Show Me My Opponent: Murray State

I think I’ve always been impressed by the Murray State basketball program. I don’t know if I could pinpoint the exact time when I became aware of their existence and success; it’s as if they just appeared there one day, everyone agreed they were good, and that was that. And it’s a correct assumption! In the history of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, which now date back to the 1996-97 season, just twice have they finished the season ranked outside of his top 200…and they went 13-7 in conference play in both seasons.

It’s not as if Murray, Kentucky is the exact spot you’d have in mind for a mid-major power. Murray’s closest population center of serious note is Nashville, just under a two-hour drive away. The roster isn’t stacked with overlooked Kentucky kids from a basketball-loving state; only two players on the team call Kentucky their home, with one of them a serious contributor (Jaiveon Eaves). It’s a national roster of sorts, with 14 players from nine different states. Murray State is the OVC’s patchwork quilt, an assembly of varied parts that, for the most part, works in collective 12-14 seed anonymity.

Until 2018-19.

Almost on accident, Murray State ended up with the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Ja Morant was a high school also-ran that only ended up being discovered because a Murray State assistant checked out the #2 gym at a tournament. He went from that to taking Murray State to the Round of 32 for the third time in the last ten years.

Now, Morant is gone and Murray State is rebuilding…or so you’d think. What a lot of people don’t know about Murray’s 2019-20 team is the following:

  • Three of five starters return.
  • Five members of Murray’s eight-man rotation are back.
  • Their top two scorers departed, but their third-through-eighth highest scorers have returned.

All in all, it could be a lot worse for Oak Ridge’s very own, Matt McMahon. This is McMahon’s fifth season as the head of the Racers after a playing and coaching career at Appalachian State with one year at UNC-Wilmington in between. Tim Kaine – not the former VP candidate, but rather McMahon’s assistant – is also from Oak Ridge. Casey Long, another assistant, played at Chattanooga with Director of Player Development Ronrico White. The staff as a whole has a distinct Tennessee flavor to it. Now, they get to visit the home of the best basketball program in the state. As is the case seemingly every year, chances are the team they’re bringing with them is pretty solid.

WHAT THEY BRING

Offensive fluctuation with a lot to be answered

Here’s what I know about the 2019-20 Murray State Racers so far:

  • In an exhibition against Martin Methodist, KJ Williams took 17 shots. No other player took more than nine.
  • In Saturday’s outing against Southern University, Tevin Brown took 10 shots, while three others took seven or eight. No one else took more than four.

And that’s about it. When a team is forced to replace their top two scorers and rebuild around a group where no player scored more than 11.8 points per game the previous season or made more than four field goal attempts per game, it’s hard to draw huge, correct answers off of 80 minutes of basketball. What I can tell you is that even without Morant, Murray has largely ran the same offense for the last three-ish seasons of McMahon: lots of transition play with a focus on ball-screen sets in the half-court.

 

Transition/primary break offense is largely based on what you’re doing on the defensive end; if Tennessee does a good job of getting back, all I can tell you is that they’ll have to make sure Murray isn’t spacing the floor to its extremes like they’re used to. Let’s focus on the half-court game.

Ball-screen offense heavy on continuity sets

To start, you’re going to have to know about college basketball’s most popular play: the continuity ball screen. If I had to guess, I’d estimate at least 75% of Division I teams run this with fair frequency in some form. (Watch the first 90 seconds or so to get the gist of it.)

Murray State, unsurprisingly, counts themselves among said group. Here’s Morant and Leroy Buchanan running this last year:

Obviously, things aren’t going to look the exact same in 2019-20 for Murray, but a good amount of the philosophy will still remain. Murray offers the benefit of two legitimately very good post players in Darnell Cowart and K.J. Williams, both of whom could give Tennessee some serious issues down low. Before those two, let’s talk about the shooters off of these motion sets.

