If this basketball game were an episode of Game of Thrones, the first 30 minutes were the “Red Wedding.”
(We’re past the point where that’s a spoiler, right?)
Murray State wasn’t just better, they were dominant. Before the first media timeout, the Racers had already jumped out by 10, and taken all the air out the standing room-only crowd in Lantz Arena. In seemingly the blink of an eye, it was 31-14, and just 14 minutes into the battle, it looked like a victor had already been crowned.
Before the first half buzzer sounded, the script had been written. In this tale, Murray State are the Lannister’s, the rulers of the Seven Kingdoms. The other 11 teams?
They’re just hoping for a “Purple Wedding,” their chance to kill the king.
Television (or book) references aside, Murray State’s dominance isn’t about their 6-0 conference record, or even their 14-game winning streak, currently third largest in the country. It’s how they’ve gotten there, how seemingly undermatched they make each opponent look, night after night.
It’s the Racers jumping out to huge leads against EIU, Tennessee State, Jacksonville State, and Belmont. It’s the power of Jarvis Williams inside, the resurgence of a healthy Jonathan Fairell. It’s the maturity of Cameron Payne, the emotion of T.J. Sapp, and the defense of Jeffrey Moss.
“That team right there, the way they’re playing right now,” EIU head coach Jay Spoonhour said. “That’s a whole different level.”
Murray State’s average margin of victory in conference play is 17.9 points per game, the largest seen in more than a decade. They’re averaging just under 80-points a game on the year, the most since 2001, and that winning streak we mentioned is only behind only undefeated Kentucky and Virginia nationally.
Of course, none of this is Murray State head coach Steve Prohm‘s message, which in his fourth year, remains virtually unchanged from his first:
“It’s just big because it’s the next game,” Prohm said. “They’re all big, I told our guys before the game: Every game in conference is big. You’re trying to win a conference championship, they all count the same. It’s the next game, that’s how you’ve got to play it.”
Talking About Defense
Everyone talks about our offense, talks about our offense, talks about our offense, and this and that,” Prohm said after the game, “But I really think our guys competed on the defensive end for, shoot, 35 minutes of that whole game.”
There’s a reason we’ve talked so much about the Racers’ offense: it’s one of the league’s, and even the nation’s elite offenses, and while that’s not what Prohm wants his teams to be known for, it’s a big reason behind their success.
“That team right there, the way they’re playing right now. That’s a whole different level.”
But last night, while the offense, driven by 33 point from Cameron Payne, was still quite good, we did see the defense play at an elite level, which helped fuel the Racers’ offense.
Case-in-point, turnovers. Murray State only forced nine EIU turnovers, which isn’t a large number. EIU also forced nine Murray State turnovers. But it was what they did with them that made the Racers stand out:
“You know, you look at it, we had nine turnovers, and by any measure is a really good number,” Spoonhour said. “The problem is, they score 17 points off those turnovers, and that’s what they do. They can convert stuff, and that’s why you’ve got to keep them out of transition as much as you can. But that’s, it’s just not easy to do.”
“It’s hard to score if you’re getting scored on every time because you can’t run and play fast,” Prohm said. “You can play fast when you’re getting stops.”
As much as Prohm wants us to talk about his team’s defense, this team is led by their offense. Proof? Here’s how Murray State ranks in the “Four Factors” in OVC play:
- eFG%: 56.3% (1st in the OVC)
- Turnover%: 14.1% (1st)
- OREB%: 35.6% (2nd)
- FTRate: 42.8 (2nd)
- eFG%: 44.8% (2nd)
- Turnover%: 17.9% (9th)
- OREB%: 28.6% (3rd)
- FTRate: 40.6 (9th)
The numbers are quite clear on this, and if you stretch those same numbers out over the season, it’s even more apparent. Yes, last night, the defense was quite good. It was very good, in fact, against a team that’s been very solid offensively in conference play this year.
“I thought, defensively, we were really good,” Prohm reiterated after last night’s game. “I though we were really really good defensively. We were scoring off our defense, and it’s funny, because nobody talks about our defense. They talk about ‘they score, they score, they score.'”
Murray State is a good defensive team. They’re an elite offense, in a league with a shortage of firepower.
If their defense, though, plays at the same level they played last night? I’m not sure this Racers team can, or will be touched.
While the first 30 minutes were Murray State dominance, the final 10 proved to be anything but. Not only did Eastern Illinois make a run, as they’ve made a name doing this year, the Racers didn’t help themselves, with both Racer forwards getting a technical foul within a minute of each other.
