Belmont and Murray State have met just five times in the history of both programs, with the Racers holding a 4-1 lead in the series and a 3-0 record in games played at the CFSB Center.
But even with that history it’s Belmont, the “new kid on the block” in the Ohio Valley Conference, that enters Thursday night’s game atop the conference standings with a 10-0 league record (Murray State leads the West Division with a 7-2 mark). And two big reasons for Belmont’s success are guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson.
Clark and Johnson currently average 32.6 points per game, with Clark accounting for 18.9 points per game while shooting 57.5% from the field and 51.4% from beyond the arc. Johnson runs the show for the Bruins, averaging 4.7 assists in addition to his 13.7 points per contest. These two will pose quite the challenge for Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, widely regarded as one of the best point guards in the nation.
Canaan’s averaging 21.0 points and 4.0 assists per game while Ed Daniel (14.1 ppg, 10.9 rpg) leads the way inside, and how efficient the Racers are offensively will go a long way in deciding the outcome of this showdown.
Belmont may not go ten players deep as last year’s NCAA tournament team did but they’re still productive when it comes to forcing turnovers. On the season opponents have turned the ball over an average of 17.6 times per game, handing the ball back over to Belmont on nearly 26% of their possessions. Murray State averages 12.2 assists and 14.0 turnovers per game, and an assist-to-turnover ratio any worse than this won’t get the job done against Belmont.
One thing that works in Murray State’s favor is their success at home, where they’ve gone 32-5 over the last three seasons (7-2 in 2012-13). But don’t expect Belmont to be intimidated as they’ve taken trips to Stanford, VCU and Kansas this season.
Essentially what could be the first of two meetings between these two programs this season (the second would have to come in the OVC tournament) will boil down to turnovers. If Murray State takes care of the basketball they’re more than capable of handing Belmont its first OVC defeat.
The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 10.3 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from three, as a freshman. He, along with Malcolm Hill and Michael Thorne Jr., is one of three returning players who averaged double figures last season.
This could prove to be a make-or-break year for John Groce, who enters his fifth season at the helm. He guided the Illini to an NCAA Tournament in his first season, but hasn’t been back since.
The key for the Illini is health. Abrams gives them experience and leadership, but it won’t be a surprise if there’s some rust in his game after spending the past two seasons on the sideline. Having a healthy Coleman-Lands will help stabilize the backcourt, while Hill, an all-conference caliber forward, and Thorne anchor the frontcourt.
Like Alkins, Jones was a sought-after scorer. The 6-foot-4 two-guard was rated No. 69 overall in the Class of 2016 by Rivals. He picked Indiana over offers from Cal, Cincinnati, Georgetown and more than a dozen other high-major programs.
Jeter, the 6-foot-10, played in a reserve role as a freshman, averaging 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last season. He will be part of a loaded frontline that includes heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, as well as redshirt senior Amile Jefferson, who returns to the lineup following a foot injury.
The greatest player in Auburn program history will honored with a statue outside of the team’s home arena.
The university announced that Charles Barkley, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, will be the fourth athlete to be given a statue, joining Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton.
“It just means a great deal to me,” Barkley said in a statement. “Being a kid from Alabama, going to Auburn. I think everybody knows what Auburn means to me. It’s going to be pretty cool.”
Barkley, currently working as an analyst for TNT, was the SEC Player of the Year in 1984, as well as a second team All-American. He averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in 84 appearances for the Tigers.