21 days ago, Murray State was looking for a new mindset. The Racers were leaving Nashville, their trip salvaged only by a nine point win over Drake. The Racers were in an unusual position: 3-4 on the year, struggling to score, struggling to defend, and watching as the likes of UT Martin and Belmont were flying high.
That mindset was represented two days later by a hashtag: #DriveThePiling.
In the three weeks since, things have changed significantly. Murray State hasn’t lost since returning from the Music City, and they’re not exactly playing slouches: Western Kentucky took Louisville to task this afternoon, and both Evansville and Illinois State are top-100 RPI teams.
I’ve seen them each Saturday since Nashville. Tonight was a great win against a great team, but perhaps more than at Evansville or against WKU, we’re reminded that the Racers aren’t where they want, or need to be. And just like last Saturday, and the Saturday before that, it’s not me saying that — it’s them.
But this is what playing quality opposition does. Illinois State, even without two starters, pushed Murray State in the opening 20 minutes. The Redbirds pulled down nine offensive rebounds on 20 missed shots. (OREB%: 45%) They committed just three turnovers, while scoring eight points of eight Racers miscues. Daishon Knight hit 3-3 from deep, and drove past the Racers guards with ease at times. Despite Murray State hitting 14-27 (51.9%) from the field, and holding Illinois state to 42.9% shooting, Murray State went into the half down five.
For the first time since Nashville, Murray State went into the locker room trailing.
Toughness is a word thrown around a lot in sports. Players are physically tough, great players are mentally tough. When guys don’t have great games, it’s because they weren’t tough enough.
There’s no way to measure toughness, but you always know it when you see it.
The first half, Murray wasn’t tough. They weren’t physically tough. They weren’t mentally tough. (Evidenced in part by T.J. Sapp‘s needless role in double-technical foul) Murray State head coach Steve Prohm said as much in his postgame press conference, but he didn’t need to. You could see it, you could tell.
But somewhere, in the 15 minutes between the two halves, a switch flipped. All the things Murray State didn’t do well enough in the first half, they did in the second.
Illinois State was held to three offensive rebounds on 17 missed shots. (OREB%: 17.6%) Knight was 1-3 from three-point range, held to just 10 second-half points. The Redbirds didn’t score a single point of Racer turnovers. Murray’s shot selection was even better than the first, hitting 3-5 from three-point range, and 17-27 (63%) from the field, and the defense was a step better, as Illinois State was held under 39.3% shooting in the final 20 minutes.
In a way, seeing what Murray State was capable of in the second half is a huge beacon for the Racers future: a team that’s capable of great heights, in a conference, at least at the top, that’s possibly as good as it’s ever been.
But then there’s the first half: while anything but bad, is a reminder once again that Murray State isn’t there yet.
When you ask the Murray State players what “Drive the Piling” means, (and we have) they tell you that you can’t do it in one blow. It’s something that has to be worked on, and is easier to do when a group of guys are doing it together.
We’re starting to see more of that group come together. Justin Seymour played 29 minutes off the bench, and hit three big three’s. Tyler Rambo was stopped shy of double figures, but made two big plays early to help stem an Illinois State run. Jonathan Fairell looks closer to 100%, and Jeffery Moss spent 39 minutes on the floor, and finished 6-8 from the field.
So where do we stand? It’s been 19 days since Murray began driving, and the Racers haven’t lost. Sure, they say that’s not what’s important, but it’s not unimportant. (It is what we’re trying to do here, after all) The offense is playing smarter, the defense is capable, and against one of the best rebounding teams they might play all season, Murray State just won the battle of the boards. The Racers are getting deeper by the game, and even though they haven’t warranted a single mention to this point, Murray State is still led by a sensational guard in Cameron Payne and quite possibly an underrated forward in Jarvis Williams.
But no matter what numbers I throw out, there’s one thing that separates the team of December 20th to that of November 20th: the Racers are tougher; They’re playing physically tougher, and they’re unquestionably mentally tougher.
This year, they’re going to need it. UT Martin could provide the challenge in the West Division that Southeast Missouri hasn’t the last few years. (The Redhawks aren’t done trying, either.) Tennessee Tech’s frontcourt has been dominant against two SEC teams, Belmont’s — well they’re Belmont — and EKU just absolutely eviscerated a ranked Miami team on the Hurricanes home floor. And then there’s Morehead State, who I’m not exactly ready to write-off given the talent on that roster.
Beyond the box, beyond the numbers, Murray State’s toughness is what’s setting them apart — not from the field, but from themselves.
The Racers have grown a lot in 19 days.
We really see just how much in just 11 more.