HARTFORD, Conn. – The Murray State Racers have faced a great many challenges this year. Some of them have been games, which culminated into regular-season losses to Alabama, Auburn, Belmont and Jacksonville State.
Some of them have been injuries. The loss of senior Anthony Smith and freshman sharpshooter DaQuan Smith. A tweaked ankle for super sophomore Ja Morant. A hand injury to senior stalwart Shaq Buchanan.
But a team so hellbent on turning the page and focusing on the “next important thing” now finds itself facing perhaps its greatest – and most exciting – challenge yet, when tonight it’ll face one of the nation’s toughest, and largest, teams in fourth-seeded Florida State for a berth into the 2019 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
It’s a place the Racers have never been, and a place the Seminoles visited as recently as last season on their way to the Elite Eight.
“There’s a long list of things that will have to get marked off if we want to have an opportunity to win (Saturday),” noted MSU head coach Matt McMahon. “…our ability to execute at the offensive end will be critical. Obviously, you see they have great size at every position. They’re relentless to the offensive glass. Can we compete with them on the boards? I think that’ll be important. How we’re able to guard them will be critical.
“I mean, this time of year, you’re not going to play any bad teams, so we’ll have to play very, very well to have an opportunity to win.”
MSU, coming off of a stellar defensive showcase against fifth-seeded Marquette, rolls into tonight allowing 67.7 ppg and 40.7 percent shooting from the floor, in what has become one of the more defensively special teams in Racer history.
FSU, No. 10 in the most recent AP Poll, is allowing 67.2 ppg and 41 percent shooting from the field – in a slate of games that’s included a prolific 13-5 finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference and push into a conference title matchup against Duke.
The Seminoles have held teams to 33.3 percent from the arc, too, while boasting one of the finer rebounding clubs (plus-4.7 margin) in all of the country.
And the lineup? Yeah, it’s big.
Trent Forrest, junior guard, is 6-foot-5. Terance Mann, senior guard, is 6-foot-7. Christ Koumadje, senior center, is 7-foot-4. Top reserve and leading scorer Mfiondu Kabengele (13.1 ppg, 51 blocks) is 6-foot-10 and every bit of the listed 250 pounds.
And it doesn’t get smaller.
No one on the FSU roster is shorter than 6-foot-4, save Justin Linder and David Nichols (both 6-foot-1), and the Racers know it’s something for which they’ll have to plan and prepare to try and handle.
“They are a very long and athletic team,” Morant said. “And they can get after the ball some. So, really, I think our focus will just be taking care of the basketball. And on the defensive end? We’ll try to play the same. Just focus on trying to force the team to take some tough shots. Don’t give them easy looks. But I think, really, taking care of the ball is our main focus.”
Added Buchanan: “Forcing them to take terrible shots. Limiting them to one shot. Making sure we rebound. We know that the tougher and taller they are, that it’s going to be a tough game. We know we have to box out.”
Hamilton’s humble beginnings
Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton hasn’t forgotten his time in the Ohio Valley Conference.
After playing for UT Martin from 1969-71 (which didn’t join the OVC until 1979), the Seminoles skipper took his first assistantship at Austin Peay State University – and from 1971-74 battled with the likes of Murray State in atmospheres and moments that still linger in his mind.
“Back in those days, we had some tremendous battles,” he laughed. “If you go back and read the newspapers, you can see that with the team that Coach (Cal) Luther had there and the teams we had at Austin Peay, they were always packed houses, and they were very, very exciting games.
“And if I remember correctly, Murray State was probably the team to beat in the conference until we got at Austin Peay. We had some tremendous, tremendous, exciting games against them in the two to three years I was at Austin Peay.
“I’ve got a lot of fond memories of the challenges and atmosphere that exist. Hector Blondet and some of the guys that played at Murray State. I think we had two, three guys from New York – and we had a guy on our team from New York named ‘Fly’ Williams that averaged 27 points and nine rebounds in a game as a freshman. In a game we had to win to win the (OVC), I think he scored 36 points or something like that. It was an exciting era for me, and it was a great way for me to start my coaching career.”
Playing the Thursday/Sunday conference schedule since January might lend some to believe the Racers have a bit of advantage going into tonight against Florida State – based on routine, rhythm and experience.
McMahon is not in that camp.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “We’ve been able to stay in this routine going on 11 weeks now and kept things similar. Last week, we scrimmaged on Saturday during the long layoff to try and keep our guys in that same routine.
“But our guys know we have to turn the page now and start to turn focus in on finding ways to beat Florida State (Saturday).”
(12) Murray State vs. (4) Florida State
Time: 5:10 p.m. Central
Location: Hartford, Connecticut
Venue: XL Center (16,294)
MSU Head Coach: Matt McMahon (87-41, 4th year)
FSU Head Coach: Leonard Hamilton (533-425, 31st year)
All-Time Series: FSU leads 2-1
Last Met: Dec. 29, 1998 (FSU won 80-76)
MSU Record: 28-4 (16-2 OVC)
FSU Record: 28-7 (13-5 ACC)
Listen Live: Froggy 103.7 FM (PxP: Neal Bradley, Color: Kenny Roth)
Follow Live: TNT, @RacersHoops, @RacerDave23, @dreamarlowe85
MSU vs. FSU
By the Numbers
PPG 83.3 74.9
PA 67.7 67.2
FG% 49.7 44.1
3PT% 35.2 33.4
FT% 73.3 74.5
REB 38.0 37.4
RMAR plus-3.6 plus-4.7
APG 18.3 12.7
TOPG 12.1 13.3
DFG% 40.7 41.0
D3PT% 28.1 33.3