EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — The Belmont Bruins are the preseason favorite for a third straight year to win the Ohio Valley Conference title in a vote by the league's coaches and sports information directors.

Belmont, winner of four of the past five OVC regular season championships, earned 18 of 24 first-place votes in balloting released Tuesday. The Bruins received 235 total points ahead of Jacksonville State, the defending OVC tournament champs, with 213 points and three first-place votes.

"We appreciate the respect shown by our fellow OVC institutions," coach Rick Byrd said of being picked first. "But it speaks to successes earned by past Belmont teams. The OVC is a strong league, and usually there are surprise teams people don't see coming. I genuinely like and enjoy being around our group this year. We have to recognize the task at hand and embrace getting better daily."

The Bruins went 15-1 in the OVC last season before losing in the tournament semifinal. They did beat Georgia in the first round of the NIT, but Evan Bradds, Taylor Barnette and Nick Smith all are gone. Byrd, who has won nine regular season and seven tournament titles over the past 12 years, has three starters returning including point guard Austin Luke, who ranked second with 7.1 assists per game, and senior forward Amanze Egekeze.

Murray State finished third with 212 points and the other three first-place votes ahead of Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee Tech, Eastern Illinois, Tennessee State, UT Martin, Morehead State, Southeast Missouri, Austin Peay and SIUE.

The OVC eliminated divisional play for the upcoming season after five years and returned to an 18-game conference schedule last used in 2010-11.

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