Racers Seek Consistency On Home Stand
Although the overall record may not be impressive, the Murray State Racers are right where they want to be after seven games of OVC play: In first place in the OVC West.
A difficult out-of-conference schedule has the Racers sporting an 11-11 record, but at 5-3 in the OVC, they are tied for the OVC West lead with Southeast Missouri and UT Martin, and both come to Murray this week in the first two games of a three game home stand that concludes with Belmont. The Racers are unblemished at home in conference play, and are 3-2 in road games. If they can go unbeaten at home and with at least two more on the road, that should secure the OVC West title.
They still have a chance at the outright OVC title, but now will need some help as Belmont holds a two game edge. The Bruins, however, face an imposing stretch of games with five of their next six on the road.
This week they visit a pair of fading teams in Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State, then host SIUE and play at Murray State the following week, concluding the stretch with games at Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech. If the Bruins survive that with a one game lead, especially if they beat the Racers, I don’t see them losing the top seed.
From the Racers point of view, the struggle to become consistent in one or more areas continues to be elusive. It is evident the team has improved defensively. And for a while they had shown progress in rebounding. But after a phenomenal rebounding performance against EIU, the Racers have been outrebounded in three straight games. In OVC-only games Murray State leads the league in 3-point percentage, yet struggled in losses at Austin Peay (28%) and Tennessee Tech (26%). While taking care of the ball has been a strong suit, the Racers had 16 and 17 miscues in two of their last three games.
Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller have been consistent overall, and in OVC play, Bryce Jones has become a dependable double-digit scorer. Brion Sanchious has shown some improvement offensively, while being a consistent defender and doing things (setting screens) that don’t show up in the stat sheet.
Damarcus Croaker has shown signs of brilliance at times. He was magnificent with 25 points in the win against Tennessee State, but didn’t score in the next game at Jacksonville State. He had 23 in the win against Eastern Kentucky but followed that with a four-point game in the loss to Austin Peay.
In my opinion, Croaker is the key to MSU’s success down the stretch. Athletically, he has no equal in the OVC. But at times, even during the early part of a game, his confidence seems to fade for some reason. It shouldn’t. He has first-team All-OVC talent and that is on full display when he’s brimming with confidence. If he can harness that down the stretch, giving the Racers four consistent scoring threats every game, they will be difficult to beat.
Another key is the third senior, Gee McGhee. While he may not enjoy coming off the bench, most seniors who have previously started do not, he has performed well, providing solid defense and rebounding. While suffering through a poor shooting season overall, McGhee has been very smart in attacking the basket and getting to the line. His consecutive free-throw streak ended at 24 with a miss against Austin Peay. Bringing him off the bench, allows head coach Matt McMahon to bring experience into the game, and allow Brion Sanchious to start.
Another positive development has been the emergence of Jalen Dupree. His offensive confidence has grown and once he learns to defend without piling up the fouls, he will be a special player in years to come. While not grasping the offense as well, Gilbert Thomas has shown special skills around the basket, especially in fast-paced games.
The shooting of Jeremi Grace has been puzzling. A 39% shooter from beyond the arc last season at McLennan Junior College, he made 102 3s (eighth nationally). But other than making 4-of-8 against Green Bay, he has struggled. Take that game away, and he is shooting 23% from 3-point range. At the very least, Grace was expected to generate instant offense from the bench, but so far he has not emerged as a consistent threat. If he starts making them, he could earn significant minutes in that role, but the clock is ticking on him cracking the rotation this season.
While not expected to provide a major contribution this season, freshman Jachai Taylor had some early season bright spots, but is just 1-of-14 (8%) from 3-point range since December 3. He will benefit from an off-season strength program and with added weight, he should contribute much more next season. Likewise, for Dondre Griffin who set his high school’s record with 14 three-pointers in one game, yet is just 2-for-12 (17%) from beyond the arc this season for the Racers
WHAT DO WE KNOW?
What do we know? The Racers are at their best when they attack and get to the line. They are better when their three-point attempts hover closer to 20 instead of 30 per game, and their winning percentage is 75% when they outrebound their opponent, but just 33% (4-8) when they don’t.
All of the goals the Racers had at the start of the season are still within their grasp. They can still win their division, with a bit of help, they can clinch the overall top seed, and they have shown that at times they have what it takes to win the OVC Tournament championship game and get to the NCAA Tournament.
But they must become more consistent in the those areas for that to become a reality. I am a firm believer in senior leadership down the stretch. The seniors must take ownership in leading the team to consistent performances which in turn will lead to enough wins to achieve their goals of hanging a banner or two this season.