Racers Look To Rebound At Home
At the beginning of the season it looked like the Racer basketball team might be on the cusp of a special year.
They had talented players returning in Bryce Jones and Damarcus Croaker. Jones, a former junior college All-American, had a solid season last year, as did Croaker, a former 4-star recruit.
And they were adding a former Freshman All-American in Tulane transfer Jonathan Stark and another JUCO All-American in Terrell Miller. Throw in Gee McGhee who started and played just about every position last year and it looked like the Racers were loaded.
But making all the pieces fit together turned out to be harder than one might have expected.
At times, the Racers looked like a finely tuned sports car. They beat Illinois State in their opener 73-70 and the Redbirds are 16-4 and ranked in the top 50 of the Massey Ratings. Then they nearly beat Middle Tennessee on the road. The Blue Raiders are 17-3 and are also in the Massey Ratings top 50.
But at other times they looked an old jalopy with a blown engine. Evansville beat them by 32 and the Purple Aces are just 11-11. And they lost by 15 at home to a Wright State team that has seven losses and was blown out by Oakland in their very next game.
FINDING FOOTING IN OVC
Fortunately, once the Racers got into Ohio Valley Conference play, they found some consistency. Through seven games they are tied for the second best record in the league and lead the OVC West at 5-3.
From the outset we knew there were two questions this team had to answer. Who was going to fill the role of catch-and-shoot two-guard? And who would give them an offensive presence in the low post?
It took a while, but those questions have been answered.
Bryce Jones has turned his game around and has become a reliable shooter on the wing. He shot below 30 percent from 3-point range before conference play started. But in OVC play he is shooting 50 percent.
Terrell Miller has focused more on playing in the post since conference play started. And when he does that, it changes the way opposing teams have to play defense. Now, let’s be clear, no one is saying that Miller shouldn’t feel free to shoot from the perimeter. But he needs to score in the paint too.
When he takes at least seven 2-point shots the Racers are shooting 43.9 percent from 3-point range. When he takes fewer than seven 2s they are shooting 32.9 percent..
Why the difference? When you have a low post threat the other team has to double-down and you get better shots on the perimeter.
Jonathan Stark has been tremendous so far. He is second in the league in scoring at 21.0 points per game, second in assists at 5.5, and he leads the league in 3-pointers made. In fact, he is among the league leaders in eight different statistical categories.
Stark has been named OVC Newcomer of the Week on five different occasions. The way he has played, I’m surprised he hasn’t been named Player of the Week yet. But I guess the people who vote for those awards want to spread them around.
If Murray State can beat Southeast Missouri and Tennessee-Martin at the CFSB Center this week, they will have a stranglehold on the OVC West, at least two games ahead of the nearest pursuer.
And as brutal as the schedule has been so far, it gets a little easier down the stretch, with six of the final nine games at home. Of course Belmont will be hard to beat, even here in Murray. And road games at Morehead, Southeast Missouri and Tennessee-Martin will be challenging. But a 6-3 record down the stretch should be possible. Do that and you finish 11-5 in the OVC, and that might be good enough for the #2 seed. To displace league leader Belmont and get the top seed the Racers will probably have to win out.
WOMEN IN THE HUNT
The Murray State women are 12-8 overall and 4-3 in conference play. They will play six of their final 10 games at home and they should be favored in all but three of those games. So, instead of fighting to get into the OVC tournament the way they have in recent years they should be fighting for one of the top seeds.
Head coach Rob Cross has his team playing well and they are led by a couple of all-conference caliber players in Ke’Shunan James and LeAsia Wright. James is averaging 19.7 points and 7.2 rebounds while Wright is averaging 16.1 points and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.
Mitch Stewart is already making noise on the recruiting trail as the football team picked up several high impact players over the last few weeks.
Offensive lineman J.R. Burns of Northwest Mississippi Community College and defensive end Kenney Wooten of Itawamba Community College cast their lot with the Racers back in December.
Burns, a preseason All-American last year, helped lead NMCC to a national championship in 2015.
Earlier this month, quarterbacks Shuler Bentley and Preston Rice signed with Murray State.
Bentley, a redshirt junior, spent three years at Old Dominion where he played in 12 games over two seasons, including starting eight games in 2015. In his career with the Monarchs, he completed 144-of-279 passes for 1,498 yards with 12 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Bentley, a four-star recruit coming out of high school, was a two-time South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year at Byrnes High School.
Rice comes to Murray fresh off a record-breaking career at Wayne County High School where he was a two time finalist and the 2016 winner of the Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Class 1A Back award. The Waynesboro, Tennessee native helped lead the Wildcats to a 13-1 record this past season in which he threw for 3,075 yards with 37 touchdowns and rushed for another 739 yards and 16 touchdowns. He finished his career with over 10,000 yards passing and is the TSSAA record holder for career passing/rushing touchdowns with 141 (93 passing, 48 rushing).
Then, earlier this week, Stewart announced that former Georgia defensive back Rico McGraw will join the Racers for the 2017 season, and has already enrolled in classes at MSU.
McGraw had an outstanding freshman year with the Bulldogs in 2015 playing in nine games and eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. He finished 2015 with 20 tackles, including a career-high eight at Tennessee and four pass breakups. Last fall he played in two games for Georgia before announcing that he would transfer at the end of the season. He was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school.
McGraw’s younger brother, Mareio McGraw, led the Racers in rushing last year.