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Know Thy Enemy: Murray State

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

Team: Murray State Racers
Record: 27-4 (16-2 OVC)
NET: 44
KenPom: 51 (40th adjusted offense, 79th adjusted defense, 98th adjusted tempo)
Date: March 21, 2019
Time: 3:30 PM
Location: XL Center (Hartford, CT)
TV: TBS
Coach: Matt McMahon (4th season)
Record by Quadrant: Q1: 1-2, Q2: 1-2, Q3: 4-0, Q4: 19-0 Non-D1: 2-0
3 Best Wins: 77-65 vs #47 Belmont (OVC Championship), 73-71 at #135 Austin Peay, 76-74 vs Jacksonville State (OVC Semifinals)
3 Worst Losses: 88-68 at #130 Jacksonville State, 79-69 vs #47 Belmont, 78-72 at #59 Alabama

Starters:
PG: Ja Morant: 6’3” 175 lb SO: 36.5 mpg, 24.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 10.0 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.8 bpg, 5.2 tpg, 55.3 eFG%
SG: Shaq Buchanan: 6’3” 190 lb SR: 33.1 mpg, 13.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.5 bpg, 1.2 tpg, 54.2 eFG%
SF: Tevin Brown: 6’5” 180 lb RSFR: 32.7 mpg, 11.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.6 bpg, 1.1 tpg, 55.6 eFG%
PF: KJ Williams: 6’9 240 lb FR: 17.8 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.5 spg, 0.6 bpg, 0.6 tpg, 69.9 eFG%
C: Darnell Cowart: 6’8 295 lb JR: 19.4 mpg, 10.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.4 bpg, 1.2 tpg, 56.9 eFG%

Bench:
Brion Sanchious: 6’8” 245 lb SR C: 19.0 minutes per game
Devin Gilmore: 6’6” 200 lb SO PF: 9.5 minutes per game
Jaiveon Eaves: 6’2” 195 lb JR SG: 10.2 minutes per game
Brion Whitley: 6’4” 200 lb SO SF: 9.2 minutes per game

Benchwarmers:
Mike Davis: 6’7” 210 lb JR PF: Appeared in 25 games (hasn’t appeared since 2/28 Coach’s Decision)
Jalen Johnson: 6’1” 175 lb FR PG: Appeared in 17 games
DaQuan Smith: 6’1” 175 lb FR SG: Appeared in 3 games
Anthony Smith: 6’7” 225 lb SR PF: Appeared in 5 games (medical redshirt)

Notes:

• No point in delaying it, let’s start with the man himself, Mr. Temetrius “Ja” Morant. Of all the players that don’t share a name with a hill in Israel, none have received more hype and praise than the Racers’ floor general. He’s a human highlight reel with timely dimes, unflappable nerves, and penchant for putting defenders on posters. Critics will say he’s played no one of significance but there’s a reason NBA scouts are drooling and declaring Morant a potential top 5 pick. The key to his game is his absurd athleticism that allows him to out maneuver and throw down on defenders en route to the rim. Over a third of his 24 points a game come in transition opportunities.

What makes him doubly dangerous is that he is very good at creating those transition opportunities for himself. He is a tenacious one on one defender capable of picking pockets and locking down opposing guards. The key to stopping Morant may be limiting those transition opportunities. In half court sets he is still good but puts up more human numbers. Of course, he can compensate for this with his distribution skills. Sacar Anim will draw the unenviable task of slowing down Morant. Anim has had some masterful defensive performances on elite scorers but Morant will be his toughest test yet.
• Joining Morant in the backcourt is another 6’3” defensive-minded slashing guard who goes by a nickname. Leroy “Shaq” Buchanan has a lot of similarities to his running mate. He feasts in transition while struggling in half court sets. He is a capable three-point shooter but much prefers to work inside the arc. He is second on the team in scoring but the true value he brings is on the defensive end. He’s doesn’t quite have the ability to lockdown defender one on one that Morant does, but he is the much more versatile defender, handling any kind of offensive set with ease. He is even more disruptive than Morant which is why he was recognized as the OVC Defensive Player on the Year. Morant and Buchanan will likely share the load of defending Markus Howard. Given Howard’s tendency to turn the ball over, how he handles this duo could be the deciding factor in the game.
• Rounding out the backcourt for the Racers is three and d specialist Tevin Brown. With 84 makes from distance on the season at 37% accuracy, Brown is the only sniper in Murray State’s arsenal. With two feet set, Brown can make the most of catch and shoot opportunities and is one of Morant’s favorite targets for the drive and kick. While not a one trick pony, he has over twice as many 3PMs as 2PMs in his career so he’s not looking to beat many defenders off the bounce. This makes him a possible candidate for Howard to defend. Howard will give up 6 inches to Brown but has had some success this season guarding taller sharpshooting guards who aren’t threats to drive.

