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Ohio Valley again stacked with Murray State, addition of Belmont

Conference USA hasn't done it. Neither has the MAC or Missouri Valley. Even the Horizon League, with its extended run of significant success, doesn't qualify for this exclusive list. In fact, outside of the top 10 or so conferences in America, only one league has put a team into the NCAA tournament's round of 32 in each of the last three seasons: the Ohio Valley Conference.

Having produced a top-10 team last season, and with multiple pro prospects and former Atlantic Sun heavyweight Belmont in the league this year, OVC no longer stands for "the Other Valley Conference." The league that famously made Dick Vitale do a headstand 25 years ago is doing just fine today. A combination of on-court success and improved talent levels on many rosters has created heady, optimistic times in the usually low-spotlight conference.

"The league is really good, and hopefully with the addition of Belmont, it gives us an opportunity to maybe have a two-bid league," said Murray State coach Steve Prohm, who went 31-2 in his debut season last year. "It won't happen every year, but some years it may present itself."

Often nestled just above other small Southern conferences in overall performance and well below some in basketball budgets, the OVC has actually been a quality talent producer for many years. Ever since streetball legend James "Fly" Williams starred for Austin Peay in the 1970s, the league has developed a number of solid future pros, including Kevin Duckworth, Anthony Mason, Carlos Rogers, Bubba Wells, Popeye Jones and Kenneth Faried. Tennessee Tech's Kevin Murphy was a second-round pick this year by the Utah Jazz, and NBA scouts are eagerly eyeing current seniors Isaiah Canaan (Murray State) and Robert Covington (Tennessee State).

Throw in new league member Belmont's Kerron Johnson, and the OVC has a heavy-hitting trio of top talents, with multiple other players from last season's all-league teams also returning. The talent influx has raised the stakes on the court, and in turn, also in recruiting.

"The one thing you realize is you gotta get those guys if you're gonna win in this league now, be a dominant program or put yourself in position to win a conference championship," Prohm said. "You've got to have elite perimeter guys, you have to have good guys up front."

It's team success that gets leagues noticed, though, and if you count Morehead State's opening-round win in 2009, the OVC has had a team walk happily off an NCAA tournament court in each of the past four seasons. That's tremendous by almost any league's standards, and the extra win shares coming to the league in the upcoming seasons should help budget lines and allow for more selective scheduling. Teams like Murray State and Belmont may have trouble getting on people's schedules, but even a couple fewer buy games replaced by winnable ones for teams lower in the league could provide a nice RPI/KenPom boost. Combine that with a good team at the top racking up a record like Murray State did last season, and suddenly there may be an NCAA tournament safety net available.

With Belmont now in the fold, there's no questioning the quality atop the league, even if the two presumed favorites may not be as good as they were last season. Murray State returns leading man Canaan and athletic shot-blocker Ed Daniel but has lost a trio of significant senior contributors and also Latreze Mushatt to an Achilles injury, meaning four important rotation guys need to be replaced. That doesn't even count guard Zay Jackson currently being suspended from team activities in the wake of an automobile incident where two people were injured. Prohm is going to have to sift through a lot of options and hope that he can find a couple more Donte Pooles, longtime reserves who step up when given starter's minutes.

Belmont, which has all-Atlantic Sun guard Ian Clark to go with Johnson, will be significantly smaller this year having graduated Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth, its frontcourt standouts from last season. Coach Rick Byrd said the Bruins will stick with their system that annually yields one of the more efficient offenses in the nation, but as they weren't able to land a preferred option at the five in this year's recruiting class, they'll have to somewhat modify their approach.

Does this flux open the door for someone like Tennessee State, which was the only squad to beat the Racers during the regular season last year (on the road, no less), and lost the rubber match in the OVC final in the final seconds? In addition to Covington, an unselfish 6-foot-9 forward with a balanced inside-outside game, the Tigers have other solid rotation guys back and will put new coach Travis Williams' stamp on what was a CIT team last season, the Tigers' first postseason appearance since 1994.

"We're not going to change it up too much, but we're going to have my DNA and what I totally believe," Williams said. "I believe in a defensive-minded team. I believe in no excuses, no attitude, no bad body language."

Because of Belmont's arrival, the league has changed to a two-division format, and Murray State looks set to benefit in year one. The Racers play Belmont and Tennessee State once apiece, and both of those games are at home. That said, throw in traditional league heavyweight Austin Peay and a Tennessee Tech team that returns a first-team all-league talent in scoring/rebounding guard Jud Dillard, and there is plenty of reason to watch and wonder. This shouldn't be the runaway last season was for the Racers, and all of the coaches are looking forward to both the challenge and the opportunity.

"It might make a tougher path to the NCAA tournament than we've faced," Byrd said about his program's maiden OVC voyage after a dominant period in the Atlantic Sun, "but I also think playing people like that, having people like that in your league, improves your own program."

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