Men's Basketball

Murray State picked to win tight OVC race over Belmont, EKU, Morehead

Eastern's Corey Walden battled Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins for a loose ball in their NCAA Tournament matchup. Walden, the Colonel's second-leading scorer, was hampered by foul trouble and only contributed four points in the loss.
Eastern's Corey Walden battled Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins for a loose ball in their NCAA Tournament matchup. Walden, the Colonel's second-leading scorer, was hampered by foul trouble and only contributed four points in the loss. Herald-Leader

NASHVILLE — Murray State is back on top as the favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference title.

The program has won 23 OVC regular-season titles and 15 tournament championships. Since 2000, the Racers have won either the regular season or tournament title 10 times — doubling up on three occasions.

The Racers return four starters — including preseason OVC player of the year Cameron Payne — and seven letter winners from a team that won the league's West Division title and reached the tournament finals before finishing 23-11 and winning the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

"If you're going to be at Murray, as a coach, as a player, you have to be ready for this," fourth-year coach Steve Prohm said Tuesday at OVC media day. "You have to embrace that pressure. You have to love that pressure. ... You've got to want to be picked first.

"Now we've got to get the focus back on being able to handle the expectations everybody's thrown on us."

The Racers were the only team from the West to receive votes (15) as the league's overall champion from OVC coaches and media relations directors. From the East, Belmont (seven), Eastern Kentucky (one) and Morehead State (one) received first-place votes and were tabbed as the top three teams in their division.

"Eastern Kentucky and us have battled the last two years for the top spot on that side," Belmont Coach Rick Byrd said. "Morehead has more people back than either of us and made the (tournament semifinals) last year. We lost a lot of scoring, we lost three good starters. Eastern Kentucky lost three good starters. So it's hard to know."

Belmont finished 26-10 last season and advanced to the NIT quarterfinals. The Bruins return two starters in guards Craig Bradshaw and Reece Chamberlain and eight returning letter winners.

Morehead State went 20-14 and played in the College Basketball Invitational.

"We want to raise the expectations," said Morehead Coach Sean Woods, who has guards Kareem Storey, Angelo Warner and Brent Arrington back along with post Billy Reader and five other letter winners. "Our job is to maximize what we've got and not worry about anybody else."

Eastern Kentucky lost to Kansas in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament after winning the OVC tourney title, closing a 24-10 campaign. Senior guard Corey Walden, the league's reigning defensive player of the year and tournament MVP, returns along with senior forward Eric Stutz.

"The fact that we were successful when it mattered most, that our guys played their best basketball at the right time of the year, they know they can compete and compete at a high level," EKU Coach Jeff Neubauer said. "The challenge right now is, we've got a few guys that have been in the program and understand how to win, but we've got a few new guys that have just joined the program and they're learning. Last year, we had one new guy and everyone else was a returner. We've got a lot to learn."

■ Belmont was voted to win the OVC women's title, with forward Jordyn Luffman named preseason player of the year.

Jacksonville State's Candace Morton (Henry Clay), Morehead State's Almesha Jones and Murray State guard Keiona Kirby earned All-OVC recognition.

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