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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | March 10, 2019

Why the Ohio Valley Conference tournament is a perfect start to March Madness

Players and coaches agree... the NCAA Tournament is great!

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — This is not the lofty world of the ACC or Big Ten. But before the bright-light leagues take the stage, before they start lobbying about how high their stack of NCAA Tournament invitations should be – will they get eight teams in or only seven? – let’s spend a few days with how the other half lives.

Ohio Valley Conference tournament: Preview, bracket and scores
 
They don’t plead for gobs of at-large bids at the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. They hope for maybe getting a second team invited, but since it’s happened only once – 32 years ago – that’s a tall order. So this is not about seedings or posturing. This is about survival, and being the last team standing, because that might be it on selection Sunday.
 
And look at the tournament they have to survive.
 
This is the league with two 25-4 teams on a collision course, one with maybe  the hottest player in the nation not named Zion Williamson, the other with the highest scoring offense in the land not named Gonzaga.

Murray State has the Ja Morant Show. Surely you’ve seen the highlights. His dunks can be a pyrotechnics display, and he’s on track to become the first Division I player to average 20 points and 10 assists since the NCAA made the assist an official stat 35 years ago.
 
Belmont has its 88.3 points-a-game offense, its 12 true road victories – no team in the country owns more – and its man on the bench who is on the short list of 800-victory coaches, up there with all the celebrities. Make room, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and the rest. Here’s Rick Byrd with 803. Belmont also has Dylan Windler, who was league pre-season player of the year, averaged a double-double, led the conference in rebounding and 3-pointers, and didn’t get a sniff of the postseason player of the year trophy. Morant-mania was that huge.

This is also the league with the third-seeded team that had some of its summer workouts in an elementary school and started the season with no locker rooms, no offices and no arena, because a tornado blew through the place last spring. But Jacksonville State went 23-8 anyway. Also, 21-10 Austin Peay is in the house, which means a gathering of those timeless shirts, Let’s go Peay!  And UT Martin, the team that used 18 different starting lineups. 
 
So, yeah, this seems like a fine place to spend a few days.
 
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6
 
Know what’s a little strange? The OVC tournament is in Evansville, and there’s not a single team in the league from Indiana. But a pre-game presentation on the Ford Center scoreboard reminds the teams that people in this state know a little about the sport, mentioning how 18 of the 20 largest high school gyms in the nation are in Indiana. So if the Ohio Valley Conference is going to play basketball, this seems as good a place as any. Besides, the Ohio River is just down the street from the arena.

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This is the night for the lower seeds to go at it, and they, too, have their stories.
 
Take Morehead State. In one year, the Eagles have gone from last place to fifth seed to holding off No. 8 seed SIUE 72-68 and advancing, partly by making all six free throws in the last minute after missing six of 10 in the first 39.

  
Coach Preston Spradlin talks about his youth movement, and he ought to know. He’s only 33 years old himself, one of the nation’s youngest coaches, and a guy who used to break down film for John Calipari at Kentucky.
 
Or take the second game. Here came Eastern Illinois with Mack Smith, who’s hit a 3-pointer in 48 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation. It takes him 36 seconds Wednesday night to make it 49.

And here was UT-Martin, chock full of oddities. The Skyhawks don’t list a single freshman on their 13-man roster and started all those lineups because of this ailment or that absence – four more than any other team in the nation. They're coached by Anthony Stewart, who when he wasn’t winning MVP in basketball as a collegian at Division III Mount Union, was throwing fastballs and circle change-ups for the baseball team.
 
UT-Martin also has transfer Preston Parks, who had to wait until midday on Nov. 21 for the NCAA to grant him a waiver and declare him eligible. Six hours later, he was on the court for the first time, scoring 15 of his 21 points in the final 3:24 to carry the Skyhawks past Western lllinois 92-90. A month later, he banked in a 75-footer at the buzzer to beat Chattanooga 75-72.

 So there has been little routine about UT Martin’s 12-18 season so far, and after the win, Stewart stands in a hallway and tries to put in some perspective what this crazy season has been like to coach.
 
“It’s a privilege to be able to do what I’m doing, if it takes one starting lineup the whole year or a hundred. I’m fortunate enough to have one of 353 (Division I) jobs, so you just take what’s given to you. I always tell the guys, I’m a former corporate America guy and will attest that a bad day of basketball is always better than a great day of work.”

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But really,18 lineups? He lost count. “I knew it was a few. Hell, I had my G.A. pass out and throw up on himself. You name it, it’s happened to us. Probably a majority of practices in the second half of the conference season, we couldn’t go five-on-five. But we just overcome. That’s what’s for them when they leave basketball. There’s a life out here. And this is just some testing waters to see how you’re going to react.”
 
They react well enough Wednesday night, including Delfincko Bogan, who scores 10 points while wearing one dark shoe on his left foot and one white shoe on his right.
 
You’ve got to love this league. And the top teams haven’t even played yet.

