Column: Jacksonville State will win the OVC tournament


JJ Bullock

Jacksonville State’s Jason Burnell (14) works on Eastern’s JaQualis Matlock in the Gamecock’s 89-84 win over Eastern on Feb. 28 in Lantz Arena. Jacksonville State finished OVC play with a 15-3 record.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

Discussions about which team will represent the Ohio Valley Conference in the NCAA tournament later this month have gotten a bit too one-sided. It seems to be the consensus around the media that either Murray State (25-4, 16-2) or Belmont (25-4, 16-2) will win the conference tournament and play in the NCAA tournament. Some have even gone as far to make the shocking statement that both teams will make the tournament. (Gasp!)

I would like to divert from the discussion that forgets that six other teams will be playing in the conference tournament this week and would like to make a statement even more shocking than predicting that both Murray State and Belmont will make the NCAA tournament; and I would like to do it in the form of a poem.

Murray State or Belmont? Belmont or Murray State? Murray State and Belmont? Oh, wouldn’t that be great for the Ohio Valley Conference to send two teams to college basketball’s biggest date. But, what if one team out there wants to tempt fate? What if there is a team that can beat both Belmont and Murray State and change the whole conference slate? What if that team is Jacksonville State?

That’s right, I said it. And in case you missed it, let me reiterate: Jacksonville State (23-8, 15-3) is going to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

Before calling me crazy and accusing me of creating hot takes for the sake of hot takes, hear me out, because the Gamecocks cutting a net at the end of the tournament is not as wild of an idea as it sounds.

Murray State and Belmont have been getting all of the predictions to be the winner(s) of the OVC tournament, and rightfully so. The two finished as co-champions of the regular season and hold claim to the conference’s two best players in Ja Morant and Dylan Windler, both of whom were contenders to win conference player of the year.

There is no question that Murray State and Belmont have the most talent in their rotations as their production showed this season. Belmont finished with the OVC’s top offense, Murray State finished second. Murray State had the conference’s top defense, Belmont came in at No. 4. On both sides of the ball, Murray State and Belmont stand a head above most other teams in the OVC.

But one team seems to have cracked the code on how to beat both Murray State and Belmont: Jacksonville State.

And it really is not that crazy to think Jacksonville State can beat Murray State and Belmont, because it happened this season, and in quite convincing fashion.

Belmont’s only two conference losses this season both came against Jacksonville State. On Jan. 3 the Gamecocks beat Belmont 83-73, in Nashville, to open conference play with a statement win. Then two weeks later Jacksonville State got Belmont again, this time in Jacksonville, to the tune of a decisive 91-80 win.

That’s two meetings between Jacksonville State and Belmont and two double-digit wins by the Gamecocks.

Jacksonville State’s lone meeting against Murray State on Jan. 31 should serve as even further proof that the Gamecocks should not be taken lightly in the tournament. Jacksonville State defended its home court that day and pummeled Murray State 88-68 in a game that shot Jacksonville State into 1st place in the OVC.

The X-factor in all three of those games was not poor play by Morant, who scored 22 points and had 11 assists against Jacksonville State, or by Windler who scored 23 points and 17 points in the losses to Jacksonville State. No, it was instead the play of Jacksonville State forward Jason Burnell in those games that changed the outcomes, and it will be his play once again that helps Jacksonville State win the tournament.

Burnell finished the season 5th in points per game with 17 and 2nd in rebounds per game at 9.6.

Burnell scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the win over Murray State and had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the first win over Belmont and 30 points and 10 rebounds in the second win.

Neither team had an answer for Burnell, and unless both teams came up with one since they last met Jacksonville State, I would expect Burnell to have similar output in both games.

And if you’re asking yourself why if Jacksonville State is so good they did not win the OVC regular season, well there is really no hiding the answer: Jacksonville State has two very bad and very off losses on its resume.

The Gamecocks shot just 29 percent as a team on Jan. 24 and Burnell disappeared up against Eastern Kentucky’s Nick Mayo when the Colonels (13-18, 6-12) beat Jacksonville State 88-70 to hand the Gamecocks their first conference loss of the season.

The second head scratching loss Jacksonville State suffered was against Tennessee-Martin (11-18, 6-12) on Feb. 7 66-64. The Skyhawks took a 66-64 lead with 1:23 to play in the game, and the Gamecocks responded with nothing but missed shots and turnovers for the next almost 90 seconds to lose a game that had everyone in the conference wondering what had just happened.

Jacksonville State might meet the Skyhawks again on Thursday if Tennessee-Martin beats Eastern on Wednesday, and barring another bizarre showing by Jacksonville State, the Gamecocks should beat either one of those teams to set up a date with Murray State on Friday.

If that is how the scenario plays out, then the winner of Jacksonville State and Murray State would play in the OVC championship game on Saturday against presumably Belmont.

While Jacksonville State may not have a human highlight reel player like Morant at Murray State or a do-it-all playmaker like Windler at Belmont, what Jacksonville State does have is a track record of winning big games this season when they needed to win.

So call me crazy for predicting Jacksonville State to win the tournament, but it’s March now, and far crazier things have happened before.

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]