The Ohio Valley Conference has produced some of the most exciting teams and players over the past three years. Even with the coronavirus and slightly altered schedules, this season shouldn’t be any different.
The NCAA will have a lot on its plate with the pandemic and organizing a tournament. But it’s safe to say that the quality of play in most mid-major conferences like the OVC will be top class.
With the likes of Belmont’s Nick Muszynski and 2020 OVC Player of the Year Terry Taylor, fans will be looking forward to great games full of talent and drama.
The OVC’s 2020-21 Coaches and Media Poll picked Austin Peay to win the conference, followed by Murray State, Belmont and Eastern Kentucky. The Ohio Valley Conference has been under the reign of both the Racers and Bruins for the last five years, with the exception of Austin Peay and a great Jacksonville State team.
Let’s look deeper at some of the probable power players in this year’s conference:
Ohio Valley Conference 2020-21 Outlook
The Bruins beat Murray State in last season’s championship game, winning the conference tournament for the first time in five campaigns. But Belmont will be without graduate transfer Tyler Scanlon and up-and-coming superstar Adam Kunkel, who transferred to Xavier.
Both Kunkel and Scanlon were instrumental in the Bruins game-winning play in the championship game. Kunkel led the team in points per game, with 16.5 and shot for 40 percent from the 3-point line. Scanlon was third on the squad for scoring at 12.5 points per game and shot for 50 percent from the field. These are massive holes the Bruins will have the fill.
Belmont also lost Garret Sudekum and Nick Hopkins to the transfer portal but still have immense talent that can carry it to another Ohio Valley Conference championship. OVC Defensive Player of the Year Grayson Murphy is on track to becoming one of Belmont’s greatest point guards. In his sophomore year, he started all 33 games, shot 52 percent from the field and averaged 9.8 points, 6 assists and 7.4 rebounds per game. He also led the team in steals with 86.
Murphy ran the court and was instrumental in the Bruins’ ball possession. He will have a larger target on his back this season but will continue to develop and get better under head coach Casey Alexander’s offense.
Muszynski will be as interesting of a player to watch in the OVC as any other. Winner of Freshman of the Year in 2019 and OVC Tournament MVP in 2020, Muszynski will be the lead bucket-getter. With the absence of Scanlon and Kunkel, Muszynski will have a lot of the scoring weight on his back early in the season. He averaged 15.3 points per game, 6.4 rebounds and led the team in blocks with 52, so he’s capable of big numbers. But Muszynski will have to show a lot of development in his speed and overall agility this season to be key for Belmont.
The Bruins also have a handful of youngsters who can blow the teams roof open. With first years like Evan Brauns and JaCobi Wood alongside sophomores Ben Sheppard and Mitch Listau, Belmont could have a lot of success depending on how it plays and how consistent it becomes. Its early development will be key if the team wants to win the Ohio Valley Conference again this season. Junior Caleb Hollander, who struggled throughout the 2019-20 season, can very well be the darkhorse for the Bruins. A solid and consistent campaign from Hollander can keep the Bruins right on top.
Murray State always puts out an amazing team, and that’s due to head coach Matt McMahon and his fantastic staff – he has coached and developed players like Jonathon Stark and 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. The Racers will be bringing back two superstar scorers in Tevin Brown and KJ Williams, and though a few players left, Murray State’s chase for the top of the Ohio Valley Conference will be no different this season.
Brown and Williams led the Racers in scoring with 17.9 and 12.7 points per game, respectively. And with the absence of Jaiveon Eaves and Anthony Smith, who led the team in rebounds, fans can expect a lot from Brown and Williams this season.
Another Racer who can have a great year is sophomore DaQuan Smith. Smith was second on the team for assists per game with 3.4 and shot better than 30 percent from the arc and field. He is someone who will need to step up if the Racers want to hold their own.
Eastern Kentucky finished last season with an overall record of 16-17 but 12-6 in conference. The Colonels made it all the way to the OVC Tournament Semifinals and held eventual-winner Belmont to only 60 points. EKU head coach E.W. Hamilton won OVC Coach of the Year for helping bring the Colonels back to the postseason for the first time in four years.
The Colonels will have three returning stars who will bring more to the table this year and can steal a game or two from Belmont, Murray or Austin Peay.
EKU’s Jomaru Brown led the team in scoring with 18 points per game as well as steals with 61. Brown and Tre Young, who averaged 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest, were selected to the Ohio Valley Conference’s Preseason All-OVC Men’s Basketball Team. Both are juniors and will be major threats in the OVC over the next two seasons.
Along with Brown and Young, sophomore Michael Moreno can be the player to give EKU the push over the top in the conference. Moreno averaged 8.6 points per game but led the team in field goal and three-point percentage with 46 and 35, respectively.
Fans should not keep EKU out of the discussion. The program has proved that even with a losing overall record, it can cause chaos in the OVC, which will create issues for Belmont and Murray, who have had cake walks to the championship game the past three years.
Another team that is no stranger to the spotlight or the NCAA Tournament is Austin Peay, who is the clear favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference in most preseason polls. Mid-Major Madness has Austin Peay ranked at No. 12, and the OVC Preseason Coaches and Media Poll picked the Governors to win the conference.
The biggest reason why Austin Peay is the league favorite? The incredible talent and athleticism of senior Terry Taylor.
Taylor, who earlier in the year entered the draft and withdrew, is one of the best scorers the OVC has seen over the past five years alongside Dylan Windler, Nick Mayo and Ja Morant. The 2020 conference player of the year averaged a double-double with 21.8 points and 11 rebounds per outing.
The Governors got knocked out of the OVC Tournament with a 73-61 loss to Murray State in the semifinal. It’s hard to believe that Austin Peay will go down like that this season. Taylor has had to carry the team on his back for most of his three years, but this will not be the case this time around. Along with Taylor, sophomore Jordyn Adams entered and withdrew from the NBA Draft, signaling they both knew they could do more this year.
Adams, the 2020 OVC Freshman of the Year, averaged 17.4 points per game and shot for 79 percent from the free-throw line last season. With a massive first year under his belt, the confidence and experience needed to help Taylor on the offense will be extraordinary.
He isn’t the only one who can shine alongside Taylor this year for the Governors. Gee Reginald, who shot for 44 percent from the field and 47 percent from the arc, will be an additional option for Austin Peay. Sophomore Carlos Paez, who posted 3.5 assists per game and had 42 steals, can be instrumental in making plays and changing game tempo. Austin Peay will most likely be on top of the Ohio Valley Conference, but the league shouldn’t be as top heavy as it has been in past years.
Don’t be surprised to see a few upsets from Tennessee State or Eastern Illinois – both were able to pick up key wins to put them into the OVC Tournament last season. Josiah Wallace of Eastern Illinois will be looking to end his college career with a bang, especially following an exciting 2019-20; Wallace averaged 15.6 points per game and shot 46.2 percent from the field last season.
TSU junior Carlos Marshall Jr. is returning after averaging 11.8 points per game and 4.4 rebounds each outing last campaign. Tennessee State has put up some great teams under head coach Brian “Penny” Collins, and the Gentry Center has always been a tough place for opponents to visit.
Pending what happens with the progression of the pandemic and how the NCAA and Ohio Valley Conference decide how to handle it, OVC fans should be in for an exciting season. Fans can expect big plays and close games from Murray State and Belmont, and even some upsets along the way. But Austin Peay should have the upper hand with the amount of talent that squad has this season.