Photo courtesy: EDWARD MARLOWE | The Paducah Sun
For all intensive purposes, Christmas has always represented a time for renewal in college basketball. Not only do players and coaches get a rare break in-season, but teams are greeted with the start of a new season, conference play, upon their return.
When the “second season” begins, all the pain and suffering from the opening weeks of the season can be washed away, and a new tune be sung.
…Unless a team is stuck on the same old notes.
Christmas and New Year’s will find you a home
There’ll be no more sorrow, no grief or pain
For the second straight season, the Racers are in a precarious position entering their Christmas break. We can argue about how tough their schedule has been, about narrow losses and tough fights, but the record always tells it’s own tale. Murray State is 5-8, three games under .500 for the first time since November of 2013. For the second straight year, we’re counting conference wins and losses, whispering quietly “can the Racers keep the winning season alive,” though most fans would never actually utter those words aloud.
The final score isn’t necessarily indicative of the product the Racers put on the floor on an unseasonably warm December night. Through 20 minutes, the Racers looked like a defense renewed: forcing turnovers, tough shots, and turning and running in transition.
The final score isn’t necessarily indicative of the product the Racers put on the floor
Sometimes in college basketball there are turning points so sharp, that a team can’t recover; one play that seemingly undoes an entire half of heart, effort, and talent.
Tonight seemingly featured such a play. Mark Alstork, the Raiders best player, hit a three with six seconds to go in the first half, ending a 10-0 Racers run. Murray State still led by six heading into the locker room, but the impact of that three was far from over.
Murray’s momentum was, in just that moment, halted. Wright State’s had just begun.
Bells will be ringing the glad glad news
Oh what a Christmas to have the blues
The Raiders opened the second half on a 13-1 run, as the Racers went more than five and a half minutes without a field goal. Even as Murray chipped away at Wright State’s newly formed lead, they could never get their offense in sync, shooting just 8-28 in the second half. Wright continually hassled Racers’ sensation Jonathan Stark, and seemingly only Terrell Miller was able to provide any assistance.
The Racers defense, which had been such a high point in the first half, had absolutely cratered. Wright State was getting to the rim with ease, and the only response Murray State could have was foul and hope the free-throw line would play the role of a Christmas Stooge.
The issues on both ends of the ball began to compile onto one another: Murray couldn’t get out in transition because they couldn’t get stops defensively. That would lead to bad shots, which would put Wright State in transition, which meant Murray couldn’t get stops.
Yet, with 10:00 to play, the game was far from being sealed and delivered. Murray trailed by just three on three occasions. Minutes later, Miller hits a three in transition, and the Racers were back within one.
Then the floor was pulled out from beneath the Racers offense. Murray State hit just one field goal over the last 6:11 of the game, a layup from Brion Sanchious with the game virtually out of reach. The Racers were now 5-8, with just a single non-conference game remaining.
It’s hard to defend a 5-8 record.
Friends and relations, send salutations
Just as sure as the stars shine above
Babe this is Christmas, Christmas my dear
That time of year to be with the ones you love, oh
The lyrics from my Christmas tune above isn’t exactly a Christmas classic, (Please come home for Christmas by Kelly Clarkson, for the curious) but neither is this Racers team.
In a lot of ways, Murray State fans have been quite spoiled (in a good way) during this decade. Nearly all of us remember where we were when Danero Thomas hit the game-winning jumper that put the Racers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2010. Racers fans filled “The Bank” just two years later as Murray State went on a historic run into the AP top-10. And they witnessed an NBA talent, who under different circumstances would still be a Racer today.
For most teams in the Ohio Valley Conference — heck, in almost any conference — these kinds of events happen over a period of 20 or 30…or even 50 or 60 years, not four. Most schools from one-bid conferences don’t go to the NCAA Tournament five times in 11 seasons. They don’t have consecutive winning seasons dating back more than a generation.
This year’s Murray State team may be good enough to win the West, as most Murray State teams are. They may be good enough to win the conference, (although I think Tennessee State is going to have quite a bit of say in that) as many Murray State teams are.
But they are a far cry from the “dominance” that defines “classic” Racer teams.
But much like my Christmas tune, that doesn’t make them bad, either.
In college basketball, every season is made up of four mini-seasons in all, each one more important than the last. We start with non-conference play, which when things are said and done hold little relevance. Then, we get to conference play, which is mildly important, but is more-or-less a 16-game battle for seeds.
March is conference tournament time, where titles are won. Then comes NCAA Tournament time, where legends are made.
We’re just through the first step in the gauntlet that is this season, and it’s fair to say that Murray State hasn’t made it through without a few bruises. But before we get ready to write off this team, let’s see what other tunes the Racers have to sing.
We’re just through the first step in the gauntlet that is this season
5-8 isn’t where any team wants to be. But if it ends in March with 11 guys holding up a trophy for all the world to see, no one’s going to remember that record on December 22nd.
The Racers third offensive option is…?
I'm certain Murray isn't running their offense…unless their offense is "Stark and Miller play 2-on-5" …which if so, isn't a good offense
— OVC Ball (@OVCBall) December 23, 2016
This is probably one of the biggest challenges the Racers face going forward. You don’t need to watch a lot of tape to realize that Jonathan Stark is pretty good, and so coaches are responding as you would expect: they’re going to trap him and try to make someone else beat them. Right now, Miller is one offensive threat. And then there’s…
This is a problem. The best thing the Racers can do to help Stark out is for other players to step up, and force defenses to react. Murray just doesn’t really have that great third option. Bryce Jones saw limited minutes, especially during the second half, due in part to five offensive turnovers. Gee McGhee played 18 minutes, during which he tallied more fouls (5) than shot attempts. (1) Jerami Grace was a backbreaking 0-5 from three-point range in his 16 minutes.
If a team is forced to play Stark one-on-one, I’ll take Stark. If Stark has to dribble through three defenders on every possession…I’m going to take the defense.
The Racers need to go 10-6 in OVC play to safely keep their consecutive “winning season” streak alive
Okay, so I’m going to be the one to talk about it aloud. Let’s safely assume that the Racers take care of Brescia next Thursday. That puts Murray State 6-8 going into conference play.
9-7 puts the Racers at .500 going into the OVC Tournament, which isn’t a good place to be. That means the Racers must win three games between the Tournament and another postseason tournament to finish above .500.
So, that leaves 10-6, which puts Murray 16-14 heading to the postseason. It’s not something you want to put on a banner, but it keeps the Racers as a mention on ESPN throughout the season.