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OVC Preview: Murray State, Belmont poised to continue league’s recent success

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Murray State hopes to repeat as Ohio Valley Conference champs (US Presswire)

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 15 league, the Ohio Valley Conference

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Of all the conferences outside the RPI top 10, only the Ohio Valley has put a team in the Round of 32 each of the past three seasons.

Three years ago, it was Murray State ousting UTEP and taking eventual national runner-up Butler down to the final possession. Two years ago, it was Kenneth Faried blocking a shot at the buzzer to preserve Morehead State's upset of Louisville. And last year, it was the Racers validating a 31-win season with a win over Colorado State before a solid effort in a loss to Marquette.

If the OVC is going to extend that streak to four, Murray State once again is the most likely candidate to do it.

Starters Donte Poole, Ivan Aska and Jewuan Long are gone from the record-setting team that started 23-0 last year, but All-American candidate Isaiah Canaan put off the NBA and returned to school for his senior season. Canaan averaged 19 points per game last season, shot 46.7 percent from behind the arc and finished second in the league in assists.

The most proven member of Canaan's supporting cast is senior forward Ed Daniel, who started every game for the Racers last season and excelled defensively and on the glass while endearing himself to fans with his trademark hair and headband. Either Brandon Garrett or freshman Zabius Henderson will likely get the first crack at starting alongside Daniel in the frontcourt, though either will have a difficult time replacing Aska's output.

Promising sophomore Zay Jackson will alleviate some of the perimeter scoring burden from Canaan if he is able to play this season. Jackson has been been charged with second degree assault as a result of accusations that he intentionally struck two people with his car in a Walmart parking lot last month. If he is unavailable, transfer Dexter Fields and freshman C.J. Ford will have to contribute heavy minutes immediately.

There are enough questions about Murray State's supporting cast that it's unlikely the Racers run away with the league the way they did a year ago. Fortunately for them, they caught a break with the league adopting a two-division format this year as a result of the arrival of Belmont from the Atlantic Sun.

Guard heavy-Belmont and improving Tennessee State pose the biggest threat to Murray State this season, but both teams will play in the opposite division from the Racers. What's more, both only play Murray State once next year — and both will visit the Racers for their lone meeting.

If Murray State hasn't wrapped up an NCAA tournament bid before the OVC tournament, however, then neither the Bruins nor the Tigers will be easy outs.

Belmont has questions in the frontcourt but returns one of the top mid-major backcourts in the nation in high-scoring point guard Kerron Johnson and versatile defensive stopper Ian Clark. And Tennessee State, the lone OVC team to beat Murray State last season, has three starters back including all-conference big man Robert Covington, a 6-foot-9 forward with an NBA power forward's body and limitless potential.

Best shooter: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State
Best playmaker: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State
Best defender: Ian Clark, Belmont
Coach on the rise: Steve Prohm, Murray State
Coach on the hot seat: Jason James, Tennessee Martin
Three must-see games: 1. Murray State vs. Charleston Classic, Nov. 15-18 (If the Racers want to contend for an at-large again, a good performance here is a must); 2. Belmont at VCU, Dec. 1 (The Bruins' vaunted backcourt must deal with VCU's "Havoc" defense); 3. Belmont vs. Lipscomb, Nov. 9 and Dec. 4 (Battle of the Boulevard will be a pair of non-league games this year)

New coaches: Travis Williams, Tennessee State (Promoted from assistant coach); Jay Spoonhour, Eastern Illinois (Had been coach of Moberly Area Community College in Missouri)
Regular-season winner last season: Murray State
Tourney winner last season: Murray State
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 21st; 2010-11: 27th, 2009-10: 20th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2012, Murray State beat Colorado State as a No. 6 seed

More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:

Ohio Valley Conference (No. 15): Isaiah Canaan talks about coming back to Murray State, his most famous shot and how Hurricane Katrina altered his lifeMurray State, Belmont poised to continue league's run of recent success

Ivy League (No. 16): Princeton's Ian Hummer excels at a school he has adored since childhoodIvy League Capsule Preview: Harvard is still a title threat despite cheating scandal

Patriot League (No. 17): C.J. McCollum bypassed the NBA and returned to Lehigh to fulfill a promise to his parentsExpect another spirited two-way battle between Bucknell and Lehigh

MAAC (No. 18): Mitch Buonaguro enters important year optimistic Siena can climb back into contentionNext step in Manhattan's stunning turnaround could be league title

Southern Conference (No. 19): Trading soccer for hoops has paid off for College of Charleston star and Great Britain Olympian Andrew LawrenceDavidson is loaded for another run at a league title, NCAA bid

WAC (No. 20): Will the beleaguered WAC survive as a basketball league beyond next season?;WAC Capsule Preview: Utah State hopes to rebound from frustrating 2011-12 season

Sun Belt League (No. 21): In likely his final season at North Texas, Tony Mitchell wants to leave a legacyMiddle Tennessee State vies for the NCAA bid it narrowly missed last year

Summit League (No. 22): In the small town of Brookings, S.D., Nate Wolters is a reluctant superstarSouth Dakota State looks like the clear favorite

NEC (No. 23): Oft-overlooked Shane Gibson hopes to go from hidden gem to stardomNEC Capsule Preview: Three-way battle for league title could hinge on LIU Brooklyn suspensions

Big Sky (No. 24): New stars must emerge for Weber State to succeed without Damian Lillard;Montana remains the favorite despite Will Cherry's injury

Big West (No. 25): With San Diego State on its way, Big West teams are investing in hoops to avoid being left behindRevamped Long Beach State takes aim at another Big West title

Atlantic Sun (No. 26): Humble, unassuming Torrey Craig leads South Carolina Upstate's resurgenceWhich team will capitalize on Belmont's departure?

Big South (No. 27): Unwanted in high school, guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper are now powering Charleston Southern's resurgenceCoastal Carolina hopes home is sweet this March

Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for LamarOral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league

America East (No. 29): Stony Brook basketball draws inspiration from baseball team's College World Series runEarly departures drain league of some of its top talent

MEAC (No. 30): Rush of publicity from Missouri win has long-lasting impact at Norfolk StateSavannah State seeks NCAA bid to cap remarkable turnaround

SWAC (No. 31): Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to torture of taking a year offBalanced league will crown new champ this year

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