1986-87 is an interesting year in Murray State history: It’s the last time a Racers men’s basketball squad finished under .500, and it’s the last time the Racers finished worst than fourth in the OVC. Since then, the Racers have has an incredible level of success in the Ohio Valley Conference.
25 years from now, when people are looking back through the OVC record book, most people probably won’t think much of the Racers 21-10 campaign this past year. Another solid year, top-4 OVC performance.
But for fans lived through it, for some it feels like that last losing season must have felt. Coming off of 31-2, a clear NBA talent in Isaiah Canaan returning: fans expected the Racers to dominate the OVC, and return to the NCAA Tournament.
Put in perspective, last season was a small bump in the road, one that will hardly be remembered 10-years from now, much less 25.
It’s an impressive streak of winning seasons, and dominance in the OVC. That streak has been challenged, as recently as 2006-07, as the Racers managed a 16-14 campaign, and finished one game ahead of Samford for the fourth-seed.
With so many talented seniors leaving, could the Racers’ streak be in jeopardy once again?
I’ve put together these overview graphics for every school, but there’s not one less relevant than Murray State’s. As mentioned in the key stat, over four-fifths of the team’s scoring and rebounding production from the last season have graduated.
What’s even more interesting is that their key returnee is a player that sat out all of last season. As you’re likely well aware, Zay Jackson served a short jail term last year after an incident involving Jackson in a parking lot. He practiced with the team for part of last season, but hasn’t played in a game since March of his freshman year, 2012.
Dexter Fields, fairly or otherwise, was mostly known last year as the guy who stood in the corner and shot three’s. Some of that likely had to do with Canaan’s role in the offense, and playing to Fields’ strength. It will be interesting to see how his role in the team’s offense develops in his senior year.
The key to Murray State’s success this year, though, doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of their returnees: it will be determined much on the talent of new names to the program: How quickly 3-star freshman Cameron Payne can make an impact, and how quickly Clemson transfer T.J. Sapp can get acclimated when he becomes eligible in December.
Can Zay Jackson replace Isaiah Canaan?
No. I don’t entirely know who in the national media first made this comparison, but Jackson isn’t Cannan. He doesn’t play like Canaan. They play the same position, yes, but that about where the comparison should end. I think Jackson is incredibly talented, and could have a solid career at Murray State; He’s a great slasher, and an amazing on ball defender. But Cannan is a rare player, one of the best in Murray State history. Asking anyone to attempt to replace Canaan, especially a player that’s been out for a year, is a monumental task, and honestly a bit silly.
Is this head coach Steve Prohm’s biggest test?
Absolutely. Let’s be honest, last year proved to be more challenging for Prohm than most of us expected. But this is the first year he’s not had Canaan; the first year he’ll likely be without a “superstar” on his roster. He’s still got some talent, but not a lot in the way of senior leadership. Prohm has already established himself as a coach on the rise, in just two years, but if he finds a way to succeed this year, I think it will cement his status as a potential elite college basketball coach.
What is the exception for this year’s squad?
Win the conference, and make the NCAA Tournament. I don’t think that necessarily should be the expectation, but that’s what it is. At a minimum, that’s what it always is in Murray.
G Stacy Wilson (graduated)
F Ed Daniel (graduated)
G Isaiah Canaan (graduated)
F LaTreze Mushatt (graduated)
G Zay Jackson (returning after suspension)
G C.J. Ford
F Tyler Rambo
F Brandon Garrett (graduated)
F Erik McCree (transfering)
G Tiger Warford
G Dexter Fields
F Jeffery Moss
G Jordan Burge
F Terron GIlmore
F Zay Henderson
To start, there is one outstanding scholarship at the moment for Murray State. This could lead to a JUCO transfer, or possibly a Division I transfer that wouldn’t be eligible until 2014-15. But they’re out there, so this roster may not be locked.
If you listened to yesterday’s OVC Ballcast, we talked about McCree’s headscratching decision to transfer. For the second straight year, the Racers roster isn’t stacking up like expected; not only McCree’s decision to leave, but the decommitment of now Texas guard DeMarcus Croaker have left holes Prohm didn’t expect to have when looking ahead to next year. (Last year it was Jackson’s suspension that left a hole in the backcourt)
So what does Prohm have? Jackson’s back, and will without a doubt be the primary ball handler. He should have a fair bit of help in the backcourt. Jeffery Moss was a solid option late in the year, and while Fields could use a bit more depth, he’s a solid jump shooting option. C.J. Ford had moments last year, and really needs to continue his development this year as well, although he could be challenged by Payne if he has a standout freshman year.
The next question is what happens when T.J. Sapp becomes eligible. Sapp suffered though quite a shooting slump at Clemson, but if he can break through, he could be quite a great second scoring option.
The frontcourt is not as solid. Neither Terron Gilmore, Tyler Rambo or Zay Henderson played consistently last year. (entering just 13, 14 and 17 games, respectively). One of those three, assuming no else is signed for this year, could join either JUCO transfer Jonathan Fairell or Jarvis Williams as a starter, unless Moss, at 6’4″, can somehow play the 4-spot on the floor. My guess for now is the two juniors fill the starting slots.
Projected Starting Five
G Zay Jackson
G Dexter Fields / TJ Sapp (in December)
G/F Jeffery Moss
F Jarvis Williams
F Jonathan Fairell
I’m not certain if Sapp becomes a starter in December, (I don’t think he will immediately) but if he does I would expect him to take Fields spot in the starting lineup. Sapp, out of high school, was considered a great defender, and if he can find his jump shot again, he could make a great option at the 2-guard spot, and give Jackson a chance to get off the ball on occasion.
By The Numbers
|Category||Rank (Nat'l out of 347)||Rank (OVC)|
|Field Goal %||45.3%||72nd||5th|
|3-Point Field Goal %||34.7%||128th||8th|
|Free Throw %||69.1%||184th||7th|
|Points Per Possession||1.043||59th||4th|
|Turnovers Rate (% of possessions with a turnover)||19.9%||216th||6th|
|Assist / Turnover Ratio||0.928||204th||6th|
|Defensive Field Goal %||42.7%||152nd||3rd|
|Defensive 3-point Field Goal %||33.5%||152nd||6th|
|Defensive Points Per Possession||0.983||160th||2nd|
|Forced Turnovers Rate||20.0%||103rd||7th|
|Fouls Per Game||17.2||137th||4th|
I almost just skipped this section for Murray State, because, again, it’s all irrelevant. This year’s team is so vastly different from last year’s that, simply put, those numbers above mean absolutely nothing moving ahead.
So, that’s really all I’ve got to say here.
In all honesty, I’m about as unsure of where to put the Racers as any team in the league. There is so much change happening, that I’m relying as much on the Racers pedigree as any actual logical arguments.
The backcourt, I’m virtually certain, will be solid, and that is often good enough to get wins in the OVC. The frontcourt could struggle, but if they get a solid second starter, the Racers have a very solid starting five. Bench depth is a concern, but it was a concern last year as well.
The other big question weighing in my mind is if the Racers aren’t the team to beat in the West, who is? There are a lot of potential challengers, but there’s no one team that I’m willing to pull the trigger on.
There’s little doubt in my mind that this year will be a challenge for Murray State, but I see no reason the Racers can’t rise up to it. They don’t have the big names last year’s team had, but they have a solid core, and quite a few young players. One or two at a minimum should be primed for a breakout year.