Round three’s are always fun — but especially so when team’s split the season series. What’s interesting about these two teams, in particular, but when and how.
Murray State won the earlier of the two matchups, when a loss could have sent them to a 2-4 start. EIU got the last laugh, officially eliminating the Racers from contention for the West Division crown less than one week ago.
On the Racers home floor, Murray State controlled the tempo. On the Panthers home floor, Eastern Illinois controlled the pace, and in doing so, controlled the game.
EIU hasn’t played since their win over the Racers. Murray is coming off a complete dismantling of the division champions.
The Panthers are, more or less, where we expected them to be. Murray State is anything but.
Eastern Illinois’ offense isn’t exactly scary. Sure, they have Trae Anderson, who averages north of 15-points a game, and Cornell Johnston, who is shooting 40.9% from three-point range in conference play and has a 3.53 assist-to-turnover ratio. They have talented pieces, but this isn’t a team you expect to score 84 on you. Yet, that’s exactly what they managed in their win against the Racers.
The best thing that can be said about the Panthers is that the doesn’t beat itself. EIU has the lowest turnover rate in the league, and their shooting is mid-pack. Defensively, they don’t do anything particularly well — they’re middle of the road in forced turnovers, defensive field-goal percentage, defensive free-throw rate. There’s nothing that’s flashy or spectaular, but more often than not it works, which at the end of the day is much more important.
Even with their win over the Racers, Eastern Illinois is somewhat limping into Nashville, losing three of their last five games, including an inexplicable loss on their home floor to SIUE. EIU also has the disadvantage of being one of the team’s furthest away from Nashville, and a Wednesday night game isn’t exactly an easy one for fans to make.
This is the fourth straight year the Panthers have made the tournament under head coach Jay Spoonhour. Last year, they got their first win under Spoon, beating SIUE in the first round. Beating Murray, despite just being a first-round game, would be another step forward for the program.
So if you looked at the matchup ratings above, you may have noticed the “prediction,” where I have Murray State winning this first round game. This isn’t just me picking numbers out of the air — it’s determined by an algorithm, similar to how KenPom makes predictions. (Although I’d wager his formula is a bit more elegant than mine)
I ran the whole tournament through this algorithm, and a funny thing happened: Murray State beat EIU, they beat Morehead State, they beat UT Martin, and lost to Belmont by just one in the finals.
For a team whose longest win streak this season is three games, that would be quite the feat.
The reason my algorithm spit out this result is actually quite understandable when you look at two numbers: Murray State is third in the league in offensive efficiency (OPPP) and also third in the league in defensive efficiency. (DPPP) No other team is top three in both categories. Murray State even finished conference play ahead of both Belmont and Tennessee Tech, and every other team in the league, in three-point shooting percentage.
But given the Racers finished the season at 10-6 in the ‘weaker’ West Division, it’s harder to see how Murray State got to those milestones.
One thing Murray State does historically well is rebounding on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, their rate of rebounding on the defensive side is the best since at least 2002, which is far back as I could get numbers for the entire conference. That being said: offensive rebounding as a whole is down this year, but that’s still an impressive feat.
The problem is — those numbers on the stat sheet just haven’t translated into enough wins in the record books. The Racers, due to injury, are struggling with depth, especially in the post, and defensively haven’t been that strong down the stretch.
The Racers have secured their 29th consecutive winning season, but that’s the expectation. Murray fans want titles. This is the hardest road a Racers team has faced in quite some time.