Cinderellas and Sleepers: Murray State, Belmont set to clash in huge matchup

Murray State and Belmont headline this edition of our Cinderellas and Sleepers. They face-off this week in a huge matchup atop the OVC.

Another week of the 2021-22 college basketball season is complete. With that, a new edition of our Heat Check CBB Cinderellas and Sleepers is hot off the digital presses. As always, these rankings were compiled by Lukas Harkins and Andy Dieckhoff.

There might not be a bigger mid-major matchup over the next few weeks than Belmont at Murray State. The battle at the top of the OVC figures to be a huge game for both teams, and for completely different reasons.

The home team – Murray State – is looking to complete the season-sweep of Belmont while also getting over its last major hump in its quest for an undefeated record in conference. The Racers are already 16-0 in OVC play, and look destined to be a single-digit seed at the NCAA Tournament behind KJ Williams and Tevin Brown.

Belmont, on the flip side, needs a quality win to add to its NCAA Tournament resume. The Bruins find themselves right in the thick of the bubble conversation right now with middle-of-the-road metrics and a lack of quality victories. The two teams will tip it off on Feb. 24, the night of this posting in a massive mid-major matchup.

Let’s dive in.

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25. Furman Paladins (19-11)

Furman remains in our rankings but it has been trending down for the last few weeks. The Paladins are shooting only 32.6 percent from three over their last six games, resulting in a 2-4 record during this stretch. For reference, the Paladins shot 39.0 percent from deep over their 17-7 start. If they rediscover their shot, Furman can still be extremely dangerous in the SoCon Tournament. Jalen Slawson is super underrated. -Lukas Harkins

24. Montana State Bobcats (21-6)

Danny Sprinkle and the Bobcats are 1.5 games up on their next closest competition in the Big Sky — Weber State — and the remaining slate is somewhat favorable. A trip to Missoula to face rival Montana is the last road game on the docket for Montana State; after that, they finish up with three home games. The rub? Two of those three come against third-place Southern Utah and fourth-place Northern Colorado. Going at least 3-1 down the stretch will seal up a Big Sky championship for Montana State, far past the fifth-place finish we predicted for them in the preseason. It’s been an incredible job to silence us doubters. -Andy Dieckhoff

23. Kent State Golden Flashes (18-9)

Kent State is flying under the radar as one of the hottest teams in the country over the past month. The Golden Flashes started this campaign with just a 7-9 record across their first 16 games against Division-I competition. Since then, though, they are riding a nine-game winning streak that includes victories over the MAC’s top contenders in Toledo and Ohio. With the way Kent State is playing right now, it is a serious threat for the MAC’s automatic bid. Head coach Rob Senderoff has his team locked in defensively. -LH

22. Princeton Tigers (19-5)

The Tigers have slipped behind Yale in the Ivy League standings by half-game, but Princeton’s offense is still the best thing going in the Ancient Eight — on either side of the ball. Princeton ranks No. 39 overall in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom, and that is the only top-100 rating for offense or defense among any of the Ivy’s eight teams. The key to that offensive firepower, unsurprisingly, is its accuracy. Princeton is one of only four teams nationally with top-20 ranks in both 2-point and 3-point shooting. -AD

21. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (20-7)

Middle Tennessee continues to roll through the CUSA as one of the league’s dark-horses. The Blue Raiders added three wins – two on the road – since our last rankings and have now won 11 of their last 12 games. The lone loss during this stretch came on the road against UAB. While North Texas and UAB are the favorites to win the CUSA, it’s hard to disagree with Middle Tennessee’s results of late. They could be the sleeper team in the league with the conference tournament approaching soon. The Blue Raiders force a ton of turnovers defensively and shoot the three well offensively. -LH

20. Wagner Seahawks (19-3)

When Wagner dropped its one and only NEC game to Merrimack two weeks back, it raised some questions about how the Seahawks would fare without the injured Elijah Ford. Back-to-back wins over Sacred Heart and Central Connecticut since then have gotten Wagner on track again, and chances are high that the Seahawks will add another against FDU Thursday night. Bashir Mason’s squad still has the inside track to win the NEC and can win it outright by beating Bryant in the regular-season finale on Saturday. -AD

19. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (19-7)

