Rick Byrd had coached Belmont to the NCAA Tournament in six of the past eight seasons, but now it's six of nine, as his top-seeded Bruins were beat 79-73 by Eastern Kentucky in Saturday night's Ohio Valley final.
The Colonels -- who were the preseason favorite in this league -- lead from the opening tip and held on to earn the second bid of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. (Harvard earned first invite to the party, on Friday night.)
Eastern Kentucky's been away from the NCAAs for a few years now, and this is a big showing for the team. Belmont recently came over from the Atlantic Sun. Because of that, some wondered if Byrd's program would dominate in the OVC the way it did previously. And it's still good. But having a different team break through is a good sign for the league.
This team is filled with veterans and knows how to move and score. There are defensive issues that EKU counters with many 3-point attempts. It shoots without a conscience. It is top-15 in the country in field goal percentage and will try to get the game in the 80s against whatever team it goes up against.
Player to know: Corey Walden. The senior was the Defensive Player of the Year and led EKU with 29 points in the title game. He scored nearly 70 points over the course of the OVC tournament. He's second on the team in points, rebounds and assists. He came up very big against Belmont, and chances are he'll be at the top of the scouting report.
Walden is also among the best on-ball defenders at the mid-major level. He's the one-man counter to a team that's not known for its D.
- Record: 24-9 overall, 11-5 in the Ohio Valley
- Most recent tournament appearance: 2007 (lost as 16 seed)
- Jerry Palm predicts: 15 seed
- RPI: 109
- KenPom ranking: 141
- Sagarin ranking: 150
- Best wins: at IPFW, vs. Belmont
- Worst losses: at SIU Edwardsville, at Tennessee Tech, vs. Morehead State
- Notable stat: At 56.3 percent entering Saturday, Eastern Kentucky came in as the second-best 2-point shooting team -- in the country. The Colonels do offense a lot better than defense, and getting short and mid-range shots has allowed this team to get this far. The team shoots 38.3 percent from 3, which is nice, but not even top 35 in the country.
- Closing quip: Even if it's a 15 seed, it's going to be a very dangerous 15 seed. Why? The eight players who see the most playing time are juniors or seniors. This group can finish each other's sentences. Experience means a lot when small teams get to the NCAA tournament, because the pressure and big stage of that tournament can overwhelm almost anyone. Even though it'll be new for this group, having vets will help.