MURRAY — Since Belmont arrived in the Ohio Valley Conference in 2012, its men’s basketball rivalry with OVC kingpin Murray State has been, to say the least, heated.
 
It also has been owned by the Bruins, who entered the conference after making a few visits to the NCAA Tournament from its former conference home, the Atlantic Sun. Belmont has an 11-5 edge on the Racers in OVC play and has never lost to the Racers on its home court at the Curb Events Center in Nashville.
 
That is where the teams will have their first meeting of the 2021-22 season on Saturday in a game that figures to be one of the top mid-major contests in the nation this season. In the latest College Insider.com Mid-Majors poll, the Bruins (13-3, 3-0 OVC) are ranked sixth, while the Racers (13-2, 3-0 OVC) are ninth. 
 
Something has to give when the teams tip off at 4 Saturday afternoon.
 
“We really look forward to it. We have great respect for the Belmont program,” said Racers Head Coach Matt McMahon Thursday night after his team dispatched Tennessee State by a 67-44 score at the CFSB Center in Murray. “For one thing, you look at the culture they have and the foundation. Two, they have great personnel and are very talented, and three, they are very balanced offensively and can kill you from two and can kill you from three.
 
“Four, they have excellent defensive scheme and execution and, five, they are very well coached by Casey Alexander. They are a great team that is very experienced.”
 
Alexander stepped into the Belmont head coaching position after guiding the Bruins’ crosstown rival, Lipscomb, to several strong seasons, even an NCAA bids of its own. Following the 2019 season, Alexander was tabbed to succeed Belmont legend Rick Byrd, who had guided the Bruins for more than 30 years and led them to eight NCAA Tournament appearances. Alexander was an assistant under Byrd for 18 years before taking his first head job at Stetson.
 
Since coming to Belmont, Alexander is 65-14 and 36-5 in the OVC. That includes the OVC crown the Bruins won in 2020 when they beat the Racers in the final seconds at Evansville. That came after Murray State had beaten Belmont in the 2019 and ’18 title games. 
 
As for this year, the Bruins are loaded with experience and that comes with quite a bit of firepower. Leading the way is guard Grayson Murphy, who was tabbed as the OVC’s preseason Player of the Year and it is not because he is a prolific scorer. Murphy averages 8.2 points per game but he fills other parts of the stat sheet with a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game (despite standing 6-3), 5.9 assists per game and. though he does not shoot much, he connects on 54% from the field.
 
“By the end of the season, he will have set conference records for both assists and steals,” McMahon said. “He just does everything to make their team go.”
 
Under Byrd, Belmont became known for its ability to hang with bigger-name programs because of its ability with 3-pointers, but McMahon said that is not exactly true of this program anymore. 
 
“I think it’s seven of the last 10 years that they’ve led the country in two-point percentage,” he said of Belmont, which, once again, is hitting twos at a solid rate, 50.5%. 
 
A big reason for that is the presence of 6-11 center Nick Muszynski, who is the Bruins’ leading scorer at 16.5 points per game and shoots 56.3% from the field. From there, it is guards that comprise the other main scorers with 6-6 junior Ben Sheppard averaging 16 points per game and 6-4 freshman Will Richard, who matches Muszysnki with 5.9 rebounds per outing, scoring at a 12.1 points-per-game pace.
 
This will be a battle of two teams that have been tested heavily by their non-conference schedules with Belmont’s losses coming to a strong Ohio University team (13-2, 4-0 in the tough Mid-American Conference), a tough two-point loss to a Dayton team that was robbed of a chance to do damage in the NCAAs two seasons ago and a Louisiana State team from the powerful Southeastern Conference that currently sits No. 12 in the nation and 15-1 overall.
 
Both also have wins against programs that could be considered bigger than “mid-major.” Belmont beat a strong Saint Louis team, while Murray State stunned preseason top-10 Memphis in Memphis before current No 4-ranked Auburn of the SEC handled the Racers in rather easy fashion on the Tigers’ home court in Auburn, Alabama, one of the toughest venues for visiting teams in all of college basketball.
 
Both beat highly-regarded Southern Conference preseason favorite UT Chattanooga.
 
Saturday’s game figures to have a lot of points scored as both are averaging more than 80 a game. However, the Racers are allowing about 10 less than the Bruins, while Belmont seems to have an edge at the foul stripe, hitting 74% of its charity tosses, compared to 67.5% for the Racers.
 
Murray State displayed its defensive prowess Thursday night against TSU, limiting a very high-scoring team to only a 3-of-16 from 3-point range. TSU entered the game averaging 89 points in its previous four outings and was top-20 in the nation in 3-pointers made.
 
Meanwhile, for the second straight game, Murray State struggled to score in the second half and was not good from beyond the arc, ending at only 6-of-24. However, McMahon said the defensive effort more than made up for the offensive shortcomings.
 
“Sometimes, when you get up 20 points early in a game, you think, ‘Yeah, it would be great to win the game 100-40,’ but you don’t see that happen too much,” he said. “So you just have to stay the course.”
 
Murray State, thanks to an 11-0 burst to start the game, with all of those points attributed to guard Carter Collins (a layup, two bombs, an assist and a steal that led to the assist), eventually led by as many as 23 points before settling for a 35-16 lead. The Racers went cold from the field to start the second half and TSU cut the lead to as little as 10 points before Murray State righted itself and pushed the lead to a more comfortable margin.
 
Two 3-pointers from reserve guard Trae Hannibal helped the Racers pad that cushion. Those were the South Carolina transfer’s first two bombs of the season. Forward KJ Williams had 12 points and 11 rebounds, while guard Tevin Brown had 11 points and five boards. Hannibal ended with 11 points, while both Collins and forward Jordan Skipper-Brown ended with eight points apiece.
 
Saturday’s game can be heard on the flagship station of Murray State basketball, FROGGY 103.7 and viewed on ESPN+.