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)

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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.”