Murray or Martin?

The OVC West is up for grabs this year.

With Murray State undergoing a transitional phase (coach and players) their hold on the division has rarely been more vulnerable. Eastern Illinois University and Southeast Missouri are improved. UT Martin is as good as they have ever been.

What team will capture the protected OVC Tournament seed?

Media voting tabbed Murray State has a narrow favorite over UT-Martin.  Neither are known quantities though.  Both teams replaced numerous bodies and the early season returns are mixed.

Murray State shockingly lost an exhibition game to Freed-Hardeman, but pounded Harris-Stowe State, 105-55.

For their part, UT-Martin took a disappointing home loss to Bethune-Cookman.  For a team aspiring to dominate their conference this is an unforgivable result.  Growing pains, perhaps?

Speed of Play

For neither Murray State nor UT-Martin the early losses should not be game-changers.  And determining a season-long champion requires evaluating consistency more than simply talent level.

The Racers are a high octane defense.  Under Head Coach Matt McMahon Murray State aspires to speed you up.  Interestingly, UT-Martin’s defense does the same.  But unlike Murray State, UT-Martin is better at a slower, more methodical pace offensively.  Players like Gee McGhee, Jeffery Moss, and DeMarcus Croaker thrive in hurried sets and out in the open floor.

Conversely, UT-Martin’s best players are more comfortable in sets.  Richard Lee, Twymond Howard, Myles Taylor and even upstart Fatodd Lewis thrive in the halfcourt.  Lee is a knockdown shooter that needs a little structure to get his looks.  Howard and Taylor both do the most damage when they pull out slower-footed defenders.

In a head-to-head match the speedy Racers will force tempo and UT-Martin will use the shotclock.  Or should.

Potential Pitfalls

The Racers faced a very similarly-athletic Middle Tennessee squad mid-November.  This matchup brought an OVC-caliber opponent into the CFSB Center.  Judging by this game, MSU will struggle to keep opponents off the offensive glass.  Reggie Upshaw Jr. nabbed three offensive rebounds alone before halftime.

To be fair Murray State clamped down and disallowed a single second half offensive rebound.

“My favorite stat, that I see, is we gave up zero offensive rebounds in the second half,” said Coach McMahon.

Another concern was post defense.  Few Middle Tennessee short shots missed.  Worse, they recovered the misses.  Coach McMahon shouted “Rebound!” in an attempt to prod his men.  But this could be systemic for the speedy, yet undersized unit.

Lithe starters like Byrce Jones, Jeffery Moss, and Croaker are not natural rebounders.  The bigs, Gee McGhee and Wayne Langston have to do more.  The best rebounder on the roster might be Brion Sanchious, but his mobility lags behind the starter Langston.

When Croaker helps out the team competes for loose rebounds.  He has elite athleticism and mobility in traffic.

“That has been the emphasis since the day I got here,” said Coach McMahon.  “These were the potential best lineups for us.  We have good size on the perimeter too now.  Good size and good athleticism. They are more than capable of carrying their weight on the glass.”

The men of Martin have the same problem of rebounding.  Like Murray State, UT-Martin players have athleticism on the wings.  But they do not have the same size underneath the basket.

Malik London, a foul-prone big, can rebound.  But thus far Head Coach Heath Schroyer uses the long-armed London sparingly (11.0 mpg).  Without London on the floor the Skyhawks lean on 6-foot-7 Myles Taylor to control the paint.  He is springy, but shorter than most frontline opponents.

UT-Martin only collected two offensive rebounds against Oral Roberts.

Freshman Fatodd Lewis can ameliorate this problem with his unique combination of skill and size.

Conclusion

Until UT-Martin (0-3) establishes a winning streak the Murray State Racers (2-0) are still OVC West favorites.  They have some areas of concern, but newcomers Croaker and Chad Culbreath cloak those with their offensive flourishes.  Eastern Illinois deserves mention, but OVCHoops.com has not been able to evaluate them just yet.

UT-Martin opens OVC play the first week of January with road games at EKU and Morehead State.  Then, and only then, will the OVC world get a true feel for how legitimate are the OVC-West challengers.

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