Belmont Bruins preseason favorite to win OVC championship

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Belmont returns four starters from an Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship team, making it easy to pick the Bruins as the preseason favorite to win the OVC.

The Bruins received 21 of a possible 24 first-place votes in voting released Tuesday before the OVC’s media day. UT Martin received two first-place votes, while defending regular season champ Murray State received one vote to win the overall league title.

Belmont swept the regular-season and tourney crowns in 2013 and won the 2014 championship. Coach Rick Byrd has the OVC preseason player of the year in senior guard Craig Bradshaw along with forward Evan Bradds, forward Amanze Egekeze and guard Taylor Barnette back from a team that went 22-11, won the East Division, edged regular-season champ Murray State in the league tournament championship before losing 79-67 to Virginia in the NCAA Tournament.

”I think it’s a nice testimony to what our teams in the past have done and the fact we’ve got four starters back from a team that beat a really good Murray State team (in the OVC finals),” Byrd said. ”We played good late. We finished good, and we played Virginia great.”

With Byrd, Belmont has won seven Atlantic Sun and OVC championships in 10 years.

”It would be different if Murray State had the team this year that they had coming back last year,” Byrd said. ”To just look at things on paper and throw in the consistent success, I can see it. But most years we’ve won the league, most years we weren’t picked to win it – and the time or two we were picked, we didn’t win it.”

With 22 first-place votes, Belmont also was selected comfortably ahead of Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky (one first-place vote each) in the East.

Murray State returns just one starter in senior forward Jeffrey Moss with Cameron Payne now in the NBA. The Racers also have a new coach in Matt McMahon, who took over when Steve Prohm left for Iowa State. McMahon had served as Prohm’s assistant for the past four seasons before leaving in late May to become associate head coach at Louisiana Tech only to return during the summer.

So the Racers received 15 first-place votes to win the West, just ahead of Tennessee-Martin. Murray State went 29-6 last season, advancing to the NIT quarterfinals.

”I’m excited about the team we can become because we have the work ethic and the competitive nature taken care of,” McMahon said. ”I like the versatility and depth of our backcourt. We’ve got a lot of options at the guard position, a lot of competition at that position. It’s really open season for every position on the floor.”

UT Martin (21-13 in 2014-15) brings back Alex Anderson at guard and Twymond Howard at forward along with forward Javier Martinez after reaching the postseason tournament semifinals. Coach Heath Shroyer said that postseason helped some players emerge, particularly Anderson and Howard.

”You look at our league’s success, and it’s almost always generated by guards,” Shroyer said. ”If you don’t have good guard play, it’s tough to win in this league or any league. Having a guy like Alex to lead this group of guards we have coming back is priceless for us.”

Morehead State, 17-17 last season, is expected to make a big jump with Brent Arrington returning at guard along with backcourt mate Corban Collins.

”I really like our guard play,” coach Sean Woods said. ”That’s the strong part of our team. Having those two back gives us a chance because those are two tough guards with a lot of experience.”