Murray State topping Tennessee State by 19 on the Racers home floor is hardly a surprise: The Racers opened as 25-point favorites against the visiting Tigers, and opened the game on a 20-2 run. The Tigers posted a few smaller runs, but never really threatened on their way to their fifth straight loss.
But tonight’s takeaway shouldn’t be solely about this one game: It should be about the future of both programs. Due in part to the Racers large lead, many of Murray State’s bench players saw significant minutes, while Tennessee State is still starting five freshman in their first year under new head coach Dana Ford.
And in both team’s case: we saw the likely future on the floor.
Records can often be deceiving. Tennessee State left Murray State tonight with their 17th loss in 20 games this season, but the Tigers aren’t necessary playing like a team that’s only beaten one Division I team this year. In their last three games heading into Saturday’s matchup, the Tigers held second-half leads over Eastern Illinois, and on the road at SIUE and Austin Peay. In all, their defense had held nine of their last ten opponents under 70 points, and only allowed one opponent all season to break 80.
While their defense struggled against the top scoring offense in the OVC, their offense had it’s highest scoring night in conference play, breaking the 70-point barrier for just the fourth time this year, led by a season-high 25 points from Darreon Reddick on 7-9 shooting from the field.
That’s not just an individual season-high from the Tigers freshman, it’s a team season-high.
“”Darreon’s doing a great job,” Ford said after Saturday’s loss. “He’s a program guy, and he’s doing everything we ask, and that’s the reason why he’s got some success.”
When you look at a team that starts five freshman night-in and night-out, you’re looking not only for instant success, but guys that you can start to build a team around over the next three and a half seasons. Reddick, over the past month, appears to be growing into that kind of player. From a pure scoring aspect, Saturday was his most successful night of the year. But the freshman, currently fourth on the team in scoring averaging 8.2 points a game, has notched double-digit efforts in now four straight games, and five of the past six. For the year, he’s hitting 46.2% from three-point range, including all three attempts against the Racers. Those numbers don’t appear to show Saturday’s 25-point performance was just a flash in the pan, rather signifying clear growth.
Ford’s seen it as well, as Reddick’s minutes have grown, playing more than 30 minutes in five of the last six contests.
“I think [Reddick] and Mekowulu are really good,” Ford added, referring to his freshman forward. Christian Mekowulu struggled against Murray State’s size, hitting just 1-7 from the field and pulling down just a single turnover. But much like Reddick’s numbers have grown in conference play, so have they for the 6’9 forward: four double-digit scoring nights in the last six games, and a pair of double-doubles dating back to TSU’s win over Kennesaw State.
His rebounding could, and likely will become more consistent as he continues to mature over time. Mekowulu is averaging 6.4 rebounds a game, which is sixth most in the OVC, but it’s been feast or famine in conference play: being held to two or fewer in three of the five games.
Both freshman got the start Saturday, but their initial time on the floor was short-lived. Murray State jumped out to a 10-2 advantage, causing Ford to pull the entire starting five, and insert five replacements.
“Tonight, they just didn’t do what we needed them to do,” Ford said, “so we just had to get them out of there.” The next unit didn’t get off to a much better start. Murray State’s lead ballooned to 20-2 before TSU could hit their first field goal.
“They didn’t give up,” Ford added. “I though they fought the entire game. Just a couple of possessions we were just outmanned; a little bit more physical, a little bit older. But it’s a good learning experience.”
My brief time with Ford after the game ended with an interesting analogy about his young squad. “It’s kind of like having a baby with no teeth,” he said. “You’ve got a pretty little baby, with the gums, they’ll bite down, but there’s really nothing there yet.
Hopefully we get out teeth pretty soon,” Ford said, the final words in our discussion.
Murray State’s veterans played like, well, veterans against a young Tennessee State squad. But tonight presented a unique opportunity for head coach Steve Prohm to get early and competitive minutes for his young guys, some of whom only see the floor in short spell situations.
He didn’t wait as long as many coaches would.
With the Racers up 20-4, less than eight minutes into the first half, Prohm pulled starters Cameron Payne, Jonathan Fairell, and Jeffrey Moss, inserting junior Wayne Langston, sophomore Justin Seymour, and freshman Kendrick Flomo.
Seymour is more of a sixth man already — he’s actually fifth on the team in minutes per game, ahead of Fairell. Langston and Flomo have played in every game this season for Murray State, but both are averaging just north of 10-minutes a contest, and neither is averaging more than a basket a game scoring.
