For the second consecutive year, the men’s basketball team will face Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Final.
Only this time around, the implications are much higher than possibly ever before.
Morant, the OVC Player of the Year, is one of the best athletes in all of college basketball and is ranked third on ESPN’s “NBA Draft 2019 Best Remaining Players.” He is currently averaging 24.2 points per game and 10.3 assists per game.
Morant is arguably the best athlete the Bruins have faced in the past three years.
The Bruins defeated the Racers in Murray 79-66 in January, but Belmont didn’t have to face a healthy Morant. He twisted his ankle in the first two minutes of the first half and played awkwardly for the rest of game.
For Saturday’s game, Murray State is coming off a huge 76-74 semifinal victory over Jacksonville State. Morant hit the game-winning layup and free throw to secure the Racers’ win. He scored 29 points and 8 rebounds.
The game drew a record attendance for the OVC of 8,294, which included 40 NBA scouts, numerous NBA general managers and even Magic Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations.
But Morant wasn’t the only one getting scouted. Belmont senior Dylan Windler has also brought national attention to himself and the program throughout his final year at Belmont. Windler is currently ranked No. 43 on ESPN’s “NBA Draft 2019 Best Remaining Players.”
Windler has the chance to make Belmont history, as no Bruin in the Division I era has ever been drafted into the NBA. Even Belmont legend Ian Clark, who is currently on the New Orleans Pelicans roster, was signed as an undrafted free agent.
Windler showed off his talents in Friday night’s 83-67 comeback victory over Austin Peay in the OVC semifinal. Windler scored 32 points and rebounded an unprecedented 21 in front of 40 NBA scouts. He will have another opportunity to showcase his talent in front of anticipated record attendance at the Ford Center against the Racers.
The Bruins also have the talents of OVC Freshman of the Year Nick Muszynski, who is averaging 14.9 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game. But Muszynski had a hard fall in the second half of Friday night’s semifinal and did not return to the game.
The presence of freshman like Muszynski and Grayson Murphy has allowed Belmont to win some huge games and get recognized as a legitimate bubble team for the NCAA Tournament.
That is where things get interesting for this game.
Mid-major teams are very unlikely to get at-large bids for the tournament. This could change this year because of a weak bubble.
Sources like ESPN and the Athletic think Belmont could make it to March Madness even without a conference tournament championship.
Murray, on the other hand, doesn’t have the resume the Bruins have accumulated this season. The same sources are listing Murray as a tournament team only if they beat Belmont and win the OVC Tournament.
Though Belmont hasn’t won the OVC Tournament since 2015, the Bruins’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament seem likely, even though they have to face a Murray State team that has become a regular in ESPN highlights this season.
Saturday’s matchup will tip off at 7 p.m. in Evansville, Indiana, and can be watched on ESPN2.
Photos by Carina Eudy.