Cameron Payne didn’t expect to fill Isaiah Canaan’s void at Murray State, but he did

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Cameron Payne (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

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The 2013-2014 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Ohio Valley Conference powerhouse Murray State.

They lost the face of their program, a legend at a school with quite a bit of basketball pedigree, when all-american Isaiah Canaan graduated. The team’s heart and soul, double-double machine Ed Daniel, departed as well. Then just a couple of weeks before the season was supposed to start, Zay Jackson, who was slotted in as the team’s starting point guard, tore an ACL.

What that meant was in a year where the Racers were looking to replace two of the most successful players in program history, they would be doing it with just a single point guard on the roster, a freshman name Cameron Payne.

And that ended up being the best thing that could have happened to Racers.

Murray State got out to a rough start last season, losing five of their first seven games. Payne had a decent start to the season, but impressive box scores hid the fact that his efficiency wasn’t always the best. In his first career game, at Valparaiso, Payne finished with 21 points, five boards and four assists … while shooting 6-for-24 from the floor. He was 7-for-20 from the floor in a loss at Auburn. He fouled out against Middle Tennessee State in Murray. He had six turnovers at Saint Mary’s.

Part of that was simply being a freshman playing his first collegiate games. Part of it was that he was still learning the offense and the way head coach Steve Prohm wanted him to play the point guard position. And part of it was that he needed to become a better decision maker.

“He has the ability to make a special play every possession, but just make the great play when you have to make the great play,” Prohm told NBCSports.com last week. “Hit singles and doubles, make the homerun play when you have to.”

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Ohio Valley Conference Preview

It didn’t take Payne long to start putting it all together, and has he morphed into one of the most productive freshman in the country — at any level — Murray State started to play like one of the nation’s best mid-major programs. They won 20 of their next 26 games, won the Western Division of the OVC with a 13-3 record and, despite losing in the OVC tournament, finished the season with a title, winning the CIT.

And Payne?

Well, he only averaged 16.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 boards and 1.7 steals. Not bad for a freshman.

The way Payne tells it, the freedom to play through mistakes early in the season afforded him the confidence he needed. When a player doesn’t after to worry about getting yanked out of the game for making one mistake, when he doesn’t have the pressure of knowing that he’ll hear the horn every time he turns the ball over, it makes the game a lot easier. Particularly for a freshman.

“It helped my confidence a lot [because] you can make mistakes,” Payne said. “There wasn’t a backup point guard. When I made a mistake, I would play through it because I had to.”

It didn’t take long for the Racers’ rabid fan base to figure out that they may have landed themselves a player that could fill the void that Canaan left. While the two play very different positions — Payne is a lanky, high-IQ playmaker that is best when the ball in his hands, while Canaan was a big-time scorer and shooter that was at his best moving off the ball — Prohm says that both players have the mental make-up to handle being the center of a town’s attention.

One thing you have to understand is that in Murray, Kentucky, there is nothing other than the Racers. “If they didn’t have Murray State basketball,” Prohm says, “I don’t know what they’d do here.” The players are celebrities in town. The home games are always sold out. It’s like Friday Night Lights, only on the college hardwood instead of the high school gridiron. Prohm knew right away that Payne, like Canaan, would be able to handle that responsibility.

“They understand the commitment that it takes to play at Murray State,” Prohm said. “Their personalities are the same in that they’re great for community because they can interact with anybody. They give back, they sign autographs, they tweet, they take pictures with the fans, they let people know that they’re invested in this program and community.”

That’s not the only thing that the two have in common. Both players ended up at Murray State are being overlooked as bench players on loaded AAU teams. For Payne, a Memphis native, he was a role player on a team that included Johnathan Williams of Missouri and Nick King of Memphis. Murray State first saw him when he helped win a the U16 Peach Jam title in 2011, and they made him a priority. While other programs joined in the pursuit later on — including Wichita State — Payne appreciated the loyalty that the Racer staff had showed him.

Prohm knew that they had just landed a kid that could one day make an all-league team. What he didn’t realize, however, was that he would be in the mix for OVC Player of the Year in his first season in town.

“I can’t sit here and say that I knew he was going to have the freshman year that he’d have,” he said.

Payne is happy with how things turned out. Instead of being bitter about “only” playing at an OVC school, he’s reveling in proving, on a nightly basis, that the big boys missed out when they didn’t recruit him. And while he may not be on TV every night, he still gets to experience being the Big Man On Campus.

Even his headband has a twitter account.

“When I first came, I was like, ‘should I wear a headband, should I not,'” Payne said. “But then I ended up wearing the head band, and it became a thing. When Ed [Daniel] was here, it was his afro.”

“I actually found out during the seaosn. They kept mentioning me and I ended up following it, and the people that made it, they started shooting me DMs. I was really excited about that. It was really fun. I’ve got something that symbolizes me now.”

Four-star 2019 forward flips commitment from Big Ten to SEC program

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Four-star 2019 forward Tray Jackson flipped his verbal commitment from Minnesota to Missouri on Friday night.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decommitment from the Golden Gophers on Twitter and then announced a commitment to Missouri a little more than two hours later. Regarded as the No. 96 overall prospect in the Class of 2019, Jackson reclassified from the Class of 2018 and saw his recruitment blossom in the summer.

While decommitting happens in basketball recruiting semi-frequently, flipping a commitment to a new school within a matter of hours is a very uncommon practice. Typically associated with football recruiting, Jackson’s switch is a big deal for Missouri.

