Making the math work: OVC’s Eagles, Racers and Bruins battling for NCAA bid | Sports

Casey Alexander sighed slightly when asked the question.

Will the Ohio Valley Conference have two teams in the NCAA Men’s Tournament next month?

“I would just say ‘possible’,” Belmont coach Alexander said. “I wouldn’t say ‘likely’.”

Murray State, Morehead State and Belmont are the contenders. The Racers (23-2), ranked 23rd in this week’s Associated Press poll, lead the conference 13-0 entering a contest with Morehead State today at Johnson Arena. The Eagles (19-7) and Bruins (20-6) are tied for second in the OVC at 11-2, following Belmont’s 48-47 loss to Morehead State on a last-second shot Thursday in Nashville .

“It shows that our league’s players, coaches and programs deserve respect nationally because we have a great league,” Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin said. “Coaches know this; I don’t know if the media nationally outside of the Ohio Valley always necessarily gave us that kind of respect, but we have a really good league.

“We have teams that can compete with anyone, not just within our league, and to have three teams this year at the top who are as close as we are is a testament to the competitive fairness we have achieved. right now.

One of three – barring multiple jaw-dropping upsets, but why else would they call it March Madness? – will claim the OVC tournament title and with it an NCAA bid. The other two, highly qualified within their league, will have to plead their case with a selection committee that has given only one general offer to an OVC team in the last 34 years.

You almost have to have 10 advanced degrees in math and physics to calculate which of the 358 Division I teams makes the 68 field. Or – you could have invented the ubiquitous parenthesis field on ESPN and Internet broadcasts by Sunday selection.

Enter Joe Lunardi. No less an authority than ESPN’s father of the bracketology cottage industry considers Murray State as close to a lock for a general offer as there is in the OVC, as long as the Racers don’t. have no bad losses between now and the OVC Tournament Finals on March 5 in Evansville, Indiana. Lunardi named Murray State as the No. 10 seed in its projected bracket earlier this week.

“Really, the only thing to discuss is who has general possibilities as we speak,” agreed Alexander. “Murray State, if they haven’t won the tournament (OVC), I think they have a high probability of being an all-around team; that’s assuming they mind their own business from now until ‘at this moment.

The problem with that is that any loss between now and the OVC Finals would likely be considered a bad loss, and Murray State narrowly avoided one of those on Thursday with a solid second half in a win. 73-62 at Tennessee State.

“To me, if you lose to a decent program on the road in your league, I don’t blame you very much,” Lunardi said Tuesday in a phone interview. “The history of the (selection) committee is not so generous.”

Lunardi considers Belmont’s non-conference resume good enough to keep the Bruins in the mainstream conversation, “but I don’t think now will really be the time to talk,” he said.

And the Eagles “just don’t have enough meat and they won’t have enough meat for an at-large,” Lunardi said. “And the only way for them to get enough meat is to win a match or two which would give them the automatic bid.”

After the NCAA’s 32 automatic offers are awarded, the committee distributes 36 overall selections. It doesn’t look at a bubble team’s conference affiliation or conference record, Lunardi said.

“Now I think that’s stupid,” Lunardi said, “because I think if league play is 60% of your season it should be classified as such. But as a general rule they consider every team as independent.

So if the OVC gets one offer and, say, the Big Ten or the ACC gets nine, it’s not because the committee specifically picked all of those big conference schools over the major middles.

The selection committee bases much of its decisions on the NCAA’s NET Rankings, which tracks the records and results of home, road and neutral-site teams against teams divided into four quadrants based on overall strength . Typically, schools with wins against the Power Five leagues (Big 12, Big Ten, ACC, SEC, and Pac-12) plus the Big East increase their NET ranking and therefore have a better chance of winning a global offer from the NCAA.

The problem for major leagues like the OVC: Power Five teams rarely schedule home-and-away games at places like Morehead or Murray because the big schools don’t dare risk a loss that could keep them off the field.

Gonzaga is the exception. The Bulldogs are first in the NET rankings and could rise to first in the AP poll after Auburn’s loss to Arkansas on Tuesday.

As of Friday night, Murray State’s NET ranking was No. 28, Belmont was No. 46 and Morehead State was 108th.

If two OVC teams take part in this year’s tournament, that would be a rarity.

Before Murray State and Belmont took the field in 2019, the last time that happened was in 1987 when Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee State were on the field. The Blue Raiders lost to Notre Dame in the first round, while the Governors upset Illinois before falling to Providence, who reached the Final Four that year.

Morehead State and Murray State have managed NCAA tournament upsets in recent years.

In the 2011 Southeast Region, the 13th-seeded Eagles shocked No. 4 seed Louisville, 62-61, when Demonte Harper drained a 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds left and Kenneth Faried blocked the Cardinals’ Mike Marra shot to win the game. In the 2019 West Regional, the 12-seeded Racers defeated fifth-seeded Marquette 83-64.

Murray State apparently has the best chance of earning a berth off this season, with the highest NET ranking. Alexander, meanwhile, thinks Belmont’s five non-conference wins over NET top 100 teams — No. 49 Saint Louis, No. 60 Chattanooga, No. 68 Iona, No. 79 Furman and No. 99 Drake — should also be taken into account.

Morehead State won the OVC tournament last year. Spradlin thinks experience helps in 2022.

“You play so many games that practices can’t be long, grueling two, two and a half hour practices,” Spradlin said. “So I think it just helps with that day-to-day sense of urgency, that guys know, ‘hey look, it’s that time of year, we gotta be fresh, we gotta be sharp,’ and having that experience certainly gets that message home and helps make it consistent on a day-to-day basis.

Lunardi agrees that recent familiarity with Morehead State in NCAA realm might linger in committee members’ minds like a check in the Eagles’ column.

“Last year doesn’t matter in terms of data, but there is a human element,” Lunardi said. “Most of the 10 people who were in the room last year will be in the room this year. They know Morehead was there and they know it was respectable and the league is even better this year, and they’re right there. .

Belmont and Murray State are heading to the Missouri Valley Conference next season. For Spradlin, that means there will be extra incentive for the Bruins and runners in the stretch and during OVC tournament week. (Racers coach Matt McMahon declined to be interviewed through a spokesperson.)

“All of these coaches and players are extremely competitive, and that gives them one more thing to add to the fire that drives them every day,” Spradlin said. “Same thing for us.

“We’re the remaining team out of the three of us in this conversation, we’re the only one that’s going to be in the OVC next year, and we want to stay on top and we want to send them the message that, hey, we’re on top league right now and we’re going to be there for a long time.

Maria D. Ervin