THURSDAY, MARCH 7

In case you ever wondered where the school name came from, Austin Peay is the only Tennessee governor to die in office. On that note, here are the Austin Peay Governors. That includes the leading scorer, but what in heaven's name does he have on his socks?
 
Terry Taylor is not only third in the OVC in scoring, but also rebounding. All 6-5 of him, which is one reason hardly anybody recruited him. Morehead State can't be happy to see Taylor again, since he did everything except drive the team bus in a 73-70 Austin Peay road victory three weeks ago.
 

He did, however, clean the team bus. He didn't want to leave things messy for the driver after the Govs' return home — "I wasn't raised that way," he says, "we should be able to clean up after ourselves" -- so there the star of the game was, picking up the trash. His final stats for the night: 42 points, 18 rebounds and a couple of dozen empty wrappers. Top that, Zion Williamson.

About his designer socks. Different pair every game -- bacon and eggs one night, donuts another, Tony the Tiger another. For this 95-81 victory, he puts up 28 points and 10 rebounds in pineapples.

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As for the second game, the last time junior Quintin Dove scored 29 points for UT Martin . . . wait a second. Quintin Dove had never scored 29 points for UT Martin. But that’s how many he has — at halftime. Or just four fewer points that the entire Jacksonville State team, with the underdog Skyhawks leading 43-33. It gets so bad, that when Dove is shooting free throws, the Jacksonville State band begins chanting, “One-man team! One-man team!”
 
Dove slows down, of course, and scores only six points the second half. Jacksonville State charges past to win 88-81, and is now eyeball to eyeball with the biggest star in town. The team that had to go through the aftermath of a tornado now faces winter storm Morant.
 
Jacksonville coach Ray Harper, walking back to his locker room, discusses what it was like, when his players had to dress out by the scorer’s table, because they had no locker room, and were sometimes working out on small courts. He still doesn’t have an office. “I told them, `Guys, it’s not about what you don’t have, it’s what you do with what you do have. Some of you guys didn’t grow up in two-story homes. We all came from different backgrounds, some from rough backgrounds. Just be thankful with what you have, be thankful nobody was killed in that tornado.'

"Give them credit, they never complained or made it harder than it could have been.”
 
So now the big names join the party. The top four seeds -- combined record of 96-26 — are in. Now we're about to see how good this league is at the top. As Austin Peay coach Matt Figger says, “How many teams win 13 (conference) games, and finish fourth?”  Austin Peay did.
 
The question is if the rest of the world understands what has gone on in the Ohio Valley this season. “They have no idea,” Harper says. “If this league doesn’t get two teams in the tournament, it’s a travesty.”

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On the marquee for Friday will be Morant and Windler. But is there room for the smallish post with designer socks? "I've dealt with that my whole life,” Taylor says. “Playing in the shadow of players who people thought were better than me.
 
"I just take it as a challenge. You don't define me, you don't tell me what I can and can't do. I just want to show people, even at my size, who I am. It is a chip on my shoulder every game."
 
That’s pretty determined talk from a guy wearing pineapples on his feet.

FRIDAY, MARCH 8

Ja Morant is in the house. So is Dylan Windler. Oh, and so is Magic Johnson. He and more than 40 other NBA scouts, probably hoping like so many others that these two guys end up on the same court Saturday night, playing for a championship. Both Murray State and Belmont have to get there, of course. About that …

Ford Center, largely empty the first two nights, is suddenly teeming. A crowd of 8,294 – largest neutral floor turnout in the history of the tournament -- has come to see the yin and yang of the Ohio Valley Conference.

Belmont goes first, finally shakes off stubborn Austin Peay 83-67, as Windler says hello to the tournament with 32 points and 21 rebounds, some of his eight 3-pointers launched from the Kentucky side of the river.

Murray State goes next and needs all of Morant’s 29 points to get by Jacksonville State 76-74. Matter of fact, the Racers need a Morant 3-point play with 8.8 seconds left – one of his thisaway-thataway-thisaway moves into the lane – to survive.

What do they think of all this clamor around them?

Windler first.

 “I struggled early on in the season against some big teams, when it was a big moment. I try not to think about that too much and let the game come to me. I’m just trying to win,” he says. “I can’t even really explain it, I’m so hungry to get in the tournament. Everything I’ve done to this point is solely for that goal."

It won’t be one-on-one with Morant Saturday night, but he understands the dynamic going on here. “It’ll be a lot of fun. I’ve talked to him a little bit but not a whole lot. He’s obviously a walking highlight.”

Yeah, you could tell that in the second game. See Ja slam on a breakaway. See Ja fire a laser down the lane for an assist. See Ja drive through rush hour traffic and loft a feathery bank shot. And that’s all before the first TV timeout.

 

He has 14 points in the first seven minutes and if the general roar from the heavily pro-Murray State crowd isn’t tough enough for Jacksonville State, the Gamecocks are hearing this mantra from the stands: You can’t guard him!  

