October 26, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Belmont's Rick Byrd is defensive about preseason polls and his Bruins in general.

He doesn't like polls or the way Belmont played defense last season.

That didn't matter to his fellow coaches in the Ohio Valley Conference. Byrd's Belmont Bruins received 16 of 24 first-place votes from the league's coaches and sports information directors in a poll released Wednesday with the league's media day.

''I don't like preseason polls at all, I don't like preseason all-conference teams,'' Byrd said. ''Nobody's earned anything. If we don't get better defensively, we're not going to get where we need to get.''

Belmont ranked 312th out of 346 Division I teams allowing 78.4 points per game last season when the Bruins (20-12) lost to Georgia in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

Byrd, going into his 31st season with 731 career wins, describes himself as an offensive-minded coach but plans to base playing time more on defense than in years past.

One Bruin who will log a lot of minutes is reigning OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds, also the preseason player of the year.

The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game last season. The senior led Division I in field goal percentage the past two years, including 71.4 percent last season.

''Evan, maybe more than any other player we've ever had at Belmont, has this gift and knack for scoring the basketball inside,'' Byrd said. ''He has great touch scoring it around the basket, over bigger guys, under bigger guys, through bigger guys. So all we do is throw it to him and get out of the way.''

Belmont returns 12 players, including senior guard Taylor Barnette, junior forward Amanze Egekeze and junior guard Austin Lake.

While the Bruins are favored to win the East Division, Murray State is picked to win the West. The Racers have won the West the past four seasons, including a 17-14 mark last season when they lost in the OVC tournament quarterfinals.

''I really like our team,'' Racers coach Matt McMahon said. ''We have three seniors back who played huge role for us last season. All three have gotten much better as players and as leaders in the offseason, so I think all three are ready to take a step forward.''

Senior guards Bryce Jones (12.7 points and 4.2 assists), Damarcus Croaker (9.6 points, 4.5 rebounds) and Gee McGhee (9 points, 4.7 rebounds) give Murray State an explosive backcourt.

Austin Peay was the league's surprise last season as the first No. 8 seed to win the OVC tournament, upsetting four teams in four days.

''Our guys have got to understand that they've got a target on their back,'' Austin Peay coach Dave Loos said. ''They also need to understand that we need to put that in the rear-view mirror.''

OVC tournament MVP Chris Horton graduated, but the Governors return 10 players, including three starters. Guards Josh Robinson (16.9 points) and Jared Savage (record 19 3-pointers in tournament) will lead the way for Loos, who returns for his 27th season.

Tennessee State is picked to finish second in the East under Dana Ford, last season's OVC Coach of the Year.

''If we compete as a unit consistently from the start of the game to the end and we stay healthy, I like our chances to play anybody in the league,'' said Ford, whose Tigers improved by 15 wins to 20-11 last year.

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