While Murray State continues their ascent in the polls, that has more to do with teams in front of them losing than it does with voters being increasingly impressed by the quality of their wins in the Ohio Valley. The reality is that their schedule ultimately makes it difficult to assess just how good they are on a national level.
The best opportunity to put Murray State’s ability in perspective is to look at the three wins they have notched over tournament-caliber teams. While Southern Mississippi, Dayton, and Memphis aren’t considered among the nation’s elite teams, all three would deserve to be in the tournament if it started today. Evaluating the Racers’ performance against their stiffest competition should be more indicative of their overall strengths and weaknesses. If not, I just wasted a bunch of time researching this.
November 26th: Murray State 90, Southern Mississippi 81 in Double-OT
The Racers lost a 12-point halftime lead in the Championship of the Great Alaska Shootout, but the only time they trailed in the game was after Southern Miss three-pointer in the first overtime. Led by 36 points from Isaiah Canaan, Murray State was 10-of-21 (47.6%) from three-point range and scored 1.17 points per possession. As a point of reference, USM has allowed just three teams to score over 1.04 ppp this year.
The Racers also hit over 50% from two-point range, which allowed them to post a 58.1 eFG% compared to USM’s season average of 46.4%. Murray State’s 42.9 OReb% was above their average this year and the third highest allowed by the Golden Eagles. The Racers did post a 23.4 turnover rate, which is slightly worse than their 20.9% season mark. They also finished with a solid 40.3 free throw rate, an area where they have typically excelled this year.
On defense, Murray State allowed 1.05 ppp, which is the fourth highest total they have surrendered so far. The 19.5 TO% was the second lowest they have forced, but USM tallied just six assists in the game. The Racers allowed the Golden Eagles to post a 40.3 FTR, and USM made good on 24-of-27 from the stripe.
December 4th: Murray State 75, Dayton 58
The Racers shot 63.0% from the field in the second half to pull away from Dayton. In all, they made 9-of-15 (60.0%) from beyond the arc and also hit 52.8% of their twos, good for a 63.7 eFG%. Canaan again led the team with 21 points, including five triples.
Overall, Murray State wound up scoring 1.23 ppp, the third highest mark that Dayton has allowed this year. For the season, the Flyers are yielding just 1.00 ppp. The Racers had an impressive 19 assists on 28 made baskets, but they got to the line just 12 times for a 23.5 FTR, which is well below their season average.
Defensively, the Racers limited Dayton to just 0.95 ppp, their third lowest total of the season. That was largely a result of holding the Flyers to a paltry 15.7 FTR and forcing them into a 27.9 TO%. While the FTR was the lowest posted against Murray State this season, Dayton’s 52.0 eFG% was the fourth highest the Racers have allowed this year.
December 11th: Murray State 76, Memphis 72
After holding an 11-point lead with roughly two minutes left, the Racers allowed the Tigers to get within one point before sealing the game at the line to pick up a huge road win. Donte Poole hit six three-pointers and led the team with 20 points while Canaan came through with 15 points and seven assists. Murray State actually shot better from outside the arc than they did inside of it, making 9-of-20 (45.0%) from deep but just 42.4% of their twos.
While their 51.9 eFG% was the lowest among the three games I looked at, they offset that with a 54.7 FTR, hitting 21-of-29 at the stripe. The Racers had 15 assists on 23 made baskets and scored 1.07 ppp, the fifth highest number against Memphis this year.
Memphis grabbed 40.0% of their misses, but they still posted a relatively poor 45.9 eFG%. The Tigers also had a 32.8 FTR, which is well below their 41.7 mark for the entire season. They also had a TO% of just 21.1, well below the 25.6 Murray State has forced so far. All that added up to 1.01 ppp, Memphis’ fourth lowest output this year.
Murray State Season Stats
Before we compare the numbers from just these three games, let’s also look at some of the key numbers for Murray State over the entire year.
