“Here’s the reality of our situation,” head coach Matt McMahon said following their season opening win over Southern. “Eight of our 14 guys didn’t play last year. Three of our top six have missed between six-nine months to injury in the last calendar year, and our junior point guard is averaging 19 points and six assists a game in the National Basketball Association. So, we’re going to be a work in progress on that offensive end of the floor. We’re going to be a work in progress in defining roles for the team, but that’s why I’m thrilled sitting here tonight 1-0 because our guys played their tails off tonight. The things we made mistakes on are fixable and if we come in and work hard we’ll continue to get better each and every game.”
Life will be different this year for Matt McMahon and the Murray State Racers without Ja Morant, but not in a bad way. Last year the program was in the national spotlight early in the season and the team had to find a way to deal with the outside noise while focusing on winning an OVC title. This year, the program will still be good, if not great, but the national spotlight is dimmed a little bit.
One of the things that makes this year’s team dangerous for the rest of the OVC is the depth. Put yourself in McMahon’s shoes for a moment. You have to pick two bigs to start and one, maybe two, to come off the bench. Your options include Anthony Smith, Darnell Cowart, KJ Williams, Devin Gilmore, Demond Robinson, and Matt Smith. Ok, now that you’ve settled that area, pick your guards. You can have three to start and maybe two off the bench, and that’s stretching it because McMahon hasn’t played more than eight regularly in a season as a head coach. Here’s the options, Tevin Brown, Jaiveon Eaves, Daquan Smith, Chico Carter Jr., Noah Kamba, Brion Whitley, Jason Holliday, and Rod Thomas.
It’s tough, right? That’s why so far this year the Racers have used 9-10 guys in every game and it’s something that McMahon rarely does.
They scheduled tough non-conference opponents like Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, Missouri State, and Evansville, who defeated top-ranked Kentucky already this year. It’s a schedule that will mold this team and prepare them for the grind that is OVC play.
The preseason poll showed the favorite as Belmont, not the Racers, who have won back-to-back OVC titles. As mind boggling as that may be, the only thing that matters to McMahon and the guys out on the court are the games they have to play this season. Plus, they will get their chance to prove the poll wrong, not once, but twice, as they face the Belmont Bruins two times in the regular season.
OVC play opens up as the new year begins, on Jan. 2 with a home meeting against the Southeast Missouri Redhawks. By that time, the rotations should be locked in and the team should be in a groove. So far, the thing that needs to improve the most with this squad is consistency on the offensive end. They proved they could play with anyone with the first half performance against Tennessee, but in that same game they showed they aren’t quite there yet after they struggled to find points in the second half.
For the Racers’ offense, a lot of the pressure falls on potential OVC Player of the Year Tevin Brown. He returns as the leading scorer from last year’s team and a tradition to carry on as the Racers have produced back-to-back OVC Player of the Year winners, however his goal is a little different.
“I would like to do that, but whatever happens, happens,” Brown said. “I just want to win with the team.”
For all of the talk of the offense, the Racers have shown they can play great solid defense and it starts with the leadership of Anthony Smith who makes return from a season ending injury last year.
“Defense is going to be the key piece to this team,” Smith said. “We know defense wins games, so defense is going to be our going point for the season. That’s our main focus.”
If the Racers can lock in on the defensive end and work out the kinks on the offensive end, they will not only be the most dangerous team in the OVC, but possibly the most dangerous mid-major program in the country and come NCAA tournament time, nobody will want to see them in their bracket.
That’s the potential of this team. Now we just wait and see where they can take it.