This isn’t the first time Murray State’s emotions have gotten the better of them.
It’s not the second, either.
“We’ve just got to do a better job keeping our composure,” Prohm said, “and whatever’s called is called, and we’ve just got to move on to the next play.”
Some of this goes to the atmosphere. Eastern Illinois packed Lantz Arena in a way I’ve never seen before, and despite going down early, and big, the vast majority of fans stuck it out the entire way. It was as charged an atmosphere as Murray State has played in, not just all season, but dating back to their days as a top-10 contender.
“It was great,” Spoonhour said of the crowd. “This was exactly what we were hoping would happen.”
Neither team has much time to put the emotion of Thursday’s game behind them. EIU hosts Austin Peay on Saturday, a team nearing desperation mode, while Murray State travels to Edwardsville, a city in which they’ve dropped two straight games.
“You play the same way, you prepare the same way,” Prohm said. “I talked to our team in the locker room just about…we’ve got a chance to be good. We’ve got to clean some things up. We can’t get so emotional at times.”
Eastern Illinois’ demeanor, both of players and coaches after the game, probably wasn’t what you expected. There were no down heads, no low voices as the media pelted questions about their play. Trae Anderson, who scored 16 points on the night, talked about how his great a team Murray State was, how this was one game and how they could get another streak coming.
Spoonhour talked about Payne’s play, and about how he hoped NBA scouts were watching. He complimented his team’s rebounding, how he felt they got back on defense, and gave Murray credit for how well they guarded.
For a game in such a big atmosphere, and a team not as used to the spotlight, it was Eastern Illinois, both on the floor and off, who seemed to be living Prohm’s ‘it’s just one game,” philosophy, not his Racers.
“We’ve just got to do a better job keeping our composure.”
“Well, we competed all the way through,” Spoonhour said. “We found out how you you’re going to have to be if you’re going to try and be at the top of this league.”
There was other basketball played Thursday
…and it was weird. Here’s what happened around the league.
Late run sinks Eastern Kentucky at JSU: Who wants to win the East Division? Anybody? The Gamecocks forced 15 EKU turnovers, a rarity, and were lights out from the charity stripe to get the win. Jacksonville State was down seven with 90 seconds to go, before scoring 10 unanswered to secure the win. This is a team that’s needed an offensive spark, and tonight they got one from Darion Rackley, who scored 25 points in the win. Every team in the East has at least two losses, and we’re still in the first month of conference play.
Late run sinks UT Martin at Belmont: You may notice a theme here. This time, it was a 13-2 run by the Bruins late in the second half that put Belmont up for good, avoiding the upset bid by the Skyhawks. Belmont continues to struggle from the field, but their defense had a better night, forcing 18 UTM turnovers, (which they turned into 23 points) and did a solid job keeping the Skyhawks off the glass in the win. Evan Bradds leads the nation in field-goal percentage shooting, and was a highly efficient 10-11 from the field against the Skyhawks.
A harsh truth: This is the opening line from Austin Peay’s own game recap, in their loss to SIUE:
“Austin Peay State University’s bench production has been an issue all season long but Thursday night it sunk to a new low.”
The Governors got just a single point from their bench in a 69-65 loss in Edwardsville, and that’s not going to win you a lot of basketball games. Austin Peay is still winless on the road, and now 1-4, in last place in the West Division. They still had a chance to win against SIUE, who had a much needed bounce-back after an awful road swing last week, but the Govs are making earning an OVC Tournament spot quite hard on themselves.
What has happened to Tennessee Tech?: Another great opening line, this time from Tennessee Tech’s own game recap, in their loss to Morehead State:
“Forget about Tennessee Tech’s 11-point lead in the first half. By the time this Ohio Valley Conference contest ended, it was ancient history.”
I honestly thought TTU had a realistic chance of winning the East Division when conference play started, but at 1-6, Tech is falling farther and farther away from just getting into the OVC Tournament. And this one doesn’t fall on the oft-maligned TTU offense, which hit 50% from the field and 5-13 (38.5%) from three-point range in the loss. Most of the losses have been narrow: two points to Eastern Illinois, three to UT Martin, four to Southeast Missouri, four to Morehead State, but at the end of the day they’re still losses.
The baseline for getting into the OVC Tournament is six wins, with seven being much more safe. It’s not out of the question, by any means, but the turnaround is going to have to be quick. Eastern Kentucky heads to Cookeville on Saturday.