As Belmont moves to OVC, expectations rise for Bruins — and other area mid-majors

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 10:05pm

Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd sees packed arenas, shorter road trips and a fresh buzz among fans for exciting intra-state matchups.

And for coaches in the Ohio Valley Conference, the competition just got stiffer. 

Beginning with the 2012-13 season, Belmont will change league affiliations from the Atlantic Sun Conference to the OVC. Belmont will be the league’s 12th member and should be a tough out in men’s basketball. The Bruins have reached the NCAA Tournament in four of the last six years. 

“Life just got tougher in the OVC,” Austin Peay State coach Dave Loos said.

Belmont will be the fifth Tennessee school in a league that spans five states (Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky). The Bruins will trade flights to Atlantic Sun schools in Florida for long bus rides to Charleston, Ill., to face Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville or to Cape Girardeau, Mo., to play Southeast Missouri State University. 

It also means more people will be coming to Belmont’s Curb Events Center. Fans of Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay and even Tennessee-Martin and Murray State are more likely to travel to Belmont than opposing fans of the spread-out Atlantic Sun schools do. Because of the proximity — and the fact that Belmont already plays many OVC schools in several sports in non-conference games — the Bruins’ fanbase will likely be more familiar with their opponents. 

“In three to five years, I think you will see attendance [at Belmont] for conference games to be twice what they have been,” Byrd said. “Not twice Lipscomb or twice East Tennessee State maybe, but other than that I think Austin Peay, Murray State, Tennessee Tech, Tennessee State, even Morehead and Eastern [Kentucky] — our Belmont fans, our Belmont alumni know those schools. They didn’t know Florida Gulf Coast. They didn’t know Stetson.” 

From a competition standpoint, the Ohio Valley Conference hasn’t been a pushover in recent years. The league, which is based in Brentwood, has three NCAA Tournament victories in the past three years. That includes Murray State’s upset win over Vanderbilt in 2009 and Morehead State’s shocker against Big East power Louisville in March. 

Plus, Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech are always near the top. Tennessee State is a program on the rise, as head coach John Cooper will have three Division I transfers at the ready to help a team that surprised many by finishing fifth in the conference despite not having any seniors. 

“The Atlantic Sun has had more flux, and I think the bottom part of the OVC has been stronger,” said Byrd, whose Belmont program has never won an NCAA Tournament contest. “I think top to bottom, with an emphasis on the bottom, it has been a more difficult conference.” 

Prior to the 2009 NCAA Tournament, the OVC had lost 20 straight opening-round games. The recent success in postseason play should help with national recognition for the conference. 

Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Beth DeBauche said the hope is that the league can earn a higher seed — OVC teams have received anywhere from No. 13 to No. 16 seeds in recent years — as well as an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.

“My wildest dreams for this conference would be to have at-large bids coming out of it,” Belmont president Bob Fisher said. “I think that is possible.” 

Loos, who has been at Austin Peay for more than 20 years, said he isn’t sure whether the OVC could become a two-bid league anytime soon. Byrd agrees the odds are long. 

“If the OVC were to get two teams in one year, it would be because at least one of those teams had a spectacular year and then got upset in the tournament. Or two teams had spectacular years,” Byrd said. “Is it closer? I would like to think so. … But there are basically nine or 10 leagues that can count on [at-large bids]. Then it is pretty tough the rest of the way.”

The Bruins had just two seniors and four juniors on last year’s team that went 19-1 in Atlantic Sun play and 30-5 overall. So the program appears to be on the rise. But Byrd knows it might not be an easy transition. 

As for the days of dominance in league play, the veteran coach doesn’t think that will happen again — in the OVC or Atlantic Sun. 

“That was just as unpredictable and surprising as if Austin Peay does it next year in the OVC or Murray State or anybody else,” Byrd said. “If we were to remain in the Atlantic Sun forever, I think those days would be over. I would never expect it again.”