It tends to come in waves, but this year the top of the OVC seems resurgent. Murray State and Belmont both sit in the top-60 of the latest NCAA NET Rankings (their new RPI replacement) and Austin Peay is just outside the top-100 at 104.
In KenPom's unofficial rankings, the Racers and Bruins are top-75 teams and four teams are in the top-150, including the Governors and Jacksonville State.
Murray State has another potential NBA lottery pick running the point. Belmont has a win on the UCLA under their belt.
Yet, when all things even out, the odds of the OVC getting both those teams in the NCAA Tournament remains slim. The Racers don't have a single win against a top-100 team, much less a top-50 team, a classic hallmark of an at-large team. Belmont has two top-50 wins, but they're both a Lipscomb team more likely than not to slide as their schedule weakens as they enter A-Sun play. Even that great-looking win against the other Bruins is barely a top-100 win in current rankings.
There may be an incredibly narrow path for the OVC to become a two-bid conference this year: it would require either Belmont or Murray State to run the table in the regular season and lose in the tournament final, and even then, a lot of high-major conference upsets could keep the OVC Tournament runner-up under this scenario out.
There were some fans rooting against Murray State in the past in a similar scenario: 2012 Murray State was getting into the NCAA Tournament following their 28-1 regular season, and it's safe to think had they lost the OVC Tournament final to Tennessee State that year, they still would have been safely in the field. (They were a six-seed, after all)
But that, like the scenario I mentioned above for this year, doesn't make the league a 'legitimate' two-bid league; It's not that two teams are earning their place. It can be done -- Other mid-major leagues, including the Missouri Valley, have gotten two or more teams into the NCAA Tournament without relying on an upset in the conference tournament.
So, given the relative strength at the top of the league, what's holding the OVC back during strong years like this from being one of those leagues?
It's more rare than you might think
It's not just the OVC -- most leagues (outside the major five, of course) that get multiple teams into the tournament do so with one really strong team losing in the conference tournament, even in conferences with a history of strong teams. Last season, 28-5 and a win over nationally ranked Gonzaga wasn't enough to get St. Mary's into the NCAA Tournament, and the top of the WAC was strong. (It was also top-heavy, which is an issue that will come up again shortly...) They were also left out with six loses in 2015 with two wins over the eventual Sweet 16 'Zags. Two years before that, a win over Oklahoma and a 27-4 record couldn't get Stephen F. Austin into the field.
For the purposes of this discussion, I'm not counting the following nine leagues that are either "major" or hover closer to "major" than "mid-major": SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, Atlantic 10, Mountain West, West Coast, and the American. Outside those eight, here is a comprehensive list of conferences who have gotten multiple bids in the past 10 years.
2016: Missouri Valley
2015: Missouri Valley
2013: Missouri Valley
2012: Conference USA, MAAC, Missouri Valley
2011: Conference USA, CAA
2010: Conference USA, WAC
That's it. That's the complete list. And a few of those (MAAC 2012, Conference USA 2010 and 2011, WAC 2010, Horizon 2009) had teams that were borderline, or flat-out wouldn't have made the NCAA Tournament without a conference tournament upset.
There are nine leagues that you can expect to have two-bids year-in and year-out.
That's it. Nine.
Think about the good teams the Horizon League has had since 2009: Butler made the NCAA Championship game twice and it's only been a two-bid league once in the past ten years. (They also haven't had a top-seed win their conference tournament in the four of the last five years, which is relevant.)
I think one thing that's often forgotten when we have this discussion, (which is often) is just how rare it is for a league to have two teams. Even the MVC has been a one-bid league more than multiple-bid league.
It's not just the bottom of the league...
...but that is part of the issue when you have teams like Tennessee Tech (337th in NET rankings) and Tennessee State (332nd) that hurt top teams rankings just by playing them.
But we all recognize that as an issue. Just as big of an issue is the middle of the league: the Morehead State's (236th) and SEMO's (282nd) who are 6th and 7th in the league in NET, respectively.
Let's look back at that 2009 Horizon League: Butler, at 26-6, would be a nine seed that year and Cleveland State, at 26-11, was a 13-seed and the league's auto-bid after beating Butler in the conference tournament final. They would not have 'earned' their two-bids without that upset, but they probably represent the closest profile to the OVC this season.
Butler finished the year ranked 25th in RPI, while Cleveland State finished 55th. But the league had two more teams in RPI's top 100 in Green Bay and Wright State, while the league's median rankings (in this case, averaging the rankings for the two teams in the middle of the league) fell at 151st. As a reminder, that wasn't good enough to earn the league two-bids that season without that upset.
