David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday’s OVC Championship in Nashville.
Late in Saturday’s Ohio Valley Conference Championship Game, it looked like the college basketball world would face a week-long debate about whether Belmont, a top-25 RPI team that won the league’s regular season championship, would merit an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after falling to defending champion Murray State. The Racers appeared to be in control when they led 62-58 with fewer than 40 seconds to play in regulation. But an Ian Clark jumper and a two missed free throws from Ed Daniel set up a Kerron Johnson drive that tied the game with nine seconds remaining. Following some controversy surrounding a clock stoppage issue and Murray State calling timeout before crossing half-court, the Racers could not get a good look for the win. In overtime, after Murray State star Isaiah Canaan dribbled the ball off of his foot in a tie game with 25 seconds remaining — one of 26 Racer turnovers on the night — it was Johnson again playing the hero as he pulled up in the lane and made a high-arcing jumper over Daniel, giving the Bruins a 70-68 victory and the league’s auto-bid in their first year, as well as the 1,000th victory in program history.
Belmont is now able to avoid all talk of whether its resume was good enough to earn a coveted at-large spot in the field, and while we may never know whether it was, coach Rick Byrd is more than happy to not have to wonder. “I had thought about that question because I knew we could lose either of these games,” he said. Now, he can focus on getting his team ready for its next opponent, whoever it may be. The Bruins must sit and wait a week before finding out whether their resume was good enough to earn a seed that will give them a reasonable shot at a first-round victory, something that has eluded the program in its first five appearances in the Big Dance. There was the near-miss in 2008 against Duke that put the program on the national map, and the disappointing double-figure losses to Wisconsin and Georgetown the last two years, when the Bruins represented the Atlantic Sun. While they clearly stepped up in competition in the OVC this year, most projections, including our latest, have them in the #12-line, only a spot better than the past two seasons. So while the RPI may be higher than it has ever been for Byrd’s team, the draw his team gets may look familiar. What likely faces the Bruins is a game against a bigger, more athletic high-major squad that will present match-up issues.