Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Kentucky teams leading OVC hoops revival

If we may interrupt our state's obsession with Kentucky blue and Louisville red for just a moment, there is a men's college basketball trend impacting the commonwealth worth noting. The last few years have been a very good time for the Ohio Valley Conference, especially Kentucky teams in the OVC.

After going almost two full decades (1990-2008) without winning an NCAA Tournament game, teams from the OVC — Morehead State or Murray State — have now scored one Big Dance win in each of the last four seasons. Included are upsets of Vanderbilt (by Murray) in 2010 and Louisville (by Morehead) in 2011. It is the first time in league history that the OVC has won NCAA Tournament games in four consecutive years.

Over the past four NBA drafts, three OVC players have been chosen — Tennessee-Martin's Lester Hudson (2009, second round, Boston); Morehead State's Kenneth Faried (2011, first round, Denver); and Tennessee Tech's Kevin Murphy (2012, second round, Utah).

In various 2013 mock drafts, both Murray State point guard Isaiah Canaan and Tennessee State big man Robert Covington are being projected as possible NBA picks.

"Our league has been winning games in the NCAA Tournament and having players drafted (by the NBA)," says Murray State Coach Steve Prohm. "That's hard proof that the league is stronger."

As for the Kentucky strength, the last eight OVC teams to play in the NCAA Tournament have included seven from the Bluegrass State — Murray State three times (2006, 2010, 2012) and twice each for Eastern Kentucky (2005, 2007) and Morehead State (2009, 2011).

"The whole league is getting better and better," says Eastern Kentucky Coach Jeff Neubauer. "This is the fourth year in a row that I've said in the pre-season, 'This is the best the OVC has been in my eight years here.' The last three years, I've been proven right. I think I'm going to be (proven right) this time, too."

In part, the recent success of the OVC in the NCAA Tournament is the tale of two difference-making players.

Former Morehead big man Faried was the building block that allowed ex-Eagles head man Donnie Tyndall to construct teams that won NCAA Tournament games in 2009 and '11. Faried has gone on to become a standout for the Denver Nuggets.

Current Murray star Canaan earned OVC Freshman of the Year honors in 2010 on the Racers' team that shocked Vandy in the NCAA round of 64. Last season, he was league Player of the Year while helping the Racers (31-2) win their first 23 games and again reach the NCAA round of 32.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if the impact of Faried and Canaan on OVC basketball extends beyond their college playing careers.

"As Kenneth Faried has had success, even in Denver, as Murray State had success and got so much attention last year, I think it helps in recruiting all throughout the league," says EKU's Neubauer.

There's every reason to think the OVC will get better through addition.

After dominating the Atlantic Sun Conference in recent years with five NCAA Tournament appearances in the past seven years, Belmont has joined the OVC. That has created a 12-team league that has split into East and West Divisions.

"Belmont is really, really good," says Neubauer. "It will be harder to win the league with them in, but it will also be a stronger league in the RPI. So it should help."

A next frontier for the OVC is to have a team win two games in an NCAA Tournament. The league has not done that since former member Western Kentucky did it as part of a Final Four run (which was subsequently vacated) in 1971.

Last season, many thought Murray, which entered the NCAAs as a No. 6 seed and got to play its first two tourney games in Louisville, had a golden chance to do so. Murray beat Colorado State, but a late Marquette rally did in the Racers.

"It was a big disappointment," Prohm says of losing in the round of 32. "Our kids really thought of themselves as a team that belonged in (the round of 16)."

Another barrier to break is the Ohio Valley Conference has not had two teams make the NCAA tourney since 1987. With the addition of Belmont, that looks more possible for the OVC in coming years.

"I really think this can become a league that gets two bids," says new Morehead State Coach Sean Woods. "That's the next step."

Next step for an OVC already on a good run.