didn’t even make the NIT.

Outside assistance will be needed too. Here’s what you, if a supporter of a #2BidOVC, should root for:

-No bid thieves. Keep a particular eye on the MAC, Mountain West and WCC and hope Buffalo, Nevada and Gonzaga grab autobids.

-A decline in the other two-bid mid-major hopefuls. The Southern Conference has four top-80 NET teams, the Atlantic 10 has two top-70, Utah State (MWC) is No. 38 and San Francisco (WCC) 47. Each has to take some losses against inferior teams in their conferences. Also of note, Belmont is the only one of any of those teams to have a winning record against Quadrant 1 opponents.

-The Pac-12 would need to have, at most, two teams selected. If it actually is a one-bid league, as has been heartily discussed, even better. Right now, Washington and Arizona State are the league’s two best tournament contenders. Hope that one of them wins the conference tournament. Root for Washington, since ASU’s bad losses (two to sub-100 NET teams, including No. 171 Princeton at home) may knock them out of at-large consideration.

-The Big East would need to have, at most, three teams selected. Root for Marquette and Villanova to keep winning and for everyone else to stay a jumbled mess.

-Root for Lipscomb to win out and UCLA to finish in the top 75 (currently 98) to get Belmont another Quadrant 1 win.

Even all that still might not be enough. If so, the pleas will continue.

Now onto this week’s power rankings.

Power Rankings (Jan. 29):

1. Murray State (16-3, 7-1, last week: 1)           

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2. Belmont (15-4, 6-2, last week: 3)      

3. Jacksonville State (15-6, 7-1, last week: 2)    

4. Austin Peay (14-7, 6-2, last week: 4)             

5. Eastern Illinois (12-9, 5-3, last week: 5)        

6. Eastern Kentucky (10-11, 3-5, last week: 6) 

7. Morehead State (8-13, 4-4, last week: 7)       

8. Tennessee Tech (7-14, 3-5, last week: 8)       

9. Southeast Missouri State (7-14, 2-6, last week: 10)  

10. Tennessee State (5-15, 2-6, last week: 8)       

11. SIU-Edwardsville (6-14, 2-6, last week: 11) 

12. Tennessee-Martin (6-13, 1-7, last week: 12)  

Rising: Belmont

No one had a better week than the Bruins, who handed a pair of top-four OVC teams their first home loss of the year. They trailed for just two minutes at Murray State and didn’t even need much from Windler (five points) to win. Saturday, though, Windler authored a tour de force. He scored 20 straight Belmont points and helped his team come back from a 14-point second-half deficit.

Falling: Tennessee State

The Tigers didn’t do anything abhorrent in losing at Murray State and Austin Peay. They were the poor souls who had to walk into Murray and play the Racers after Belmont handed them that loss. Both losses were blowouts, though, and Tennessee State has just three Division I wins. No one else in the conference did anything tumble-inducing, either.

Player to watch:

Ledarrius Brewer, SEMO. Brewer’s shooting percentages are down from a year ago, but the 6-foot-5 wing took over Saturday and gave SEMO a needed win against Eastern Illinois. He finished with 28 points.

Trailing 57-54 with three minutes left, he made a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer that tied the score at 59 with 1:55 remaining. Then, in the final minute, SEMO coach Rick Ray plotted an isolation for him. He beat his defender on the baseline and dunked with beautiful violence to give SEMO the lead for good. It all came two days after he played 50 minutes in a triple-overtime loss.

Game of the week:

Murray State at Jacksonville State, 7:15 p.m. Thursday, ESPN+. This is no longer a meeting of the league’s two undefeated teams, but it’s still Murray State’s toughest remaining regular-season game and one of the few chances the Racers have left to play a top-150 opponent.

Contact Patrick Engel at (217) 238-6856. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickEngel_


Sports writer

I cover Eastern Illinois football and basketball, as well as Mattoon/Charleston prep sports, for the JG-TC

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