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Racers, Bulldogs vie for men's title down the stretch
The Racers hold a one-game lead heading into the final five games.
As the Ohio Valley Conference men's basketball season heads into the home stretch, the chase for the regular-season title has basically been pared down to two teams.
Murray State, the preseason favorite, leads the way with a 13-2 OVC record, part of a 16-5 overall mark for the Racers, who are the conference's hottest squad with six straight victories.
Samford is just a game behind the Racers at 12-3 (16-6 overall). Every other OVC squad has at least five league losses. The Bulldogs and Racers split their regular-season meetings, and both have five conference games remaining.
"They're both outstanding teams," Morehead State coach Kyle Macy said during Tuesday's OVC coaches teleconference. "Talent level, Murray State is always outstanding. Samford, they play that style that is unique, and they do a great job with it."
Added Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer: "To pick a winner at this point ... is just hard to do. There are three weeks of basketball left."
Murray State appears to have somewhat of the tougher remaining schedule, with four of its final five OVC games on the road, including a contest at third-place Tennessee Tech (16-8, 11-5).
The Racers have already beaten all of the opponents left on their schedule, which coach Mick Cronin said will pose a challenge.
"I think our big thing is going to have to be an attitude, that it can't be overconfidence, being all these teams are ones we've already beaten," Cronin said. "The mental edge in those games goes to the teams that lost those first games. It's hard to beat anybody twice in the conference."
Samford has three of its last five conference games on the road. Coach Jimmy Tillette said the Bulldogs are focused more on improvement than the OVC race.
"We're trying to win as many games as possible, and trying to improve," Tillette said. "Our team needs to get better. We need to tighten up some things if we're going to have success the rest of the season."
While Murray State and Samford will likely duke it out for the championship, and Tennessee Tech appears solid for at least third place right now, the battle for the all-important fourth spot is plenty interesting.
The top four finishers earn home games for the first round of the eight-team OVC tournament.
Austin Peay (13-11, 8-7) and Jacksonville State (10-11, 8-7) are tied for fourth, with Eastern Kentucky (10-12, 7-7) and Tennessee State (8-12, 7-7) both just one-half game behind.
Tennessee-Martin (10-12, 7-9) is in eighth place and would have to all but collapse to not make the tournament, and the Skyhawks could still finish as high as fourth, although that will likely be difficult.
Eastern Illinois (5-16, 4-11), Southeast Missouri State (6-15, 3-12) and Morehead State (3-17, 2-12) occupy the final three spots in the 11-team league and would need minor miracles to squeeze into the tournament.
But Morehead State's Macy is satisfied with the progress his team has made recently.
The Eagles, after winning their season opener over non-Division I Kentucky Christian, lost their next 15 games before beating Southeast Missouri State on Jan. 26. Monday's victory over Eastern Kentucky means they're 2-2 in their last four games.
"We're playing a little bit better. It comes with age, I think, because we are so young," Macy said. "We realize, with seven freshmen and three sophomores, we're trying to build for the future."
Two-team women's race
The OVC women's race also looks like a two-team affair, as Tennessee Tech (16-6, 12-3) and Southeast Missouri State (14-7, 11-3) are tied for first place in the loss column. They split their two regular-season meetings.
Samford (15-7, 10-5) and Eastern Illinois (10-12, 9-5) hold down the next two spots, although several other squads still are in the running to secure a tournament home game.
While Southeast Missouri State is the OVC's hottest team with eight straight wins, Jacksonville State (9-13, 7-8) has made a late charge with six consecutive victories as the Gamecocks have vaulted into sixth place.