Thursday, October 10, 2013
You Gotta See This: Ohio Valley
By Eamonn Brennan
Belmont and coach Rick Byrd could be the preseason favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: You do know about Belmont, don't you?
There was some rather major news out of the Ohio Valley this week: Murray State point guard Zay Jackson will miss the entire 2013-14 season with a torn ACL. Not only was the diagnosis a blow to the Racers' chances of getting back to the NCAA tournament this season -- Jackson would have been coach Steve Prohm's best and most important player -- but it was a blow to the comeback Jackson had worked so hard to stage. (Last October, Jackson pleaded guilty to charges of wanton endangerment, and spent 46 days in jail, after police arrested him for this flabbergasting incident in a Wal-Mart parking lot.)
But that would have been too easy, not to mention dishonest by way of omission. In other words: It wouldn't have focused on Belmont, and if you know nothing else about the Ohio Valley Conference right now, Belmont is the takeaway.
That sounds too general; what about Belmont, right? Sorry, but no. I meant it the way it was written. Belmont in general. Belmont writ large. Belmont's continued and relatively unheralded success under coach Rick Byrd -- that's the story here. Belmont itself is the story.
How so? Over the last three seasons, two of them in the Atlantic Sun and the last one, 2012-13, as a member of the Ohio Valley, Belmont's year-end adjusted efficiency rankings go like this: No. 19 (2010-11), No. 23 (2011-12), No. 49 (2012-13). That lofty year-in-year-out performance would be impressive had it been accomplished by a school with 10 times the resources Belmont has at its disposal; when you factor in the conference competition and financial disadvantages of playing in a "low-major" league (at least relative to the teams you usually see finish among the nation's most efficient) it becomes almost unbelievable. And yet, outside of the die-hards, who even knows what a Belmont is?
Casual fans haven't gotten the memo, and the reason is obvious: The Bruins went 0-3 in the NCAA tournament.
Now comes the transition: In March, when the Bruins fell in the opening round of the tournament for the third straight season, they also waved farewell to the best player in program history, guard Ian Clark. OVC tournament savior Keron Johnson also graduated, alongside forward Trevor Noack. Byrd still has two very viable options in J.J. Mann and Blake Jenkins, and, with Murray State hobbled, little in the way of an obvious OVC challenger.
Time was, you had to be a hermit to know these kinds of things about the Ohio Valley Conference, or sneaky-good mid-majors in general. Now there's nowhere to hide. And yet the gap between Belmont's run of success and its profile illustrates the be-all-end-all importance of the NCAA tournament to the sport's wider consciousness. Given all that, it will be fascinating to see where Byrd takes his program next.
But for now? Just be aware that they exist: The Belmont Bruins, last of the unsung.