The culmination of the Ohio Valley Conference men’s basketball season will take place on Saturday when an original conference member takes on the youngest member for a place in the NCAA tournament. The Eastern Kentucky Colonels (23-9) were one of the founding members when the OVC was created back in 1948, alongside Morehead State and Murray State. The Belmont Bruins‘ seed (24-8) jumped into the conference before the 2012-13 season from the Atlantic Sun Conference, where they had been a cut above the rest of the conference. Belmont won the OVC last season in their first year and will look to extend their NCAA tournament appearance streak to four.
Belmont comes into the championship game as the No. 1 seed in the conference, paced by three dynamic backcourt players in senior J.J. Mann, junior Reece Chamberlain and sophomore Craig Bradshaw. The three all average more than 30 minutes on the court per game, while chipping in at least 11 points per game. The frontcourt is not half bad either, with undersized forwards Drew Windler and Blake Jenkins patrolling the glass; Windler stands 6-foot-9 and Jenkins is 6-foot-8, which could be a problem for Belmont if they come up against an opponent with a dominant big man.
Head coach Rick Byrd has been at the helm of Belmont since 1986, compiling a record of 595-301 in those 28 seasons; he knows exactly what it takes to get his teams ready come tournament time. Belmont had some very tough tests with road matchups at North Carolina, South Dakota State, Kentucky and a tough home game against Virginia Commonwealth.
Eastern Kentucky is a very exciting team to watch play basketball; they play the equivalent of the no-huddle offense in college football. The Colonels’ starting lineup consists of an undersized center in Eric Stutz at 6-foot-8 and four guards who like to push the tempo of the game. The 6-foot point guard in Glenn Cosey is the quarterback of the team, with 18.7 points and 4.2 assists per game.
There are positives and negatives when you run the style of offense that Eastern Kentucky does. On the plus side, the Colonels average just less than 80 points per game, which ranks them in the top 30 nationally. They are also ranked in the top 20 in total field goal percentage shooting 48.6 percent from the floor.
The downside to their game is the lack of presence on the rebounding side; Eastern Kentucky is second-to-last in the country, with only 26.4 rebounds per game. Stutz and junior Corey Walden are the only players on the team averaging more than four rebounds every game.
These two teams are very evenly matched, having split the regular-season games, but there was one glaring stat that jumped out when analyzing those games. Turnovers really killed Belmont in the game they lost back on Jan. 16. They committed 20 turnovers compared to the 13 per game they normally averaged. If Belmont can keep their turnovers down and force Eastern Kentucky into foul trouble, then they should be cutting down the nets by the end of the evening on Sunday.