Remember when Tech was 6-0 in the C-USA and 15-3 overall? Folks in Ruston may be pining for those days, as league play has been unkind to the Bulldogs since. That was just over five weeks ago, and in the meantime, Louisiana Tech is just 4-4 with losses to Florida Atlantic and UTEP peppered into the mix. Kenneth Lofton is one of the most enjoyable players in the country to watch, but unless the Bulldogs can win the Conference USA Tournament, the nation may have to watch him do his work in the NIT again. -AD

18. Towson Tigers (22-7)

Towson had a major opportunity last week to ascend to power in the Colonial and the Tigers pounced on the chance. Pat Skerry’s squad avenged an overtime home loss to UNC Wilmington on Jan. 22 by going on the road last Thursday and walloping the Seahawks 79-55. The Tigers followed that up with a road win at Charleston and a home drubbing of James Madison. Towson and UNCW are tied atop the CAA right now, but the Tigers have the more favorable final-week draw and will likely be at least co-champs.

17. Drake Bulldogs (21-9)

Drake wrapped up an excellent 3-0 week with a road victory over Valparaiso to make a rise up our rankings. The Bulldogs are now on a four-game winning streak that included an upset win over Loyola Chicago away from home. They are now 21-9 (12-5 MVC) for the year and are trending in the right direction. Roman Penn was named Game MVP in each of Drake’s last two games, combining for 26 points and 14 assists in the victories. -LH

16. Missouri State Bears (21-9)

The Bears may have split their season series with Loyola Chicago, but they were unable to get past Northern Iowa in two tries. Most recently, Missouri State went to Cedar Falls with a chance to avenge a one-point loss at home — and the result was a 20-point win for UNI. While the Bears recovered well with a big win over Bradley, they cannot win the MVC regular-season title at this point. Still, the duo of Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim is one that could easily make a home-state run through Arch Madness. -AD

15. Santa Clara Broncos (18-10)

Thanks in part to the struggles of BYU, the Broncos have suddenly surged into fourth-place position in the WCC. Remember that the WCC Tournament is a unique one, in which the No. 3 and 4 seeds receive a double-bye into the third round. Staying ahead of BYU would put Herb Sendek’s squad one step closer to a shock appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, the party may not last long. Santa Clara is just 1-5 against the three teams above them in the WCC (Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco). -AD

14. Ohio Bobcats (23-5)

Ohio fell victim to Kent State this past weekend to fall back into a tie for first place in the MAC standings. However, this is where being swept by Toledo is a worry for the Bobcats’ hopes of a No. 1 seed at the MAC Tournament. Nonetheless, Mark Sears and Co. remain one of the better mid-majors in the country and bounced back from that loss nicely by taking down Central Michigan at home by 26. Ben Vander Plas added a 10-point, 10-rebound, 4-steal double-double in that victory while Tommy Schmock added 23 points off the bench with seven made 3s. -LH

13. Chattanooga Mocs (23-7)

The Mocs’ good-time train nearly came off the rails with consecutive losses to UNC Greensboro and VMI last week, but Chattanooga seems to have gotten things back on track. On Wednesday, the Mocs took down East Tennessee State to secure the regular-season SoCon championship. It has been an incredible season, but as this past week showed, there are plenty of talented teams in the Southern Conference. Chattanooga must keep focus throughout the conference tournament, or else it may be NIT-bound. -AD

12. New Mexico State Aggies (23-4)

New Mexico State just collected two of the best wins available in the WAC, defeating both Grand Canyon and Seattle on the road in the span of three days. With a hat tip to Evan Miyakawa, the answer to the Aggies’ dominance may be in the game of runs. In both of their most recent victories, NMSU reeled off big runs in the first half of one-possession games — a 16-3 outburst against GCU, a 10-0 run against Seattle — and never trailed again in either one. Pro-tip: Don’t let the Aggies get on a roll. -AD

11. Iona Gaels (22-5)

The Gaels continued their bounce-back run on Sunday, beating Fairfield by 18 points at home to make it three consecutive wins since dropping back-to-back games earlier this month. Iona may have erased its margin for error with those losses, as it pertains to getting an at-large bid, but the Gaels have seemingly answered any questions about where they stand in the MAAC. With just one more victory, Rick Pitino will take home a regular-season league championship to add to last season’s conference tourney win. -AD

10. Toledo Rockets (22-6)

Toledo secured back-to-back victories this week over Central Michigan and Western Michigan. While both opponents rate sub-300 on KenPom, it was good for the Rockets to get back on track after dropping a home game to Kent State the prior week. Toledo is tied with Ohio for first place in the MAC but swept the Bobcats; the team controls its own destiny moving forward with three games remaining: vs. Miami-OH, at Buffalo, vs. Bowling Green. The middle game on the road against Buffalo – which has won seven straight – could prove very difficult. -LH

