The Racers – home of one of my favorite college sports logos – are more than the school of Ja Morant. The number two pick in June’s draft is averaging 18.6 points with the Memphis Grizzlies; Murray State went 26-6 and 28-5 in his two seasons, knocking off Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year.
Murray State has long been one of the best stepping stones for coaches. This is Matt McMahon’s fifth year; before him it was Steve Prohm (to Iowa State), Billy Kennedy (to Texas A&M), and Mick Cronin (to Cincinnati). It’s a program accustomed to winning, and though Morant is gone, I wouldn’t take them lightly. Guard Tevin Brown led the way with 17 points in their 20-point win over Southern (349th in KenPom) in the opener, on par with Tennessee’s level of competition against UNC Asheville. And 6’10” K.J. Williams had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Brown was a high-percentage shooter last season; Morant’s play led to lots of open shots for other guys. That was even more true for Williams, who shot 71% inside the arc, eighth nationally in two point field goal percentage. Tennessee’s defense will have an opportunity to frustrate them more than they’re used to.
It was one game, but a couple of things jumped out for the Vols statistically. Tennessee grabbed 17 offensive rebounds – Pons with five, Fulkerson and Nkamhoua with four each – for a 48.6% offensive rebounding percentage. The Vols were a Top 75 team in that category the last two years; just one game, but it was nice to see the undersized Vols continue to get in the mix there.
If you’re bothered by UNC Asheville being remotely competitive with the Vols, consider a small tip of the cap to them for making tough shots. The Bulldogs had 24 made shots but had only four assists, an excellent team defensive effort from the Vols. There will be nights when Tennessee’s individual defensive efforts – staying in front of guys off the dribble, undersized post match-ups – are an issue. But for a team with so many new pieces and changing roles, Tennessee’s team defense was really good against UNC Asheville.
Murray State is an excellent step up on the way to Toronto, where Washington awaits on Saturday (excellent scheduling for a bye week!). The Huskies beat Baylor in the opener and feature Kentucky transfer Quade Green, among others. KenPom likes the Vols to beat the Racers by 13 and calls the Huskies a toss-up. Things will get real in a hurry; Murray State is a great test to see if these Vols are up to speed.
7:00 PM Wait, 9:00 PM? What? On the actual SEC Network. Go Vols.