The Second Season
McMahon led Murray State to its 29th consecutive winning season in 2015-16 (17-14 / 10-6 in the OVC).
The Ohio Valley Conference schedule is less than halfway over, yet for Murray State the worst part might be in the rear view mirror.
The Racers opened the OVC with a visit from Tennessee State on New Year’s Eve. At the time, Tenn. St. was 9-3 and playing well, fresh from a visit to Tobacco Road where it pushed N.C. State to overtime and lost by 10 points at Duke.
It was a must-win game if ever a conference opener could be. Why? Because the Racers knew four road games awaited, including a Thursday - Saturday trip covering 550 miles to play games at Jacksonville (Ala.) State and Tennessee Tech.
A 20-day break between home dates is never appealing. Having one to start the slate and heading out on the road with an 0-1 record is sickening. Murray St. avoided such a fate, handling Tennessee St. 92-83 and the victory propelled coach Matt McMahon’s squad to a hot start. Despite an 84-81 overtime loss at Austin Peay on Saturday, the Racers lead the OVC West division with a 5-2 record. They are rewarded for their road weariness by six of the next seven games on their home floor in the CFSB Center, where they average 3,672 fans for conference games.
Southeast Missouri State and Tennessee-Martin - the two teams that trail Murray by one game in the West division - visit Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
“We have to protect our home court,” McMahon said. “We have a great environment here.”
McMahon, 38, knows how the CFSB Center feels when it’s rocking. He joined coach Steve Prohm’s staff at Murray State in the spring of 2011. The Racers went 104-29 the next four seasons as star guards Isaiah Cannon and Cam Payne thrilled crowds and attracted pro scouts. Both players were selected in the NBA Draft - Cannon in the 2nd round in 2013, Payne in the first round in 2015. Prohm parlayed the Racers’ success into the Iowa State job. McMahon replaced him prior to last season and, as one of the youngest coaches in the country, led the program to its 29th consecutive winning season (17-14 overall and 10-6 in the OVC).
Typically the second season involves building on the foundation laid in the first. That wasn’t the case for McMahon and the Racers, however. With talented newcomers Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller joining the program this season, building chemistry took precedence. Those lessons began to take hold after Christmas, enabling the Racers to run off six wins in seven games.
The Racers’ defensive improvement has pleased McMahon, who signed two high school seniors and a junior college prospect in the early signing period and has Byron Hawkins, a transfer from Towson sitting out this season.
The Racers are second in the OVC in points allowed per possession in conference games. They’ve held teams to 43.5 percent shooting and only 6.3 3-pointers per game.
On the offensive end, they’ve found another elite playmaker in the backcourt.
Stark sat out last season after two solid seasons at Tulane. A 6-0 junior from the Memphis suburbs, Stark is a difference making, scoring point guard who understands how to put his teammates into position to score. He’s second in the OVC with 21.0 points per game and assists (5.5), which he’s dished on more than one-third of Murray State’s baskets, placing him top 50 in the nation. He also has a 1.76:1 assist-turnover ratio in conference games.
“Jonathan is a tremendous talent,” McMahon said. “He not only has the ability to score the ball but makes everyone else around him better. He can score at all three levels is explosive getting to the basket and getting to the free throw line.”
During OVC action, Stark shoots nearly seven free throws per game and converts 82.5 percent.
One of his primary targets in the paint and on the perimeter is Miller, a 6-8, 260-pound transfer from Northwest Mississippi JC. He’s delivered on the promise shown during the recruiting process.
Miller averaged 19.2 points and 11.3 rebounds over the last six games and is adept scoring around the basket or beyond-the-arc. He’s hit 52 percent of 2-pointers and 42 percent of 3-pointers in OVC games.
He’s starting to get double teamed in the post so we have to handle that better,” McMahon said. “We have to find a ways to get him the ball so he can do some damage down there.”
Continued improvement in offensive execution will be of utmost importance against SEMO and Tennessee-Martin. The Racers expect to face multiple zone defenses against each opponent. Attacking the gaps, making the right decision and hitting open shots should engage the home fans and enable the Racers to put distance between themselves and the contenders in the West division.