February basketball kicks off with a nationally televised rivalry game at noon. Murray State, coming off a loss in the waning seconds against Jacksonville State, takes on an Austin Peay team in desperate need of a win to stay in the OVC Tournament race.
Sound exciting? How does the Racers as a 17 1/2 point favorite sound?
Less exciting, right. Unless your a Murray State fan.
The Murray State / Austin Peay rivalry remains as the premiere battle in the Ohio Valley Conference, but there’s little doubt the game has lost a bit of it’s luster. The Governors are in the middle of a two-season long drought, and during that run have lost four straight, and six of the last seven to Murray State dating back to 2010.
But there’s reason for hope, notably an instant classic between these two teams in Clarksville just a few weeks ago. But it’s a much different battle in Murray, where the Governors have won only twice in the last ten years.
The question for the Governors, can the rivalry, and the desperation of being in last place in the conference, be enough to pull off a big upset.
February basketball carries a much different, but familiar feeling for each team. Both are looking to salvage a season: The Racers from their unbeatable expectations; the Governors from a complete disaster. Murray State is losing the expectation battle not only throughout the conference, but even from their own fanbase. Austin Peay’s only expectation remaining is to show up, and try not to get embarrassed.
A once great rivalry is still good. But it could use a jolt. It’s been quite a while since both teams were battling at the top. Today, all we can hope for is another matchup like the first.
Austin Peay’s woes are on one end of the basketball. They can score as well as the Racers, but their defense fails to slow down much of anyone, evident in allowing 70 points and 49% shooting from an offensively challenged Tennessee Tech squad a week ago. The offense, led by a solid shooter in Travis Betran is a reason to believe the Governors are poised for a run, but there’s a mounting pile of evidence to the contrary.
What’s interesting is the contradictory stats surrounding the Governors frontcourt. Austin Peay leads the league in blocks, but is 11th in rebounding. I’m not certain exactly how that happens.
Still, Austin Peay is far from being out of the race to the OVC tournament playing in the West Division. Outside of Murray State, every team in the West has looked vulnerable, and while the window is getting smaller, the Governors are far from eliminated.
The Governors have a very similar problem to Murray State in that there is no bench depth. But whereas the Racers have a usually solid starting five, Austin Peay has a usually solid starting three, followed by a whole lot of question marks. It’s a young team, no doubt, but so are the Racers, so youth can’t be used as the sole excuse.
The Racers shooting woes continue, and the biggest question is have they finally bottomed out? Shots have simply stopped falling, as Murray State is shooting just 30% from behind the arc in conference play, far below their 36% during their non-conference slate. Their defense has stepped up as of late, leading the league in fewest points per possession in conference play.
The issue is still slow starts, and often not hitting their stride until midway through the second half. From there, it’s been a question of whether there’s enough possessions left in the game for the Racers to make their comeback. For the most part, there has been, but the Racers haven’t put together a complete game in quite some time. The bench depth issue continues to be a thorn in their side, but even their starters have struggled as of late.
Isaiah Cannan is still getting 20 points a game, but it’s much less efficient than it was during the Racers run last season. It’s much harder to get the ball in rhythm when you’re the one carrying it. But what we’ve seen is that’s a much better option than the alternative. Stacy Wilson isn’t a ball handler, and it shows. The bigger issue is that he’s struggled to be a scorer as of late, limiting the Racers options on that end of the floor even more.