Two minutes later, after a pair of TSU three-pointers brought the Tigers within ten, Prohm pulled another starter, this time Williams, and put junior Tyler Rambo into the lineup. Four bench guys, together on the floor, in a 11-point game in the first half.
The four stayed in the game, together, as a unit over the next four minutes, in which status quo was mostly held. TSU’s Jay Harris would get a steal and a fastbreak layup for the Tigers, but Murray responded on the next possession with a three from Moss, off the assist from Flomo.
“[Flomo] is starting to understand defensively what we’re doing.” Prohm said after the game. “He only had one turnover, and he got a little out of control on that one — he’s just got to take that back a little bit. But I think all those guys are making strides.”
That would be the total of the scoring until three more starters returned into the lineup at the 6:24 mark. The defense held. The offense struggled a bit. But all-in-all, a lineup of four reserves held serve.
“Hopefully, it gives them some confidence,” Prohm said after the game about playing the reserves in one shift. “They had some good defensive possessions. It gives them some good minutes in not the last five minutes of the game.”
In the second half, Murray State pushed the lead past thirty. With 13:09 to play, Prohm pulled the entire starting five, inserting the four bench guys from earlier along with Terron Gilmore. Much like last time, they were given a four-minute shift, during which Tennessee State took five points out of the Racers’ lead. Flomo got good looks from three, but couldn’t knock them down, and TSU would hit a pair of triples over the four minute stretch. The subs would be mixed in with starters the rest of the way.
“I think those guys are getting better,” Prohm said when asked about the bench play. “Wayne had eight rebounds. He had some breakdowns, but, Justin’s Justin. Flomo, he’s doing some good things — he can really shoot, he’s just a freshman that’s missing open shots right now. They’re not bad shots. And Rambo’s Rambo. He kind of fills in his role.”
“I think Wayne, when you look at 7-8-9,” Prohm would later add, “He’s the one who has really made progress.”
“Obviously right now, it’s about this season, but [Wayne] really needs to fill Fairell’s spot next year. And he’s starting to show me signs that ‘I’m going to be able to do that, coach.’ ”
6-0 vs 5-0: Murray State’s schedule ramps up the challenge next week, as the Racers make the ‘new Death Valley’ road swing, starting with a matchup for the lead in the West Division against Eastern Illinois. The Racers have struggled as of late in Charleston, and this is the best EIU team they’ve faced, coming off an ‘old Death Valley’ sweep at Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State. The Racers have been getting off to fast starts of late, but the Panthers are becoming comeback masters, trailing in the of four of their six conference wins.
UT Martin is a very quiet 3-1: …and were it not for a late collapse against Eastern Kentucky at home, they could be 4-0 in the conference, and somehow still be third in the dominant West Division. The Skyhawks struggles to hold late leads, through, is becoming quite troublesome: UTM was up 21 on Jacksonville State, before the Gamecocks went on a 26-5 run to tie things up. But it’s about winners and losers in this sport, and the Skyhawks are finding ways to win, even if it’s quite ugly. Their next three games will be quite telling: at Belmont, and against Southeast Missouri and Eastern Illinois in the Elam Center.
Out of the fire: Belmont head coach Rick Byrd‘s quest for win No. 700 has been quite rocky, and the achievement was nearly delayed for a third time Saturday, and the Bruins needed a late run to get past Austin Peay. In conference play, the Bruins are dead last in the league in defensive efficiency, last in offensive rebounding percentage, last in two-point percentage defense. The Bruins are winning by simply outscoring opposing teams, and that’s a recipe for disaster over a 16-game campaign.
The indescribables: I posed the mostly rhetorical question last night on twitter: can someone explain SIUE to me? We saw both good and bad SIUE in one game Saturday night, as the Cougars were excellent in the opening 20 minutes, and then something less than excellent for most of the final 20. The opening 10-minutes of the second half, SIUE was outscored 29-8, and mostly even the rest of the way. The defense forced 14 EKU turnovers, which is no easy task, but the offense succumbed to 23 turnovers of their own.
The gap is growing: This next week is imperative to Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay, Jacksonville State, and Tennessee State, because there’s already a game or larger gap between these teams and eighth place in the league, the final spot available for the conference tournament. While a February rally is always possible, the farther behind you fall from 8th (which is currently Morehead State at 2-3) the harder that climb is going to become. The magic number in recent years is seven wins, so the opportunity gap will close quite quickly is the losses continue to pile up.