Tevin Brown (90 of 242, 37.2% in 2018-19):

Jaiveon Eaves (24 of 66, 36.4%):

I don’t know how much Brion Whitley, a 21-of-45 shooter in 2018-19 will play, as he was held out of the Martin Methodist and Southern games due to injury. However, the first two are certainly worth watching and guarding. Brown hit 5 of 9 threes against Marquette in Murray’s Round of 64 demolition; Eaves was less prolific, but you can’t dismiss a 36.4% shooter. Neither will have the benefit of the massive gravity Morant drew, however. I guess you can tell I’m hedging my bets here, and I am; I genuinely don’t know exactly what this offense looks like with this many points to be absorbed.

Murray, KY, home to Big Boy Records

On the scale of Chunk to Chonk, Darnell Cowart is OH LAWD HE COMIN’:

What a CHONK. Darnell Cowart is a 6’8″, 280 pound round boy, and this is after leaving junior college at over 300 pounds. To be a 280-pound post player having lost weight is pretty incredible. Sadly, I don’t have much to go off of for 2019-20 footage just yet, as they’ve held him out of play for all but 11 minutes thus far due to injury maintenance. Here’s one of his two baskets this season:

Hopefully he takes the floor at Thompson-Boling, as he possesses an excellent post-up skill set that should give Tennessee’s fledgling frontcourt quite a bit of practice.

On the other hand, there’s KJ Williams:

Williams is a 6’10”, 245 pound sophomore who took over a starting role last year in his first season with the Racers. He was hyper-efficient – 69.8% FG% – and remains hyper-dangerous.

Murray loves running him out as the roll man in ball-screen sets or in backdoor cut plays that also work for Cowart. Neither is an elite defender, so you can get to them on the other end…but both will do quite a bit of work on you on the offensive end. Like I said earlier, it’s worth noting that Williams took almost double the shots of any other Murray player in their exhibition. It wasn’t quite like that against Southern, but there’s a good chance their offense will feature him heavily this season.

Man-to-man defense that limits three-point attempts at the expense of post-up struggles/DREB issues

If you asked me to design a man-to-man defense for the average college basketball program, I’d probably toss in a few elements of what Murray State does. Matt McMahon’s squad has come in 6th and 4th the last two years in opponent 3PT%, which is traditionally not a stat that repeats itself. However, it helps when you’re well above the national average in preventing threes in the first place. Even when you get one off, Murray is usually pretty good about closing out on it:

However, there’s areas where you can crack the Murray egg. Remember what I mentioned earlier about Cowart and Williams being two exploitable players on the defensive end due to a lack of mobility? Neither is terribly efficient defending on the inside:

Also, just once under McMahon – actually, just once in the last 13 seasons – has Murray State ranked in the top 100 of defensive rebounding percentage. I know they were weak opponents, but Tennessee pretty much demolished Eastern New Mexico and UNC Asheville on the boards. They should be able to do similar work here, and it actually feels like an area where Yves Pons could be of massive use:

HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

Work it inside and make the Big Boys earn their keep

In a perfect world, Matt McMahon would give both Cowart and Williams 30+ minutes per game each. Instead, he barely got Cowart over 20 per game last season and had to hold Williams to 18. Why? Because Cowart committed 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes and Williams 4.1. In one of Murray’s five 2018-19 losses, Cowart went for 14 and 13 in just 23 minutes. It was as dominant of a per-minute showing as you’ll see, and yet, Cowart only got 23 minutes due to a four-foul outing. On the flip side, Williams was able to hold himself to just three fouls against Marquette and he went for 16 points in 24 minutes. Any amount of foul trouble you can get here is a huge bonus.

As such, Tennessee’s gotta go to the rim early and often, whether that’s with a post player:

Or with a guard:

Those aren’t and-ones like I’d prefer to use, but Tennessee has just one and-one through two games and it was a transition play, so we have what we have and that’s that.

Don’t give up on the perimeter entirely

Like I noted, I really do like what Murray does on defense, and I think there’s something to be said about their three-point defense. That said: they ranked right at the national average in terms of our beloved Guarded/Unguarded catch-and-shoot splits, with 58% of three-point attempts guarded, per Synergy. Also, it’s not as if they ranked #6 and #4 in preventing three-point attempts, but #90 and #80. I think it will be very hard to run out a third-straight top 10 3PT% defense season. If Tennessee’s patient and reverses the ball around the perimeter or uses their inside-out game, they should be able to find several open looks from downtown:

Crash the boards

Buddy it’s simple. Do I need to spell this one out?

