The Murray State Racers will be on the road Wednesday for a game against the Sycamores of Indiana State. And despite MSU's thumping of Western Kentucky on Saturday the Racers will go into the game as a slight underdog.
The Sagarin ratings make Indiana State a four point favorite. But I am convinced that reflects an inaccurate appraisal of the two teams' strength. Early in the season Sagarin gives significant weight to how a team performed the previous season. And right now there is reason to believe Murray State is significantly better than they were last year while Indiana State looks to be significantly weaker.
Last year the Sycamores came into the Regional Special Events Center and beat the Racers handily, 79-62. But Indiana State has only one player who started in that game.
Gabe Moore and Todd McCoy combined for 13 points and nine rebounds in last year's game but they were lost to graduation. Marco Stinson scored 12 points in last year's game but he quit the team at the beginning of the fall semester. And Harry Marshall who scored 16 points in last year's game is academically ineligible.
They do have Jay Tunnell back. Tunnell, a 6-8 255 pound post player, started last year and scored 15 points against the Racers. He also grabbed seven rebounds.
And they also have Aaron Carter back. Carter came off the bench and scored 14 points against MSU last year.
So they aren't the same team they were a year ago and this is borne out by the fact that they have started the season 0-2 and have underperformed relative to their rating.
The Sagarins would make them a one point favorite at Northern Illinois but they lost by seven at NIU on November 18th. And their game at home against North Texas should have been a tossup according to Sagarin yet they lost by 11.
They are big though as their starters stand 6-11, 6-8, 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 respectively. Four of their five starters average at least five rebounds per game and all five carry double-figure scoring averages.
Despite ISU's size Northern Illinois outrebounded them by one and North Texas outrebounded them by eight. And they get almost no production from their bench. Their reserves are averaging 7.5 points and five rebounds COLLECTIVELY.
Three players bear closer scrutiny: Rashad Reed, Aaron Carter and Josh Crawford.
Reed, a 6-1, point guard is hitting just 39.3 percent of his shots overall but he is hitting 58.3 percent from beyond the arc. He is hitting just 25 percent of his two-point field goals. The Racers will need to crowd him on the perimeter and make him drive.
Carter, a 6-4 guard, hasn't been especially proficient on the offensive end as he is shooting just 37.5 percent overall and 28.6 percent from three-point range. But he hit 5 of 7 shots and 3 of 5 three-pointers against Murray State last year and he is averaging seven rebounds per game this season.
Josh Crawford, a 6-11 center, is hitting 68.4 percent of his shots while averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. Ivan Aska and Tony Easley will have to play well to contain him. Fortunately, at 220 pounds he isn't the kind of big bruising center that Easley struggles against.
On the defensive end the Racers should get plenty of good looks from beyond the arc as both Northern Illinois and North Texas shot 42 percent or better from three-point range.
Indiana State's biggest weakness has been their inability to defend the other team's backcourt. Northern Illinois' starting guards went off for 27 points each against the Sycamores and North Texas had two guards score 16 and 17 against them.
ISU's interior defense has been solid though so it will be important for the Racers' guards to be aggressive with the ball.
The one thing that gives me pause is MSU's 4-10 record in their last 14 away games. Winning on the road isn't easy. It requires toughness and maturity.
So it figures that Wednesday's game will turn on the following:
1. Can the Racers stop Josh Crawford on the inside and Rashad Reed on the perimeter?
2. Can Murray State's guards take advantage of ISU's poor perimeter defense?
3. Are the Racers tough enough and mature enough to win on the road against an opponent that has it's back against the wall and figures to come out fighting?