On offense, they rank fourth in the nation in three-point shooting at 43.7%, which has helped propel them to a 55.4 eFG%, good for 11th overall. Their gaudy 46.4 FTR is 14th in the country and has translated to the team scoring 23.7% of its points from the line, where they hit 74.2%. Their 34.5 OReb% ranks 101st, and they are in the middle of the road in terms of TO%, which is the biggest blemish on their tempo-free offensive resume.
Defensively, opponents are hitting just 27.6% from beyond the arc, which has helped contribute to a 45.9 defensive eFG%. The Racers rank 30th nationally with a 24.5 TO% against them, and their 37.2 FTR places them just inside the Top 200. The biggest weakness has been on the offensive glass, as evidenced by a 35.1 OReb% against them which ranks 272nd.
Offensive Impressions from these Three Games
For the three games analyzed above, the Racers scored a total of 1.15 ppp, which is actually higher than their season average of 1.13 ppp. They hit exactly 50% of their 56 three-point attempts, leading to a 57.8 eFG% which again was better than their total for the season. Murray State’s 39.8 FTR was below their average, due mostly to their low mark in the Dayton game. A 36.6 OReb% was in line with their numbers for the year, and a 21.5 TO% was slightly worse than their average.
Based on their performances in these games, the only conclusion to draw is that Murray State’s offense is legit. They have high-level shooters who can consistently make long-range jumpers. In two of the matchups, the Racers’ ability to draw fouls and get to the line was not impacted by “better” competition. The Dayton game was an anomaly there, but Murray State was shooting very well and jumped out to a large second half lead, both of which likely contributed to having fewer free throw attempts.
Defensive Impressions from these Three Games
If there’s any area to question Murray State in light of these games, it’s definitely on defense. They allowed a total of 1.01 ppp, which while respectable, is 0.10 ppp over their average for the season. Their defensive eFG% was 46.4%, which is right around their total for the year, while their 30.7 FTR against was actually better than their season numbers.
However, the Racers allowed a 37.5 OReb%, which is higher than their season average that already ranks among the worst 75 teams in the country. Their 22.5 defensive TO% is below their season mark as well, with Dayton’s 27.9% rate the main reason it wasn’t even lower.
This is obviously a small sample size from which to draw any firm conclusions, but it certainly appears that against the best teams they have faced, the Racers have been vulnearble on the offensive glass and didn’t find it as easy to generate turnovers. The rebounding woes aren’t necessarily shocking given that Pomeroy has them ranked 333rd in effective height. It’s also worth noting that while 6-foot-7 forward Ivan Aska is currently injured, they were at full strength for all three games.
One other potential red flag, although not necessarily stat-related, is that the team held double-digit leads against both Southern Mississippi and Memphis before allowing the first game to be sent to OT and the second to shrink to a one-point margin in the closing seconds. The good news is that they were able to weather these comebacks and eventually get the win.
With any of these potential issues, I’m not sure anyone in the OVC is built to take advantage of them, and Murray State’s toughest remaining game will almost certainly be their BracketBusters matchup. The Racers will be playing at home in the event, and potential visitors thrown out include Saint Mary’s, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, or Long Beach State.
Of those matchups, the two that appear best-suited to challenge Murray State are Wichita State and Saint Mary’s. The Shockers rank 59th in OReb%, 83rd in TO%, and defend the three-point shot well. They have enough big bodies to give Murray State trouble inside and are solid defensively. The Gaels have a number of talented shooters, and thanks to Matthew Delavedova at the point, they don’t turn the ball over much. Surprisingly (to me at least), they rank 56th in OReb% as well. On defense, they don’t foul a ton, but they also don’t defend the three-point line particularly well.
As for what all that means from a seeding standpoint, SI’s Andy Glockner has already done a lot of the leg work to see what precedents have been set in that regard. For now, I consider Murray State to be an above-average offensive team thanks to their long-range shooting and ability to get to the line, both of which have shown themselves against all levels of competition. Defensively, the teams that will give them the most trouble are those that take care of the basketball and can pound the offensive glass to exploit their relative lack of height.
Follow me on Twitter (@AndyBottoms) for more of my thoughts on college basketball.