A disclaimer: I do think Tennessee should only send three to the boards in this game instead of my preferred four-man rush. Murray State gets out in transition more than almost anyone in Division I basketball, and Tennessee needs to be prepared for McMahon’s initial rush. However, there’s no reason for Tennessee not to get quite a few offensive rebounds against this group. They may be thin, but they’re lanky and athletic and most of ’em can jump pretty well.

Stuff pick-and-rolls, whether at the rim or on the perimeter

Obviously, things will look a little different in 2019-20, but in half-court offense, Murray got over 42% of their field goal attempts at the rim last season, per Hoop Math. Tennessee’s rim defense has been very solid so far, and I’d hope to see a little more of this against pick-and-roll ball handlers:

On the perimeter, Tennessee’s defense was pretty excellent against UNC Asheville; the Bulldogs went 5-of-20 from three. Our Guarded/Unguarded split gave Tennessee an 8-of-14 (57.1%) success rate, but it felt better than that on rewatch. Tennessee’s been pretty excellent about closing out on spot-up opportunities like this one:

Get back in transition; don’t allow easy baskets

Murray loves to run; neither of Tennessee’s opponents really have so far. That said, Tennessee had at least a little practice against both. Tennessee forced UNC Asheville to play a 71-possession game, which would’ve been one of their four fastest games in 2018-19. Asheville went for 21 points on their 18 transition possessions (1.167 PPP), per Synergy; they went for 42 points on their other 53 (0.792 PPP), which is a large split. Tennessee got burned a few times:

However, on other possessions, they got back and defended quite well:

Tennessee needs far more of the latter and less of the former in order to attain the successful defense I know they’ve got in them.

LINEUP NOTES

A small twist this year: I’m posting the lineups for each team too, not just the starters/depth chart section. It’s a little longer, but provides way more context for most common lineups.

Murray State:

  • Again, this can change, but the first game against Southern made it seem pretty clear: Smith/Eaves/Brown/A. Smith/KJ Williams.
  • Murray played Williams and Cowart together in the starting lineup last year, and I suppose that could change for 2019-20, but it mostly appears that they’re waiting out Cowart’s recovery.
  • FWIW, Anthony Smith has taken 75 of his 77 field goal attempts from inside the arc in college. KJ Williams took a three against Southern and missed it, which now means he’s attempted six career threes. Barring a surprise outburst, Tennessee can pretty much know Murray will have three perimeter shooters and two interior players. Sort of a throwback Tuesday, if you will.

Tennessee:

  • Turner/Bowden/James/Pons/Fulkerson are the starters until further notice.
  • Against UNC Asheville, Tennessee gave no individual lineup more than 6.5 minutes of play; Barnes clearly took the opportunity to experiment and figure things out to its fullest extent. When your tenth-most-used lineup still got two minutes of use, you’re clearly still trying to get a rotation and its lineups solidified.
  • I don’t know if Drew Pember will be available for this game. If not, expect Tennessee to stick with the eight-man rotation it had against UNC Asheville with Zach Kent as the ninth.

KEY MATCHUPS

  • Josiah-Jordan James (and maybe Jordan Bowden) vs. Tevin Brown. Brown led Murray State in shot attempts against Southern and was expected to be the likely scoring leader on the team this season. He’s predominantly a three-point shooter but likes to get to the rim as well. Tennessee can’t commit many fouls here with a short rotation.
  • John Fulkerson/Yves Pons vs. KJ Williams/Darnell Cowart. There’s no easy solution here; I would’ve thrown in Nkamhoua too, but his 224 is not a super-muscular 224. Either of Williams or Cowart will have at least a 30-pound advantage on their Tennessee counterpart; I think the Vols have to be willing to double-team in the post and force the ball out of the hands of these two.

PREDICTION

Tennessee 78, Murray State 66.