9. Vermont Catamounts (23-5)

Vermont’s only loss since Dec. 7 was on the road, in overtime, and without its best player. In total, the Catamounts have won 17 of their last 18 games and are trending towards being a potential Cinderella pick in a few weeks. They are uniquely efficient offensively, with a combination of elite shooting and careful ball security. Ben Shungu has been deadly from beyond the arc (55-for-121, 45.5 percent) this season and he pairs with stud forward Ryan Davis to form an elite duo. Vermont isn’t a team to take lightly this March. -LH

8. UAB Blazers (20-7)

The Blazers have one of the deeper rosters in the realm of mid-major basketball, but they have stumbled at some key points in the season. Back on Jan. 6, UAB beat North Texas to improve its record to 13-3 and 3-0 in Conference USA. Since that time, the Blazers are a still-respectable 7-4, but that stretch includes questionable losses to Rice, Marshall and Old Dominion — as well as a 58-57 defeat to North Texas in the teams’ rematch this past Saturday. The C-USA Tournament is absolutely crucial now. -AD

7. Belmont Bruins (24-5)

Belmont is in the midst of a 10-game winning streak and remains in the mix for an at-large bid. The Bruins’ biggest game of the season, in terms of importance, approaches as they will face Murray State on the road Thursday night. Nick Muszynski and Ben Sheppard have been a tremendous duo recently while Will Richard is the future of the program. -LH

6. South Dakota State Jackrabbits (25-4)

South Dakota State is undefeated in Summit League play, winning 16 straight games along the way. The Jackrabbits do not just own one of the best mid-major offenses but one of the best offenses in the entire country. Baylor Scheierman has been incredible all season long, plus Douglas Wilson has been a stud inside. Back-to-back road games against Oral Roberts and Kansas City close out South Dakota State’s regular season. Can they complete the undefeated run of the Summit League? -LH

5. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (22-6)

Loyola Chicago, you absolute king. The Ramblers followed through on the Heat Check mantra “Do it for the NET” in its most recent game, absolutely destroying Evansville by 51 points at home. There is no cap on efficiency measures, and Loyola jumped seven spots on KenPom and eight spots in the NET with their absurd performance. As friend of the site Kevin Sweeney posted after the game, Loyola Chicago’s walk-on Will Alcock scored as many points (9) in seven minutes as Evansville’s leading scorer for the game. Talk about bouncing back in a big way after a loss to Drake over the weekend. -LH

4. San Francisco Dons (22-7)

Following a 15-2 start to the season, the Dons are just 7-5 over their past 12 games. While they may still be on the inside of the cutline, this squad may not inspire the same kind of second-weekend confidence that they once did. It’s not as though San Francisco has piled up a ton of bad losses — a home loss to Portland is the only truly ugly one — but going 1-5 against the WCC power trio of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU is somewhat discouraging. The Dons simply haven’t been able to get it done on the big stages. -AD

3. North Texas Mean Green (20-4)

North Texas continues to play extremely impressive basketball. The Mean Green have lost just once since Nov. 26 and have won 18 of their last 19 games. Over this past weekend, UNT was able to get revenge for that one loss by taking down UAB on the road. Tylor Perry banged the game-winning three in that one; the JUCO transfer has been incredible for head coach Grant McCasland. If UNT wins its last four regular-season games, the at-large buzz should be significant. -LH

2. Saint Mary’s Gaels (22-6)

Coming off a loss to Gonzaga on Feb. 12, it’s hard to imagine a better recovery week for the Gaels than beating both San Francisco and BYU at home. Saint Mary’s is nationally ranked — one of only two teams in this poll that can make that claim — and will be a popular Sweet 16 pick in just a few weeks’ time. Don’t expect to run smooth offense against the Gaels. Saint Mary’s boasts the nation’s lowest allowed assist-to-field goal rate (36.4 percent) and forces opponents inside the arc for difficult jumpers. -AD

1. Murray State Racers (26-2)

Murray State is 16-0 in OVC play after losing only two games in conference. The Racers have dominated conference play to the point of being well-liked by efficiency metrics, something that is very difficult to do in a mid-major league. The biggest test of their potential undefeated season in the OVC approaches when they look to defend their home court vs. Belmont. Murray State features one of the best duos in the country with KJ Williams and Tevin Brown. -LH



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