The Horizon did have bad teams that year: Detroit was 282nd in RPI. Valparaiso was 260th -- numbers that were likely boosted somewhat by playing in the tough Horizon league that year.
The OVC's current median in NET (which has replaced the RPI) is 259th.
It similar when we look at leagues above that did 'earn' multiple bids without conference tournament upsets. Missouri Valley 2016's median: 154th. MVC 2013: 98th. CUSA 2012: 134th.
Yes, the bottom of the league needs to get better, consistently. But so does the middle of the league, frankly, for the OVC to take the next step.
That's why having teams like Austin Peay on the rise this year is such a great thing to see for the league. (And why JSU's missed opportunities at Wichita St. and West Virginia really hurt) More and more, these are the teams that will determine the league's future, not just Murray State and Belmont.
Who are we playing, anyway?
There are a lot of things the OVC can't control when it comes to schedule. Take Murray State this year, for instance. Hosting Wright State looked great on paper; the Raiders are 7-8. Middle Tennessee has been strong in recent years; they're 3-10 with only a single win against a Division I opponent. It's unfortunate, but ultimately out of the Racers' hands.
But, as a whole, the league isn't scheduling tough enough. The median SOS ranking for the league as a whole is 192nd toughest in the nation.
Let's compare to some of those past leagues, again. MVC 2016: 117th. MVC 2013: 140th. Horizon 2009: 119th.
Now, to be fair, there are a lot of factors that go into scheduling: you want to play home games for your fans, but who can you get to come to your arena? What 'buy' games are available? Why play tougher games if we can't win the ones we are playing?
I can't answer all these questions, but what I can discuss is going back to the NCAA selection and the new NET rankings.
The NCAA seems to, more often than not, determine that good wins are more important than bad losses: that's how a team 2-3 against the top-50 gets the same seed as teams 3-8 and 2-9 against the top-50. (Rhode Island, Xavier, and Wake Forest, respectively, all were 11-seeds in 2017.) While this is just one example, it's been clear in the past when you see the committee comparing mid-major teams against that 7th or 8th ACC team: you are going to be rewarded for big wins more than you'll be punished for losses against top competition.
The new NET rankings also seem to follow a similar philosophy: the final score of games is a factor, but it's limited to +/- 10, meaning a big loss to a top-opponent is the same, in the formula, meaning that 43-point TTU loss to Tennessee is only a 10-point loss according to NET.
Go play more big teams, OVC.
Back to my Murray State example, as close as the Racers have gotten this year to a big win: imagine if they had two more chances at it? Think they might be able to get one? It'd look better on their resume than a win over Prairie View A&M, after all...
What's the incentive to change?
Here's where we get into the a major issue: leagues have a tough, if not impossible task,of getting their members to put the league's needs as a whole over their own.
Any rule change or incentive change (like the Basketball Enrichment plan), that would help improve basketball would be met with immediate resistance by schools that value football, and schools that are currently not competitive would be concerned the rule changes would only benefit the Murray State's of the league, and not them. (Even though, if they took the long view, a rising tide lifts all boats. Based on previous votes...most AD's do not take that view.)
It doesn't help that the OVC is trying to play as both a basketball and a football conference; outside of major conferences, most are more dominant (if not exclusive) in one or the other.
It doesn't help that, as I wrote at the start of the season, the OVC has seen only two regular season basketball champions for each of the last nine seasons: Murray State and Belmont; and we appear well on our way to out 10th straight Racers or Bruins title.
It's a lot easier to get behind changes when everyone thinks they have a shot.
So, what's the solution
I'm only half-kidding here.
The Basketball Enrichment plan wasn't perfect, but it was a way that the league could try, as least in theory, to encourage teams to schedule better for instance. It was funded from money the conference earned for wins in four straight NCAA Tournaments. Those programs can only exist if the conference can keep winning in March on the biggest stage, which is something they haven't done in recent years. (Conference tournament upsets have also played a part in this)
It would also raise expectations, which wouldn't hurt. Right now, the ultimate goal for any team in the league is to make the NCAA Tournament. That's more-or-less been the goalpost since the league's inception.
We're seeing this on the football side: JSU didn't enter this season (or the past few) with the goal of just winning the league -- they had deeper aspirations than that. That's needed on the basketball side as well -- what if teams scheduled their non-conference thinking about preparing for the NCAA Tournament, rather than the OVC Tournament? That would mean tougher games, which raises SOS and likely NET rankings, all the things we've talked about.
To a point, it's on Murray State and Belmont, if they're going to keep winning this league year-in and year-out, to finally make a meaningful run.
At the end of the day, that's the first step.
They've been good enough for long enough now.
Either that, or it's on the rest of the league to stop them, and make the OVC truly competitive again.