Don’t confuse the title as me saying the Racers will go undefeated. I still think we’re a month before that discussion becomes relevant. But heading into 2012, make no mistake: No Ohio Valley Conference team is in the same class as Murray State.
Sure, one team might catch the Racers on a bad night, and might shoot lights out. Upsets happen to utterly dominant teams, and are won by teams that are woeful on every other night of the season. But if you put the Racers in a best of 5 against every OVC team, they’d pull a 11-series sweep. And I bet not one series would go the full 5 games.
That comment is both a compliment to the Racers, and a statement on the conference as a whole. Just one year ago, Murray struggled to win the regular season title, losing to this very same EIU squad at the CFSB Center in Murray, and then were bounced in their first game in Nashville. That was just 9 months ago. Their head coach headed to warmer pastures, and was replaced my a coach that had never been a head coach in NCAA basketball.
While this is great for Murray, what has happened to the rest of the OVC that allowed this to happen?
Maybe I’m just giving the Panthers too much credit. After all, the Panthers were picked to finish 9th in the OVC this year. And UT Martin, the Racers other OVC win, could very well struggle to make the tournament.
But these teams in the middle of the conference were the very ones that gave the Racers trouble last season.
For Mike Miller‘s squad, I’m reminded what happened to Tennessee Tech Thursday night as SIU Edwardsville: As goes Jeremy Granger, so goes the team. Granger hit just 2-7 from the field in the first half, taking more than a few ill advised shots. Alfonzo McKinnie, the team 2nd leading scorer went 1-3 from the field. No other Panther shot the ball more than twice. That’s despite 10 players playing in the first half.
To be fair, Malcom Herron and James Hollowell were a scratch for the Panthers, but the two only combine for 10 points a game. (Hollowell’s rebounding was much more missed than his scoring) We’ve seen McKinnie have solid games, but you can’t help but get the feeling that the Panthers are a one-trick pony. And when that one-trick, Granger, doesn’t work like it didn’t tonight, the Panthers are vulnerable to almost any team in the conference.
The Panthers, who in the past have been almost an exclusive zone defending team, have made the switch to some man-to-man pressure this season, but they might as well just play zone as slow as they were tonight to rotating to the Racers 3-point shooting. The Racers hit 6 of the first 7 3-pointers. Other than a short stretch where the Panthers drew back-to-back charges, the Racers had very little problem moving the ball where they wanted to on the court.
But maybe that’s says more about the Racers than it does the Panthers. Never in my years of watching college basketball have I seen a team run their gameplan night after night without fail. They dominate the game, forcing teams to play their style of basketball.
Much of that comes from the team’s focus. Yes, they make bad decision from time-to-time, every player on every team does. But it’s rare that you see players adjust to their own mistakes in game, and much of that credit must go to head coach Steve Prohm, who is coaching his players as hard in the 39th minute of 30 point game as he is at tip.
And Murray State is anything but a one trick pony, and we saw it again tonight. Isaiah Cannan was forced to sit early in the first half thanks to 2 early fouls, but you saw no dropoff from the Racers. Instead, Jewuan Long and Donte Poole step up to fill Canaan’s shoes, combining for 17 first half points.
Final Thoughts: I’ve talked about the State of the OVC before, and tonight just makes it even clearer. Unlike last year, there is a clear favorite to win the OVC on January 1st. There’s is no 2nd.
If you’ve followed what I’ve written about the Racers this year, then you should appreciate the language I’m using. This entire season, I’ve been cautious in my praise of the Racers. Even when they won big games, like at Memphis, I didn’t want to talk solely about how great the Racers were, because I honestly thought the OVC wasn’t in such disarray. But Murray State this season has become what many people thought Belmont would be next season.
I still don’t think the Panthers are horrible, at least in comparison to the OVC’s 2-11. They’re in the same boat as many teams: they have a plan A, but no plan B. And their plan A tonight finished with 4-12 shooting, and just 12 points.
Maybe some team will prove me wrong. And maybe they’ll knock off the Racers. But don’t confuse an upset win with a better team.