Morant slaps hands with fans as he leaves the court at halftime, ahead 42-33. A certain Lakers Hall of Famer watches from nearby. The crowd chants “Magic! Magic!”

Magic? Murray State would need that from Morant in the final 10 seconds. Then a battalion of TV cameras followed him off the court. Another day in the life.

“I know at 19, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it,” his coach Matt McMahon says. Morant’s teammates seem unfazed, too. “Since I’ve blown up, they haven’t looked at me any different,” Morant says.

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As for doing all this in front of Magic Johnson, Morant more or less shrugs. “I honestly didn’t know (Johnson was here) until the end of the game. I just try to stay focused between those four lines. Now that you say that, it does feel good to have him in the building.”

So Saturday night, two 26-4 teams will go at it, led by two men who combined for 61 points and 21-for-33 shooting Friday night. This is a fairy tale ending for the OVC season, and look at all the chapters that led to it.

The one where Morant’s father Tee gives up his professional basketball career abroad to become a barber when his son is born. Tee works out little Ja in the backyard, honing skills such as step-back jumpers, and using tractor tires during the jumping drills so his son can have a soft landing.

Or the one where hardly any college recruiters seem to know Ja Morant is alive, until the summer camp when a Murray State assistant, looking for a concession stand, happens to see Morant absolutely owning a 3-on-3 game. The quest for a hot dog – or was it popcorn? -- started all this.

Or the one where Windler is a young phenom – in golf. That’s before his size and talent clicks in. And now he can drive 300 yards, shoot in the 70s, and occasionally whip his golf-loving coach.

Or the one where Windler, with his grade point average in accounting in the 3.8 neighborhood, becomes Belmont’s 16th Academic All-American since 2001, more than any program in the country. Want a rather staggering stat? Seven of Belmont’s top eight career scorers during the NCAA era were Academic All-Americans.

Now comes their last chapter together Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) – Morant, the sophomore NBA lottery pick-in-waiting vs. Windler, the senior not wanting it to end. Not until he gets to the NCAA Tournament in his last chance. Should be something.

SATURDAY

The OVC’s big party ends with a quick embrace and brief words, between two players headed in different directions. Dylan Windler to the Belmont bench to sit glumly through the award ceremony, and ponder why all those shots didn’t fall. Murray State’s Ja Morant to all the waiting microphones and cameras. Oh, and one other place — this the most important of all:
 
The Ja Show is going the NCAA tournament. Somewhere out there is a team soon to be tasked with stopping him. Good luck with that.
 
The final score is 77-65, but who are we kidding? “We all know it wasn’t a 12-point game,” Belmont coach Byrd says. Until the gap widened in the last couple of minutes, it was an NCAA bid teetering between teams and two stars.

Morant, darting this way, dashing that way, turning, twisting, reversing, repeating. Anything it took, until he scores 36 points to ever increasing roars. Few can get the house going like he can. “It looked like he threw it up there and it found a way to go in a few times,” Byrd says. “That’s the kind of player he is. That’s why everybody’s crazy about watching him.”
 
Windler, unable to find this range, shadowed often by Shaq Buchanan, who by the way, was named OVC defensive player of the year. Windler double-doubled but his 17 points came hard – 1-for-7 from the arc, even though some looked good. “That’s basketball for you,” he would say later.

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Well, if there was any consolation, his grandparents up in the stands were flashed on the scoreboard on kiss cam.
 
Murray State and Morant’s immediate future, we know about. The Racers will take that shiny 27-4 record out for a spin in the NCAA tournament, eager to unleash their Ja weapon on somebody.
 
But 26-5 Belmont? And senior Windler? A major thrust the past few days has been to prove to the world – or more precisely, the selection committee – that this league is worthy of an at-large bid.

So?
 
“I’m not going to campaign at all,” Byrd says, though he does mention that nice record and the quality of the top tier of the OVC, and how Belmont won many of the chances it had at upper quadrant wins. “The hardest thing that committee has to do is compare a good mid-major team with a middle-of-the pack power 5 team. I just can’t tell them how to do that.
 
“To be 16-2 in this league, this year . . . that means we’ve got a really good basketball team. How that compares with other people that are going to be in the bubble, on the bubble, whatever you say, I don’t know.”
 
 And so the first tournament to finish in the nation fills the first line in the bracket. Sixty-seven teams to go. Belmont hopes to be one, but the Bruins' waiting for the verdict starts just about the time Morant is doing his post-game victory interview.

“Obviously, an all-timer,” coach Matt McMahon says of Morant's 29-36 scoring performance the past two nights. Take a bow, Ohio Valley. To confirm the NCAA Tournament reservation of one of the most exciting college players in America has been one swell way to kick off the serious part of March. 
 
Also makes a perfect promo for what's ahead. Morant has been a hot item all season, but wait until about 10 days from now, when the lights really go up. You can almost hear the sounds of office poolers everywhere jumping on the bandwagon. And that's a lot of what the Ohio Valley Conference tournament was all about.