Defensively, Brown has been one of the most efficient defenders that Murray State has. His points per possession allowed of .538 ranks in the 98th percentile. The key to this has been his uncanny ability to defend the catch and shoot. In the 100 possessions he’s defended a spot up jumper he has only allowed 44 points, which is amazing. He will get a challenge against Marquette as he will likely have to guard the much taller and very accurate Hauser brothers.
• The Racers’ frontcourt is manned by a trio of wide-bodied but short big men. The best among them is Darnell Cowart, a JUCO product who just named the OVC Newcomer of the Year. Cowart checks in at nearly 300 lbs and uses that frame effectively to clear out space for rebounds and points in the paint. It’s no wonder Morant has so much room to fly with Cowart backing people out of the lane. When Murray State is slowed into a half court set, throwing the ball into Cowart and letting him post up his man is one of the most effective strategies that they have.

Joining Cowart is KJ Williams and Brion Sanchious, a pair of 240 pounders whose roles are more to make room for Morant than it is to score themselves. Where this unit struggles is on defense and late in the game. None of the three are very mobile, all of them struggle to defend in space, and all of them are known to get winded. There’s a reason none of the three average more than 19 minutes a game. At any given time, one of them is going to have to be guarding a Hauser brother which will not end well for them.
• As a whole, Murray State is known for two things, 2P FG% and defending the three. KenPom ranks them as top 5 in the country in both categories. Our colleagues at Cracked Sidewalks did an excellent investigation of this and found that the numbers in mirror may not be as intimidating as they appear. The TL;DR version is that at least part of why Murray State is elite in these categories is because they have faced a collection of teams that are bad at defending the rim and shooting the three. They have never faced a team as good as defending the 2 or shooting the 3 as Marquette. That’s not a lazy “Murray hasn’t played anyone good” it’s a simple fact that Marquette will be their toughest test in these two categories. Specifically, the battle between Theo John and Ja Morant should be epic. John’s block rate is better than any other player that Morant has seen this season….and Ja is better than any other player that Theo has seen. We may get an answer to the age-old question of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object when John goes up to block a Morant dunk.
• If you didn’t sense a theme in the player breakdowns, let’s spell it out. Murray State loves transition and is very lukewarm about half court offense. Morant, Buchanan, Brown, even Cowart all put up elite efficiency numbers in transition this season. Key to beating them is limiting the turnovers and making them work against a set defense. Turnovers have been Marquette’s Achilles’ Heel as of late. If that trend continues, Murray State will pull off the upset.
• Murray State only features one player who shot better than 35% from three, Brown at 37%. Backup guard Jaieveon Eaves shot 35% with limited attempts while Buchanan and Morant both shoot at a 33% clip and average between 1 and 2 makes a game. Unless all four are on the floor at the same time (very unlikely), that means there will always be two non-shooters on the court. This is a huge boon to Marquette as it allows their rim protectors in John and Ed Morrow to stay near the rim where they are at their most effective. Marquette’s strategy will likely be to keep someone in Brown’s pocket and pack the lane with everyone else. If Buchanan and Morant are reduced to jumpshooters, Murray State will lose this game.
• Murray State defends the perimeter well and can lockdown individual guards. But where they have struggled as a unit is with pick and roll defense. This is likely the result of having slower, less mobile big men trying to cover in space. Marquette is very aggressive with ball screens and will likely work them until they have the matchups they like. If Howard can catch the 295 lb Cowart, he will abuse that matchup all day long.

Prediction:
Every expert and wannabe expert have been picking Murray State over Marquette as their can’t miss upset in the first round. This makes complete and perfect sense. Marquette has lost 5 of the last 6, their star player is nursing an injury, the 5 vs. 12 upset, and an NBA talent in Morant leading the Racers…on the surface, this seems like an easy pick for an upset. You delve into the numbers a little bit more and you can see that Murray State appears to be an excellent matchup for Marquette. Howard’s wrist is the x-factor. If he is playing one handed, then all bets are off.

Anim doesn’t stop Morant but he does force him into an inefficient night. Brown can’t get his shot off against the much taller Hauser. Buchanan runs into Theo/Morrow early and often to no avail. On the other end of the court, Howard gets hustled into sloppy turnovers that keep Murray State in the game. But the Hausers take advantage of the slow-footed Murray State bigs and have big games inside and outside the arc. There are tense moments, but Marquette pulls out a 8-12 point victory aided by a friendly Hartford crowd made up of mostly Villanova fans who made the short drive from Philly.

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Categories: Analysis, Previews

Author:Ryan Jackson

Texas A&M Professional, Marquette Fantatic

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