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VOL. 37 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 01, 2013

OVC dream: Belmont vs. TSU in men's championship

By Tom Wood

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Belmont fans have taken their enthusiasm on the road this year, and the hope is they will help sell out the 7,500-seat Municipal Auditorium.

-- Belmont University / J. Michael Krouskop

The SEC men’s basketball tournament at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena is, as expected, sold out.

Tickets might also be hard to come by a few blocks over if Belmont and Tennessee State could find their way to the Ohio Valley Conference men’s tournament championship game at Municipal Auditorium.

Belmont’s fans might help sell out the auditorium for a title game against Murray State, or even East Kentucky since, historically, only the OVC champion earns the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA’s 68-team field.

TSU and Murray State defeated Belmont in the regular season, adding some spice to the drama.

“It’s going to be an exciting race,’’ OVC Commissioner Beth DeBauche says. “It’s anybody’s guess as to who’s going to win. We hope that drives attendance.’’

Capacity at the Municipal is 7,500 for basketball. Last year’s OVC final, a tense, 54-52 TSU loss to Murray State, drew 6,454 fans.

Rick Byrd’s Bruins have flirted with NCAA success in the past and are hoping to get chance for more.

-- Belmont University / J. Michael Krouskop

“One of the byproducts we’ve seen already is [Belmont] has a nice fan following, and we’re certainly very, very hopeful they’ll bring a good fan following to our tournament,’’ DeBauche adds.

“Last year we had a terrific turnout at the tournament, the second-best ever, and we hope to build on that.”

OVC men’s tournament play is March 6-9, with the championship game at 6 p.m., Saturday, March 9. The women’s title game is at 1:30 p.m. the same day.

One bid, two bids?

Belmont has flirted with Cinderella status in the NCAA tournament, most dramatically in 2008 when the Bruin lost 71-70 to Duke.

The Bruins have appeared in the NCAA tournament five times without a win. TSU’s men have been to the tournament twice with no wins.

TSU athletics director Teresa Phillips calls Belmont “a great addition to the OVC. They’ve pushed up the competition level, right here, right now. Belmont got off to a fast start, but teams have been able to make a little adjustment and see how they play, and this could be a winnable tournament by several teams.”

Only once in history have two OVC teams made it to the NCAA tournament in the same year. That was in 1987 when top-seeded Middle Tennessee State was upset in the semifinals but got an NCAA at-large bid along with tournament champion Austin Peay.

Veteran Belmont coach Rick Byrd doubts the OVC will get a second bid this year, though he’d been happy to receive one should Belmont make it to the finals and lose.

“Murray would have gotten one last year had Tennessee State won that championship game, so the OVC would have had two bids before we even came into the league,” Byrd says.

“I think it’s still going to take an outstanding year by one team and an upset by another in the tournament to create a two-bid league. Are there two teams strong enough to get an at-large (plus the automatic bid)?

“No one knows what the future holds, but the truth of the matter is there’s not a conference in the country that’s not having this same conversation: can we be a two-bid league?”

No drawbacks

Byrd says joining the OVC has been a smooth transition, mostly because the schools are similar in size, mission and close in proximity. He hopes Belmont fans will be at the Auditorium in droves.

“If Belmont can contribute to the OVC, I’ll be happy for it, because them inviting us into the league has really been good for Belmont. There have been no drawbacks,” Byrd says.

First-year TSU men’s coach Travis Williams says the OVC was very good before Belmont joined, but is even better now.

“When you look at basketball in this area, here in the city of Nashville, you have to embrace these tournaments, especially the Ohio Valley tournament, with the quality and caliber of the teams that will be in the field this year,” Williams says.

“Murray and Belmont and us, look at the strength of schedule and our RPI, four of the teams in the league are in the top 100 in scheduling this year nationally.

“Our schedule is better than a lot of top major programs nationally this year. So it should be an exciting brand of basketball played at Municipal Auditorium this year.”

Williams wants a stronger TSU presence at the tournament in the wake of last year’s tough loss.

“We had some fans come out, but we really need Big Blue Nation to come out. ... We need that support and what could make the OVC tournament more visible is to come out and support it, sell it out.”

Belmont AD Mike Strickland is excited about the prospects of a large pro-Bruins crowd at the Municipal, noting the school pre-sold some 500 OVC ticket packages.

“We’re looking forward to (the OVC tourney). We look for a big crowd,” Strickland says.

“I think we’ll have a big walk-up. Our people are excited, and I anticipate we’ll have a big crowd down there. I think the OVC is pretty excited about what we’ve added to basketball and what it will add to the tournament.”

Regardless of who makes the final, the OVC’s DeBauche hopes for a sellout. She’s worked closely with the Nashville Sports Council (the two entities partnered to successfully bid for the 2014 NCAA Women’s Final Four) and local businesses to raise the league’s profile.

“We’ve tried really hard for the past few years to talk to our fans about the tournament being a weekend event, not just following your basketball team but to think about it as coming to a destination, that you’re going to make a mini-vacation of it, enjoy some really good basketball, both men’s and women’s and follow your team, but follow other OVC teams and then have fun being here in Nashville,” DeBauche says.

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