The graduation of Shaq Buchanan and Brion Sanchious, coupled with the early and understandable departure of Ja Morant, brings some gravitas to Murray State's goals this season. That's a 2019 OVC Defensive Player of the Year, a rotation big man and needed screener, and arguably the greatest player to put on a Racer uniform all off to new adventures.
But what fifth-year coach Matt McMahon and this staff do return for the 2019-20 schedule is heft and depth; depth that the players are touting coming into the season.
Is this perceived depth some crazy notion?
"It's not," notes redshirt-sophomore guard Tevin Brown. "I feel like we definitely have a deeper team this year, just because we have people that have been here that know what it takes. And then we have people here that are coming in and being shown what it takes from other people. So, I think we will be."
And the resumés of last year speak for themselves:
• Brown, 32.8 minutes per game, 33 appearances and 33 starts, 41.4% shooting, 90 made 3-pointers, 11.8 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game, 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
• KJ Williams, 18.2 minutes per game, 32 appearances, 22 starts, school-record 69.8% field goal shooting, 7.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 19 blocks.
• Darnell Cowart, 20.1 minutes per game, 33 appearances, 10.3 ppg, team-best 6.5 rpg, 13 starts in the final 13 games.
• Anthony Smith, 18.2 minutes per game, five appearances, strong 2017-18 season as top-seven rotation player, one of the nation's best offensive rebounders before his fall injury.
• Devin Gilmore, 9.8 minutes per game, 25 appearances, 13 blocks in 25 games, 3.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg.
• Jaiveon Eaves, 10.0 minutes per game, 30 appearances, 36.4% from the arc, 3.5 ppg.
• Brion Whitley, 8.7 minutes per game, 30 appearances, 46.7% from the arc, 3.0 ppg.
• DaQuan Smith, 4.3 minutes per game, 1.0 ppg, three appearances, shut down last season due to injury.
Crunching the numbers, it's 29.7 points in starting scoring (Cowart, Williams, Brown), 10.1 points in bench scoring (Gilmore, Eaves, Whitley), and two guys in DaQuan Smith and Anthony Smith who would've contributed, but instead nursed full-season injuries and earned redshirts in the process.
And while McMahon's starting five and sub rotations in Monday's exhibition likely won't be the same on the final game of the season, it was a clear indication of how he and this staff feel about the team right now: DaQuan Smith at the point, with Eaves, Anthony Smith, Williams and Brown wrapped around him.
"I think we start by building a foundation of the returning players," McMahon said after the 105-64 victory over Martin Methodist. "And then the newcomers come in and make an impact ... and build the best team that we can."
The first two reserves off the bench were Gilmore and freshman combo guard Chico Carter Jr., who both got 20 minutes.
Pass first, praise second
After Monday's win, McMahon lauded how his team created 41 made baskets on 28 assists, with Jason Holliday, D. Smith and Carter combining for the bulk of the dimes (17 of the 28).
While it was clear who was getting the most assists a year ago, this time around will certainly different.
"It really doesn't matter," Anthony Smith noted, on who gets the most assists. "All we really focus on is trying to get the ball reversed and not having the ball stick on one side. If you can reverse the ball as many times, you'll be able to get a good shot, rather than having it on one side and try to pound it in on the first ball screen or whatever the defense gives you."
In Monday's exhibition, three players -- Matthew Smith, Whitley and Cowart -- did not dress out for participation. McMahon gave updates on all of them:
• Matthew Smith: Lower leg injury, was re-evaluated Tuesday, is "expected to miss a little bit of time."
• Whitley: On the tail end of the injury that "kept him out of the exhibition games of the Bahamas." To be re-evaluated early next week. Expect him back very soon.
• Cowart: "Looks great in practice. Really moving well. His conditioning continues to improve. Don't have a timetable on when he'll be back out on the game floor. But when we think he's close to 100%, he'll be right back out there and ready to roll."
Murray State's first regular-season test -- the SWAC-based Southern Jaguars out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this Saturday at 7 p.m. in the CFSB Center -- happens to be led by a familiar face: former University of Kentucky star and Morehead State coach Sean Woods. He's in his second year with the program after going 7-25 in 2018-19.
This is Woods' second tenure in the SWAC, too, as he spent the first four years of his head coaching career leading the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils before taking on the Ohio Valley Conference Eagles after Donnie Tyndall in 2012.
Following his resignation from Morehead State in 2016, Woods took a one-year hiatus from coaching before nabbing an assistant's position at Stetson for the 2017-18 season.
On April 12, 2018, Woods was named coach of the Jaguars.
Having already played an exhibition game on Oct. 25 against Wiley (a 78-57 win), Woods rolled out a completely different starting rotation than what he employed a year ago. One loaded with newcomers:
• Amel Kuljuhovic, a 6-10, 240-pound senior center, spent last season playing for Cal State Fullerton, where he averaged 2.2 ppg and 2.1 rpg in 18 appearances for the Titans.
• Montese Blake, a 5-11, 170-pound junior college transfer guard, spent last season playing for Miami Dade Community College, where he averaged 18.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg and 3.7 apg. He shot 40.2% from the field, 34.9% from the arc, 74.4% from the stripe and put up 20-plus points in 16 of his 30 starts. His 90 made 3-pointers was 28th-best in the NJCAA for 2018-19, and he also added 50 steals.
• Darius Williams, a 6-9, 200-pound senior forward, logged 30 appearances and averaged 1.6 ppg and 1.6 rpg for Cal State Bakersfield last season.
• Micah Bradford, a 6-1, 175-pound graduate transfer point guard, last played meaningful minutes for Valparaiso during the 2017-18 season. He averaged 5.1 ppg, 2.2 apg and shot 34.2% from the field. In the 2018-19 season, he appeared in just one game for the Crusaders due to medical hardship (back injury). And according to Post-Tribune and Valpo beat reporter Michael Osipoff, Bradford opted to transfer in mid-April following an indefinite suspension following an arrest and charge for possession of marijuana, "his second violation of the school's student-athlete code of conduct."
Woods' lone returner in his first starting five is 6-0, 170-pound sophomore guard Jayden Saddler, who averaged 8.4 ppg, 3.6 apg, 2.8 rpg and 1.6 spg as a freshman last season.
"(Southern) will look a lot like those (Morehead State) teams looked," McMahon said. "They're older. They have a lot of fifth-year transfers and junior college transfers. Defensively, they're going to pressure for 40 minutes. Get after the basketball. They'll be one of the top teams in forcing turnovers. On the offensive end, I expect a relentless dribble-drive attack. And obviously, we showed (Monday) that we've got some improvement to make guarding the ball in our help-defense there.
"It's going to be a great test for us on Saturday."
The Jaguars will also come in with a true first glance of the team, as their season opens tonight at home against Loyola (New Orleans) inside the F.G. Clark Activity Center.
Murray State vs. Southern University
Time: 7 p.m. Saturday
Location: Murray, Ky.
Venue: CFSB Center (8,600)
MSU Head Coach: Matt McMahon (87-42, 5th year)
SU Head Coach: Sean Woods (134-175, 11th year, 2nd at SU)
All-Time Series: First Meeting
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