Dangerous Racers are WVU’s tournament foe
They beat Baylor. Then came a feel-good win over Texas Tech. Finally, Kansas denied West Virginia a first-ever Big 12 Conference title by erasing a short halftime deficit to down the Mountaineers in the league championship game in Kansas City.
And now comes the NCAA tournament, with its 68 teams and three weekends of spotlighted national attention.
West Virginia was given a No. 5 seed and paired with white-hot Murray State in the first round. Murray State, once known as the Thoroughbreds and now simply called the Racers, has won 13 straight games and brings a 26-5 record against West Virginia’s 24-10 mark and runner-up finish in the Big 12.
Murray State is located in basketball-crazy Kentucky, yet has only one player on its 13-man roster from the state itself.
The Racers are the champions of the Ohio Valley Conference, where they defeated Belmont, 68-51, in the league championship game.
With school colors of navy blue and gold, it’ll be hard to distinguish the Racers’ fans from those of the Mountaineers this afternoon in San Diego.
Third-year coach Matt McMahon is only 39 years old. McMahon’s team played only one other NCAA tournament entry: Auburn, a team the Racers lost to, 81-77, in December.
Jonathan Stark, a 6-foot senior transfer from Tulane, is Murray State’s leading scorer at 21.7 points a game. West Virginia’s Saga Konate will see an identical body to his in 6-foot-8, 245-pound Terrell Miller Jr., a 14.7 points a game scorer. Miller is a senior and came to Murray State from a junior college in Mississippi.
In its latest round of games, West Virginia had scoring from seniors Daxter Mills Jr. and Jevon Carter, enough so that both were selected to the all-tournament team last week in Kansas City. But Esa Ahmad was scoreless against Kansas, and so was Lamont West in his 16 minutes of playing time.
West Virginia even had a short lead at halftime against Kansas and the highly partisan crowd that helped pull the Jayhawks to the tournament title.
The Mountaineers have now lost three consecutive Big 12 tournament championship games, twice to Kansas and once to Iowa State. The Racers won’t have much useful depth, but they won’t be the least bit intimidated by WVU’s pressure or its place on the bigger stage that is the Big 12.
West Virginia’s press may be a factor in short segments of the game. The Racers’ aggressive and confident play may lead to some mistakes, but full-court pressure defense won’t win or lose any games.
Miles Jr. and Carter. And anybody else? Sagaba, should he stay out of foul trouble, could be an asset. The Mountaineers need James “Beetle” Bolden, and even Teddy Allen, to do what Ahmad and West didn’t do against Kansas.
The Racers will be ultra aggressive. They won’t point fingers and they won’t pout.
Possibly the thought of playing Marshall in the second round could bring an aggressive step to more Mountaineers. Marshall plays fourth-seeded Wichita State in its first-round game.
Playing in California three time zones removed from Morgantown could be a small factor. More likely, not taking the Racers as a lesser-light from a so-called mid-major conference will be more important than southern California’s sunny climate.
And where will Ahmad, West, Allen, Wes Harris, Logan Routt and Maciej Bender be?