It felt strange.
Instead of interfacing with league coaches and their program representatives in a meet-and-greet at a hotel ballroom ... coaches softly chatting in dark corners ... playful quips exchanged between the league’s top players ... Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference Media Day for men’s and women’s basketball was conducted through a computer — local and regional reporters vying for time with a volley of questions in a Zoom conference call.
Typical of 2020, given current circumstances around a global pandemic.
Still, the same hopes and expectations on the upcoming season — set to begin exactly two weeks from today — brimmed from the likes of Murray State’s Matt McMahon and his star junior guard, Tevin Brown, as the Racers feel quite confident a strong year is in the cards.
“We’re really excited,” McMahon said. “I’m sure that’s been every coach’s opening line... But I really like our team, and I think it’s going to be a great year for our league.”
MSU’s sixth-year skipper wasted little time in describing just how different things feel at this current juncture — noting this upcoming weekend was originally set to be a special one for players, coaches and fans, had there been normal circumstances.
This, however, is an alternate timeline, where the reality is the Racers have 25 games and any type of a postseason run to define this chapter in the yearbook.
“This week, we’re supposed to be inducting Cameron Payne and coach Billy Kennedy into the Hall of Fame, and hosting a really good Chattanooga team in front of 5,000 fans at the CFSB Center,” McMahon said. “And next week, we’re supposed to be playing a doubleheader at the FedEx Forum. Twelve o’clock against Memphis, and then sticking around to watch Ja Morant and the Grizzlies play at 7 p.m.
“But those things didn’t work out. So, we’re going to make the best of it.”
Carter, Gilmore poised for big roles?
Prior to the 2019-20 campaign, Brown identified then-sophomore KJ Williams to take one of the team’s bigger individual leaps in skill. And the 6-foot-11 forward obliged, becoming a 2020 OVC All-OVC first-teamer after bumping up to 12.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting 54.4% from the field and 36% from the arc (18-for-50).
Brown’s picks to see emphatic increases, and overall team impact, in 2020-21? The Racers’ lone senior in forward Devin Gilmore, as well as sophomore point guard Chico Carter Jr.
“This year, they’ll definitely take a bigger step to adding more to our team,” Brown said. “And to their games individually.”
McMahon has already noted sophomore forward Demond Robinson is poised for such growth, too, and doubled down on those thoughts Tuesday afternoon by stating he feels “very confident” his prized 6-8, 255-pounder with a 7-5 wingspan will be among his starting five.
But with a guy like sophomore guard DaQuan Smith moving more off the ball, and Gilmore being the team’s only elder statesman, McMahon echoed Brown’s thoughts about the duo, and how their roles could be much larger this go-round.
“I think with Chico ... going back to the theory of making that jump from first year to second year ... I thought, with the circumstances he dealt with, he had a terrific freshman year,” McMahon said. “On two different occasions, he had to miss a month of the season due to injury or illness, so it was very choppy year for him. So I know it was very challenging for him, but I thought he handled it really well.
“This offseason, he’s gotten stronger. He’s shooting the ball really well. I think he gives us another guy who can not only create for others, but can create his own shot off the dribble. And I think he’s really matured from a leadership standpoint. I think he’s really improved in that area, as well.”
Carter started two games last season and appeared in 22 overall, shooting 44.4% from the field, 38.2% from the arc (13-for-34) and was easily the team’s best free-throw shooter at 87.9% (29-for-33).
Meanwhile, Gilmore has gleefully gone from a near-afterthought to a legitimate contributor for the Racers — a run that began during the middle of his sophomore season in 2018-19, and one that McMahon hopes continues to roll through this next four months.
“This his opportunity,” McMahon said. “... As a sophomore, he went from the sixth frontcourt player on our team, to our sixth man by the end of the season. Helped us win some big games. And then last year, had some great stretches.
“This year, my challenge to him is to not just be the energy guy off the bench who gives the team a lift. I think he’s a guy ..who can be a consistent producer — both scoring the ball ... and defensively with his ability to rebound and affect plays around the goal. I would love to see him have a monster senior year.”
Indeed, Gilmore was beyond effective in his role for the Racers a year ago. He’s one of only five Racers to have appeared in all 32 games (Williams, DaQuan Smith, Brown and Anthony Smith were the others), averaging 4.7 points and 4.1 rebounds in 13.6 mpg, while shooting 73.3% from the field.
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