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There are a ton of different conferences in action on Thursday night and a lot of ways that we could go with this spotlight game preview. As you know from being a regular listener of myself and Kyle Hunter on Handicapping the Hardwood (and if you’re not, you should rectify that by checking out this week’s segment), we love to give the small conferences as much airtime as we can.
That’s why tonight’s spotlight preview comes from the Ohio Valley Conference and the big battle on ESPN2 between Belmont and Murray State. This was another game highlighted in my college basketball situational spots article and stands out as a huge game in the OVC.
Early money has come in on Murray State at Bookmaker Sportsbook to make the Racers the favorites over the Bruins. The line is -1 across most of the market, though Pinnacle Sportsbook, widely regarded as the sharpest of the offshore sportsbooks, was the first to make the leap to -1.5. The total checks in at 147.5.
This prop bet won’t be offered anywhere, but let’s set an over/under on Ja Morant mentions on the ESPN2 broadcast. Say, over/under 6.5 with the over at -115? Morant is gone from Murray State, but his impact and legacy within the program will live on forever. It is impossible to overstate the loss of Morant, who took 508 shots from the floor last season and made 250 of them while having a 36% usage rate and 24.7 points per game to go along with just shy of 10 assists per contest.
How Matt McMahon’s team has replaced Morant has been quite a team effort. The Racers are still a pretty good offensive bunch that ranks 45th in Effective Field Goal Percentage on offense. The Racers have gotten to the line a ton, as their free throw rate ranks fourth in the nation. They are shooting 53.6% on two-point shots and a respectable 34.7% on three-pointers.
Tevin Brown, not Ja Morant, is the highest-rated recruit in the McMahon tenure and he has taken up Morant’s chief scoring role while shooting 40.7% from three. Fellow sophomore KJ Williams is shooting just under 64% on two-point efforts with 15.5 points per game in OVC play. He’s also averaging over seven rebounds per contest for the season. Brown has had four 20-point games in conference play to this point.
Murray State is 6-0 in those six games with an average margin of victory of 13 points, but those six teams rank 304th, 330th, 239th, 346th, 304th, and 330th per Bart Torvik. The Racers needed overtime in a bad look-ahead spot last Saturday to beat SEMO State by five on the road. It was the second-worst defensive performance of the year for Murray State with 1.177 points per possession allowed.
Belmont had consistently been one of the best low-majors in the country for a long time under Rick Byrd. Byrd oversaw six NCAA Tournament berths in his 12 seasons and also was the steward for the conference switch from the Atlantic Sun to the OVC. Belmont made the tournament last season and was a one-and-done. Byrd stepped away from coaching and the Bruins kept it local to pluck Casey Alexander from nearby Lipscomb to be the successor. Not much has changed on Alexander’s watch, as Belmont remains a really solid team with a very efficient offense that takes great care of the basketball.
The Bruins are ninth in 2P% and rank 70th in 3P%. They are top 40 in TO% on offense and have actually improved defensively from last year’s numbers. Belmont’s eFG% against on defense is 45.7% and ranks 48th. That would be the highest finish in eFG% defense since 2011 when the Bruins won 30 games and went 19-1 in A-Sun play.
Belmont pessimists will point to one of the worst schedules in the country to throw some cold water on those numbers. Playing in the OVC won’t change that much. Belmont ranks 351st in strength of schedule per KenPom and 344th per Torvik. It is a fair argument to make.
However, Murray State’s strength of schedule ranks 353rd for both KenPom and Torvik. There are 353 Division I college basketball teams.
In other words, this is an enormous step up in class for both squads. Like Murray State, Belmont is most reliant on sophomores like Grayson Murphy, Nick Muszynski, and Adam Kunkel. Senior Tyler Scanlon has been very efficient around the rim and as a stretch 3 at 6-foot-7 that is shooting 42.3% from deep. Muszynski is the offensive star of the team, with Murphy as the facilitator of the offense with over six assists per contest.
Murray State struggles to defend the perimeter, but does rank 62nd in 2P% defense at 45.2%. The problem with every stat for these two teams is that they have played such poor schedules that we don’t know what is real and what is not.
Taking all of this into account, Murray State looks like the play. Refs are generally tilted towards the home squad and the Racers get to the line a lot. Belmont has gotten really fortunate that opponents have only shot 62.1% from the free throw line. It is possible that the new look under Casey Alexander throws Murray State off a little bit in the early going since it had been Byrd for so many years in a row.
In the first real conference game for both teams, I’ll take the Racers by the thinnest of margins.
Pick: Murray State -1
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