His pledge gives head coach Cuonzo Martin an athletic and versatile frontcourt player with upside as Jackson could play multiple positions. The Tigers missed on E.J. Liddell, but Jackson is a nice prize to land instead. Missouri now has two four-star prospects in the Class of 2019 as Jackson joins four-star guard Mario McKinney.

Minnesota needs to replenish its recruiting efforts as they are now without a commitment in the Class of 2019. With head coach Richard Pitino facing pressure to win this season, this isn’t good for the future of Golden Gopher basketball either.

West Virginia lands five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe

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West Virginia pulled in a major commitment on Saturday as five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe pledged to the Mountaineers.

A late-developing, high-motor big man who ascended into a national recruit this summer, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Tshiebwe represents an important grab for West Virginia. Tshiebwe represents a potential replacement for Sagaba Konate in the middle as the Mountaineers beat some pretty impressive programs to land him. That includes Baylor and Kentucky.

Tshiebwe is quick off the floor and a good athlete, as he could be a very dangerous player in Bob Huggins’ system because of his brand of basketball. Regarded as the No. 21 overall prospect in the Rivals Class of 2019 national rankings, Tshiebwe also took official visits to Baylor, Illinois and Kentucky during the recruiting process.

Tshiebwe joins three-star guard Miles McBride in West Virginia’s 2019 recruiting haul.

VIDEO: Marshall’s Taevion Kinsey easily clears three teammates on ridiculous dunk

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Marshall freshman Taevion Kinsey put down one of the preseason’s best dunks on Friday night. With the Thundering Herd hosting Herd Madness, the 6-foot-5 Kinsey put down a ridiculous dunk that easily cleared three teammates.

Most dunkers use an arm on the shoulder during the dunk. Kinsey didn’t need any sort of help as he glided over his teammates.

Kinsey is going to be a dunker to keep an eye on in the future. His teammates certainly think highly of his dunking ability, as most of them projected Kinsey to win the dunk contest before the event even started.

VIDEO: Zion Williamson impresses Duke fans in Cameron Indoor debut, downplays link to trial

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Duke freshman Zion Williamson made some ridiculous dunks look effortless in his Cameron Indoor Stadium debut on Friday night. As part of Duke’s annual “Countdown to Craziness” event, Williamson took part in a scrimmage against his Blue Devil teammates.

That included Williamson going head-to-head with fellow freshman R.J. Barrett in a scrimmage. And more absurd dunks in the warm up line.

But besides for the on-court action, Williamson was also asked about his family’s link to the college basketball corruption trial. On Tuesday, a transcript of calls was read to the New York courtroom that allegedly included Williamson’s stepfather on FBI tapes asking for money and a job from Kansas men’s basketball coaches. The tapes were not admitted as evidence.

“Honestly, I’ve paid no attention to it,” Williamson said to reporters, including ESPN’s David M. Hale, about the trial. “I’m just a college kid, out here having fun with my classmates, looking forward to stuff like Countdown and our first game. You only get one chance at the college experience, and I want to enjoy it.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski also downplayed Williamson’s link to the trial, pointing to the NCAA eligibility center’s “exhaustive” process to vette incoming recruits.

“They have an eligibility center now that these kids and their parents go through — and they go through everything,” Krzyzewski said. “We feel very comfortable with him and all our freshmen.”

We’ll likely hear more about Williamson, Kansas and this trial, as time goes on. Williamson also might legitimately not know much about this if it was his stepfather on the call. For now, Williamson is making a huge impression with Duke fans every time he steps foot on the floor.

(H/t: Lawrence Davis III and Duke men’s basketball)

Louisville lands commitment from Irish basketball star

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For the sixth time since Chris Mack took over the Louisville program, the new Cardinal head coach has landed a commitment from a member of the Class of 2019.

On Friday, it was Aidon Igiehon, a top 50 recruit, that announced he will be playing his college basketball for the Cardinals.

He followed in the footsteps of fellow four-stars Samuell Williamson, David Johnson, Jaelyn Withers and Josh nickelberry, not to mention three-star forward Quinn Slazinski.

And all this has happened over the course of the last five months.

Mack got the job in April, after he finished his final run with a Xavier program that he had been in charge of for the last nine years. That came just six months after Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino was fired for a series of scandals that had enveloped the university in the last few years, not the least of which was their involvement with the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball.

That may be the most impressive part of all of this.

No one really knows what is going to happen with Louisville and the NCAA as a result of the way that they were able to entice Brian Bowen on campus. What we do know is that while Louisville was on probation due to the fact that a member of their coaching staff was paying for strippers and sex workers for players and recruits, an agreement was made for Adidas to pay the family of Brian Bowen $100,000 to get him to enroll at Louisville. Bowen’s father said under oath that, in addition to that money, he also accepted at least one $1,300 payment from former Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson.

Those are NCAA violations committed while the program was on probation.

And those are the kind of things that the NCAA does not take lightly.

Everyone involved with the reason that Louisville was on probation and that actually committed those violations has moved on, but that hasn’t stopped speculation that the Cardinals could be facing even more punishment from the NCAA, which is what has made this recruiting job by Mack so impressive.

He’s filled up an entire class of prospects before he’s even coached a game for the program all while this nonsense is swirling around his program.

Was there ever any doubt that the Cardinals hired the right guy?