Murray State's Smith showcases improvement in 2020 season

DAVE WINDER | MSU Athletics

Six games into OVC play, Murray State freshman point guard DaQuan Smith is shooting 50% (11-for-22) from behind the arc. Now, with a 15-game conference winning streak and an 8-0 start at home, the Racers face the vaunted Belmont Bruins at 6 tonight in the CFSB Center in Murray.

DaQuan Smith was supposed to contribute to the 2018-19 Murray State men's basketball season, for a team that eventually finished 28-5 and in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Holly Springs, Mississippi, native came to the Racers as a Class 3A state runner up after averaging 26.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game, and finished as the Holly Springs High School all-time leading scorer with 2,788 points.

In fact, according to fifth-year MSU coach Matt McMahon, Smith was on track to contribute significantly off the bench as a spell behind future No. 2 NBA pick Ja Morant.

"Coming out of last summer, he was in position to be the sixth or seventh man on our championship team last year, and had the unfortunate injury," McMahon said earlier this week. "I'm really excited about the direction he's headed. There's some areas he's got to get better in, like we all have, but I think the progress he's making has been very good."

It's not lip service from McMahon, either. In his first nine games this season, Smith was anemic from the arc (4-for-24) and averaged 3.6 assists and 2.1 turnovers per contest.

Since? He's gone 19-for-45 from the arc (42.2%), including an 11-for-22 streak in these first six Ohio Valley Conference matchups, and created 4.0 assists and 2.1 turnovers per contest.

Some of the improvements have naturally come with more time on the floor, as Smith has played no less than 18 minutes since a Dec. 3, 2019, road game against Missouri State.

Some of the improvements have come from the constant conversations with his batterymate and fellow freshman point guard, Chico Carter Jr., who -- like sophomore forward KJ Williams and freshman forward Demond Robinson -- continues to split the position with Smith as a timeshare for the team.

"Me and Chico, coach knows that when one is tired, he can depend on that other one to come in and basically be the same," Smith said. "I'm glad Chico is right there if I'm tired or gassed, he can come in, and I know he'll have the same fire and do the same thing.

"It's exciting and comforting, knowing that he works as hard as I do."

Some of Smith's confidence is brewing from McMahon, as he continues to teach throughout the season. Carter is typically subbed in after a Smith turnover, missed shot or failed assist, and guys like McMahon -- with staffers Shane Nichols, Tim Kaine, Casey Long and Ronrico White -- are giving immediate feedback on how to improve.

And some of Smith's confidence comes from Morant, himself, who continually keeps in contact with Smith and the rest of the team as best he can throughout the NBA season.

"It helps me a lot," Smith said of Morant's advice. "He always just tells me to 'play my game,' and 'make the right reads' and all that, like when he was telling me when he was here. It helps me a lot when I talk to him. He tells me about this and that, or what I could be doing better or what to work on."

Sophomore showcase

Tonight's matchup between the Racers and the Belmont Bruins, set for 6 p.m. on ESPNU in the CFSB Center, is more than just a rematch of the 2018 and 2019 OVC Tournament championship games. It's more than just McMahon vs. a new face in former Bruins star, Stetson skipper and lauded Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander.

And it's more than just the annual ESPNU billing of two of the league's titans, with the Racers holding a slim 9-8 edge in a series of matchups that have come down to the wire. No, tonight is a colossal sophomore showcase for the conference, with MSU's Tevin Brown (17.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.2 spg, 45.2% FG, 43.4% 3PT) and KJ Williams (12.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 56.7% FG, 10 blocks) pitted against BU's new leaders in Adam Kunkel, Grayson Murphy and Nick Muszynski.

Kunkel -- a Kentucky native from Cooper High School (Hebron) -- has erupted as the Bruins' top scorer, averaging 16.9 ppg on 42.6% from the floor and 40.4% from the arc (55-for-136).

Muszynski has rebounded from his late-season leg injury in last year's OVC semifinal with great authority, averaging 15.8 ppg and 6.8 rpg with 62% shooting from the floor, 43.8% shooting from the arc (14-for-32) with a league-leading 31 blocks.

And then there's a 6-2, 175-pound guard in Murphy, who has Swiss-Army-knifed his way to 9.1 ppg, 6.2 apg and 8.3 rpg. He leads all guards in college basketball in regards to the glass, and he leads the Bruins in offensive boards (31) and steals (41), and is shooting north of 50% from the field.

"It's an interesting game," McMahon said. "You look at the five sophomore in this game: some really good players between their three and Tevin and KJ."

Bruins bashing

After one of the more stunning upsets in college basketball -- a 79-69 defeat to SIU Edwardsville at home on Jan. 2 -- Belmont has been bruising, topping Eastern Illinois, Southeast Missouri, UT Martin, Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State by a combined 113 points (plus-22.6 margin).

Statistically, the Bruins look eerily similar to the Racers: four players scoring in double digits, strong 3-point (29.3%) and field-goal defense (40.1%), a strong rebounding edge (plus-4.7) and a high assist rate (61.6%).

"We always approach every game the same way," McMahon said. "I hope there will be a great crowd here. It's our first game with students since the semester started. We've gotten off to a good start in league play. I think we have a fun team to watch. Our guys play extremely hard and very unselfishly. I have a lot of respect for the Belmont program, and it's been some very good games (with them) over the years.

"But I think, from a preparation standpoint, all that hype and crowd and atmosphere and national TV -- that's great for both programs and great for our league. But at the end of the day, we prepare for every game the same way. That's the only way I know how to do it."

Murray State vs. Belmont

Time: 6 tonight

Location: Murray

Venue: CFSB Center (8,600)

MSU Head Coach: Matt McMahon (100-47, 5th year)

BU Head Coach: Casey Alexander (127-89, 9th year, 1st year at BU)

All-Time Series: MSU leads 9-8

Last Met: March 9, 2019 (MSU won 77-65)

Listen Live: Froggy 103.7 FM (PxP: Neal Bradley, Color: Kenny Roth)

Follow Live: ESPNU, @RacersHoops, @RacerDave23, @dreamarlowe85

By the Numbers

MSU BU

PPG 77.7 81.6

PA 64.5 66.9

FG% 48.8 47.6

FG%D 39.5 40.1

3PT% 35.2 36.3

3PT%D 33.8 29.3

FT% 70.2 71.7

REB 38.9 41.1

RMAR plus-9.7 plus-4.7

APG 15.3 19.0

TOPG 13.6 12.9

SPG 5.4 6.5

BPG 3.6 3.4

Murray State vs. Belmont

Time: 6 tonight

Location: Murray

Venue: CFSB Center (8,600)

MSU Head Coach: Matt McMahon (100-47, 5th year)

BU Head Coach: Casey Alexander (127-89, 9th year, 1st year at BU)

All-Time Series: MSU leads 9-8

Last Met: March 9, 2019 (MSU won 77-65)

Listen Live: Froggy 103.7 FM (PxP: Neal Bradley, Color: Kenny Roth)

Follow Live: ESPNU, @RacersHoops, @RacerDave23, @dreamarlowe85

By the Numbers

MSU BU

PPG 77.7 81.6

PA 64.5 66.9

FG% 48.8 47.6

FG%D 39.5 40.1

3PT% 35.2 36.3

3PT%D 33.8 29.3

FT% 70.2 71.7

REB 38.9 41.1

RMAR plus-9.7 plus-4.7

APG 15.3 19.0

TOPG 13.6 12.9

SPG 5.4 6.5

BPG 3.6 3.4

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