With only four losses, Murray State holds one of the best records in the NCAA. Unfortunately for them, since their schedule has been so weak their 30-4 record doesn't even put the team in the Top 50 in most college basketball rankings. Their first-round match-up with Vanderbilt will be just the team's second game of the season against a Top 75 team, and their first game against a NCAA Tournament team since
their opening game loss to California in Berkeley back in November. defeating East Tennessee State in December.
Murray State has had trouble on the road, accounting for all four of their losses, but went 4-0 in games held at neutral sites, including two OVC Tournament wins to clinch their spot in the NCAA Tournament. Conversely, Vanderbilt went only 2-3 on neutral courts, but their losses came against much stronger competition - Mississippi State (SEC Tournament), Cincinnati (Maui Invitational), and Western Kentucky. The Commodores also had one fewer road loss despite having a Strength of Schedule rank nearly 250 spots higher than the Racers.
Only four games this year showed that Murray State can be beaten; let's take a look at their biggest misstep and see what we can learn.
Murray State (30-4, AP NR, Coaches' NR)
The Racers (RPI #56, KenPom #57) have at least one thing in common with the Commodores - their worst loss came against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers away from their home court. Familiar foe A.J. Slaughter tore up the Racers to the tune of 20 points, nine assists, and four steals as WKU shot their way past Murray State to deal the visiting team their third loss of the season. After this game, MSU wouldn't lose again until 17 games later versus Morehead State.Key to Destruction: Western Kentucky out-paced the uptempo Racers, scoring nearly 12 points over their season average and shooting 16% better from three-point land. This fast pace seems to be the key to defeating MSU, as their defensive statistics vary significantly between wins and losses; in fact, the team allows over 20 more points per game in defeat than they do in victories.
|Points Allowed - Wins||58.5||FG% Allowed - Wins||52.06%|
|Points Allowed - Wins over RPI Top 200 Teams||58.15||FG% Allowed - Losses||37.06%|
|Points Allowed - Losses||78.75|
In four losses, the Racers allowed opponents to shoot 52.1% from the field. In 30 wins, their defense stifled opponents to just 37.1% shooting - a difference of 15%. While Murray State has been heralded as a strong defensive team, when the floodgates burst, they're open to getting run off the court. Though they have a solid offense, they lack the firepower to keep up with teams that are hitting their shots from the field. MSU has a very balanced five-man set, but lacks a true scorer than can go shot-for-shot with a hot team.
This is what happened against Western Kentucky. Though the Racers were able to keep up in the first half, they couldn't keep pace as the Hilltoppers outscored them by 12 in the second frame. The home team pulled away and kept the lead out of reach with solid shooting and crisp ball movement - 20 of the team's 29 baskets came from assists. Though the Racers didn't shoot as well as they normally do, it would have taken an offensive aberration for them to outscore WKU at 83 points. If the Commodores can live up to the potential of their offense, then they should be able to exploit the same weakness that Western Kentucky did on their way to a victory.
Keys to the Game:
- Outrun the Racers: Murray State is an uptempo team with great balance, but without a dominant scorer they can't keep up in a high scoring game. Thanks to John Jenkins's emergence, the Commodores now have four options who can carry the load offensively in a scoring firefight. The 'Dores will have to hit their shots and score in bunches to make MSU play catch up all night.
- Spread open the offense and make crisp passes: Western Kentucky had one prolific scorer, but was able to pull away by using effective passing to find the open man and get easy baskets. The Hilltoppers won their game with MSU because they scored way above their season average, and that came as a result of the team's 20 assists on the night. This will put extra emphasis on Brad Tinsley and Jermaine Beal from the guard spots, since Jenkins can't be counted on to make passes (.9 assists per game). Andre Walker will be looked upon to help initiate the offense as a point-forward as well.
Play composed basketball: Too often, this team falls into the trap of playing down to their opponents. While Murray State is a quality opponent, they don't have the talent that the Commodores have. In other games where the team has faced this situation, they've put the fans through some unnecessary stress with turnovers, poor shooting, and overall sloppy play. This team has the ability to be the best in the country if they can fire on all cylinders, but that's something they've had trouble with this season. Now the games count, and if the whole team doesn't show up to play, this could lead to an early tournament exit.