Preview: Belmont men’s basketball OVC championship
Once again, the Bruins find their way back into the Ohio Valley Conference Championship game; and this time, they’re hoping to take back a dance abruptly stolen from them one year prior.
Roughly one year ago today, Belmont earned its first OVC Championship title since 2015 under a brand-new coach with a brand-new team. Celebration erupted in the city of Nashville, but, unbeknownst to the world, it would end four days later when the NCAA canceled the tournament for the first time in college basketball history.
Many seniors were heartbroken that their final shot at the big dance would be taken away. Luckily for the Bruins, however, many of their players would return and have another chance to use their seasoned tournament experience to earn it back once more.
Rather than taking on Murray State, a team the Bruins often meet in the championship, they will battle a different rendition of blue and gold against the second-seeded Morehead State Eagles.
The Eagles have had a very successful season — one that earned multiple OVC accolades heading into the postseason. They are led by the 2020-21 OVC Coach of the Year Preston Spraddlin, Morehead’s fifth-year coach who took a team expected to finish eighth in the conference to win a program-record 17 conference games, exceeding the expectations of the entire OVC.
Spraddlin found one of his many success stories of the season in freshman Johni Broome. Broome ended the regular season as one of only three freshmen in the nation leading their team in scoring after averaging a double double throughout the entire season.
Less than one week ago, Morehead State became one of only two teams to beat the Bruins this season in conference play, something head coach Casey Alexander remembers well.
“They whipped us last weekend,” said Alexander. “It’s been six days since we lost to Morehead State; those memories are very fresh in our minds.”
And that comes as no surprise, since Saturday will become the third time in three weeks these two teams have met; at this point, they know each other’s playstyles very well.
This go around, the Bruins will have junior center Nick Muszynski back on the floor, a dominant presence in the post they lacked in last weekend’s loss to the Eagles. His energy made a difference in the Bruins’ 73-58 win against the Eagles at the beginning of conference play.
Offensively, Muszynski tied fellow junior Grayson Murphy with a game-high 13 points along with eight rebounds. His biggest impact was in his defensive presence in the post, after he held the Eagles to just 26 points in the paint.
Without Muszynski just six days ago, Morehead State put up nearly double that amount at 44. He struck again in Friday’s semi-final win after he put up a 13-point 10 rebound double-double on a recovering ankle.
It’s clear Muszynski impacts the Bruins’ performance on both ends of the floor, whether he’s 100 percent or not. Coach Spraddlin is well aware he will turn the tides in Saturday night’s matchup, and knows his team will have to prepare for it.
“Obviously with Muszynski they’re a different team. They have the ability to score inside more efficiently, and he’s a terrific rim protector,” said Spraddlin.
In last Saturday’s season-closing loss to Morehead State, Murphy played his heart out in Muszynski’s absence, putting up his fifth double-double of the season with 24 points and 13 rebounds.
Tonight, he will once again have the second piece of Belmont’s dynamic duo as a helping hand, one that will enter the Ford Center looking to earn a second straight OVC Tournament MVP title.
Even though each of Belmont’s weapons are fully available and healthy, it’s tough to beat a team like Morehead State twice in one season. But Alexander believes his team is well-prepared for Saturday night’s showdown.
“Morehead State is really solid, really tough and mistake-free. Very simple style, but you have to earn it – I think we’re up for the challenge. I can’t wait,” said Alexander.
This article written by Julieann Challacombe.