The NBA sees value in Belmont-Murray State; so should the NCAA selection committee

MURRAY, Ky. — The line waiting for a table at The Keg, which archly declares that it serves “The Best Cajun Food in Murray,” was 10-deep three hours before tipoff Thursday. Almost everyone in the rustic restaurant was decked out in Murray State blue and gold.

The exception to the dress code were the guys in slacks and dress shirts. Mitch Kupchak, president of the Charlotte Hornets, and his assistant general manager Buzz Peterson, waited dutifully for their chance to peruse a menu that included a special on frog legs and bluegill. Other NBA types were in the house as well, grabbing dinner before heading across the street to the 8,600-seat CFSB Center.

A total of 42 scouts and executives from 22 franchises sojourned to this remote rural hamlet for the big Ohio Valley Conference showdown: Belmont vs. Murray State, featuring potential NBA lottery pick Ja Morant of the Racers. While the game was something of an anticlimax — a 79-66 Belmont upset in which Morant was injured early and struggled thereafter — it could also serve as an object lesson:

If the NBA sees value in Murray State and Belmont, perhaps the NCAA tournament selection committee should as well. If it’s a Selection Sunday choice between a 10th team from the Big 10, a third team from the abysmal Pac-12 or a second team from the OVC, why not these guys?

Yes, this modest mid-major league could be worthy of multiple NCAA tourney bids. There were two quality teams on the court Thursday night. Two teams that should — if they sustain their level of play — both merit consideration for Big Dance inclusion.

The same could be said for the Southern Conference, which has four quality teams. And the West Coast Conference, which has some supporting actors to lead act Gonzaga. Other leagues could present multiple options by March as well.

If — and it’s a big if — the committee is willing to open its 68-team bracket beyond the power-conference cartel.

Belmont coach Rick Byrd, who won his 700th game Thursday night and had the game ball tucked under his arm afterward, a gift from Murray State coach Matt McMahon, would love to see it happen. But he’s been around long enough to refrain from getting his hopes up.

“It seems like every year it’s getting harder and harder in a league like ours to get two teams in,” said Byrd, whose Bruins have made seven NCAA appearances but none since 2015. “I think we both would have to run the table [from now until a prospective OVC tournament final meeting].”

At that point, Belmont would be 26-4. Murray would be 27-3. With absolutely no guarantee that it would be good enough.

That is the kind of error-free pressure that exists for mid-major programs to even dream of an at-large bid. Byrd’s pessimism is unfortunate but grounded in experience. Last time the OVC was a multi-bid league: 1987.

Increasingly, NCAA bids have been reserved for the bloated power leagues that have every advantage — scheduling clout, TV exposure and a far greater margin for error in terms of losing games. The committee is gradually squeezing out the little guys, other than automatic qualifiers who win their league tournaments. With many power-conference teams avoiding true road games and playing more conference games, a system built on schedule strength is tilting even more toward the Haves and away from the Have Nots.

A few years ago, the power leagues moved from 16 to 18 league games. Now the Big Ten is playing 20. That increases the allure of its television product, increases strength of schedule and decreases the opportunities for Have Nots to play (and potentially beat) those teams.

Meanwhile, teams like Belmont and Murray State have to take whatever games they can get.

The Bruins played six non-conference road games and went 4-2, including wins at UCLA and Lipscomb (the latter of which is ranked in the Ken Pomeroy top 50, some 37 spots ahead of UCLA). Their losses were at Purdue and at Green Bay. The Green Bay loss hurts, but here’s the rest of the story: It tipped off 40 hours after an overtime road win against Samford in Birmingham.

If the NBA sees value in Murray State and Belmont, perhaps the NCAA tournament selection committee should as well. (Getty Images)
If the NBA sees value in Murray State and Belmont, perhaps the NCAA tournament selection committee should as well. (Getty Images)

You know how many power-conference teams schedule Thursday night-Saturday afternoon road games 900 miles apart? None of them.

Murray played non-conference road games at Alabama, Middle Tennessee, Southern Illinois and Auburn — two of them 2018 NCAA tournament teams, and one a controversial exclusion. The Racers went 2-2, losing to the two SEC schools by a combined 11 points. They won the other two road games by a combined 50 points.

So the committee could consider a Belmont or a Murray (and Morant, who quickly has become a major fan draw). Or it could go with midpack power conference teams like Minnesota (one true non-conference road game, a 12-point loss to a bad Boston College team). Or Florida (one true non-conference road game, a 21-point loss to Florida State, heading into a game at TCU Saturday). Or Texas (zero non-conference road games until Saturday, at Georgia).

Which would you rather see?

The problem for programs like Belmont and Murray — which basically have been consistently good for decades — is that the rest of the league pulls down their schedule strength. After the top four in the OVC — Belmont, Murray, Austin Peay and Jacksonville State — it drops off precipitously. Even the showdown Thursday night between two good teams is a zero-sum game in terms of helping the league.

One team goes up. One team goes down.

In the Pomeroy Ratings, Murray dropped from No. 42 pregame to No. 51 after. While the Racers can clearly point to Morant’s performance being impacted by an ankle/foot injury just 100 seconds into the game, will anyone on the committee remember or care?

Meanwhile, Belmont rose from 96th to 73rd, a major jump up but still probably outside the at-large bid range. (Last year the lowest Pomeroy Rating for an at-large team was St. Bonaventure at No. 68.) The wins should pile up in the coming weeks, but the strength of schedule will decrease.

So Rick Byrd is probably right — for NCAA at-large purposes, Murray and Belmont could well have to win out until they would meet again in the final on March 9 in Evansville, Indiana. And even at that point, two worthy teams might still be fighting for one bid, with the loser shunned in favor of another middling power conference program.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

More from Yahoo Sports:
10-year-old wins science fair by proving Tom Brady is ‘a cheater’
Five ways we learned Cleveland Browns dysfunction runs deep
Trophies, touchdowns and ‘Wham Naked’: The Legend of Sean McVay
The 10 least tradable NBA contracts