Was Belmont the Racers’ pivot point?
Racer fans let out a collective sigh of relief Saturday night about eight minutes into the Tennessee State game. Following a disappointing loss to Belmont on Thursday night, the CFSB Center crowd of 7,059 was thrilled to see the home team break out of the starting gate and turn in one of its most complete 40-minute efforts of the season.
Beyond the ridiculous score (100-62) there was an intensity and focus present against the Tigers that was lacking the last two games.
As the Racers head into an important two-game road trip to the South, here’s some random thoughts about the state of Racer basketball:
Hats off to athletic trainer Eric Frederick for getting Ja Morant, not just ready to go, but to go at a high level on Saturday nigh. Two days removed from rolling his ankle in the opening minute of the Belmont game, Morant played his normal game when it would have been understandable for him to sit the TSU game out or play in low gear. Though the ankle couldn’t have been 100%, he still managed 24 points, nine assists and four steals.
Following a feature on Morant during ESPN’s College Gameday, Seth Greenberg and company noted that all of the assembled NBA scouts and GMs were impressed with Morant’s willingness to get back on the floor and finish the game.
Here’s ESPN’s feature on Morant:
Ja Morant's dunks have taken the nation by storm.
Seth Greenberg sits down with the Murray State phenom to break it all down. pic.twitter.com/zRiVb2t4cl
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) January 26, 2019
BACK TO BASICS
Last week both ESPN and CBS Sports were in Murray to document Morant and the Racers, spending time shooting practice and interviewing Morant and head coach Matt McMahon. As the ESPN broadcast producer said last week prior to the Belmont game: “The hype is real.”
Well, after the 13-point loss to the Bruins, combined with the fact that the Racers won’t be on national television again until facing Austin Peay (ESPNU) on Feb. 14 in Clarksville, it’s safe to say some of the media attention will subside.
Perhaps that’s a good thing.
No doubt about it, the Racers – and the university – need the publicity which has accompanied the Ja Phenomenon, but it has to be at least a little bit distracting to the players. But now the team can get back to work without looking over and seeing a camera crew or an ESPN personality courtside.
And, you have to believe that Belmont was just a little bit annoyed that the script called for them to come into a sold-out CFSB Center and fall to ESPN’s beloved Ja Morant and his teammates on national television.
In fact, we’d expect the Racers to go into a game with the same attitude if the roles were reversed.
A GOOD LOSS?
Naturally, talk of last Thursday’s defeat versus Belmont has sparked some talk that the loss will do the Racers good. Our inner Bill Belechick will tell us that a loss is NEVER good, but our eyes and history tell us differently.
Real change or reform usually comes when an individual or institution hits rock bottom. A narrow victory is not rock bottom, while a devastating loss usually is.
Exhibit A: Steve Prohm’s 2014-15 squad, which was his last, won a school record 25-straight games that season to win the OVC regular season crown. But do you remember the game before the winning streak started? Well, it was an embarassing 93-58 loss to Valparaiso in a November tournament in Municipal Auditorium in Nashville. Led by OVC Player of the Year Cameron Payne, the Racers brought nearly everyone back from a team that won the CIT postseason tournament the year before. But they started a dismal 2-3 that year with the only victory of note against an average Middle Tennessee team.
Rock bottom came in Nashville when Valpo humiliated the Racers. They were now fully ready to listen to Prohm and his staff, and the rest is history.
If you’re more inclined to think like Belechick, then let’s call last Thursday a possible “pivot point” rather than a “good loss.” Still, we really won’t know the impact of the “pivot point” until the season has played out.
COACH MAC KUDOS
Beginning with his pre-game appearance in his team’s layup line and his accompanying enthusiasm, it was clear Saturday night wasn’t going to be business as usual for head coach Matt McMahon and his Racer basketball team.
McMahon started the regular five but he flipped the script midway through the first half when he inserted sophomore Devin Gilmore into the game. A fan favorite, the 6-foot-6 Gilmore had never played meaningful minutes in his two-year career until Saturday night. But McMahon sent a message: no one is guaranteed playing time and roles aren’t written in stone.
Though he lacks experience, Gilmore is second only to Morant when it comes to athletic ability and when he enters a game – usually in the final minutes – he attacks. And that was the theme for Saturday night.
It was clear as day when Darnell Cowart entered the game and the perimeter players continually fed Cowart in the post and the 6-8 junior made it pay off by abusing the TSU post players for 16 points in the first half.
One concern of many following Thursday night’s loss was that it would kill all the momentum built up and the expected attendance surge at the CFSB Center for the remaining home schedule would wash away. For that reason, it was so encouraging to see 7,059 fans show up for the Racers’ game against 2-5 Tennessee State. That’s a great sign.