Three seasons ago, Murray State faced a difficult dilemma: replacing Isaiah Canaan, arguably the best point guard in program history.
The All-American point guard and two-time conference player of the year had just graduated to the NBA, leaving the Racers searching for a starting point guard to fill the void he left behind.
Canaan’s expected replacement, Zay Jackson, tore his ACL, ending his season and leaving the team with only one point guard left on the roster — a young freshman from Memphis named Cameron Payne.
The Racers, already faced with what was expected to be a rebuilding season, were forced to put all their hope in Payne. Instead of caving under pressure, Payne had a breakout freshman campaign, averaging 16.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game.
Murray State went on to exceed expectations that season and win the CIT postseason tournament.
Some teams rebuild, but the Racers — well, they simply reload.
This season, the Racers are once again faced with what appears to be a rebuilding season by Murray State standards. The Racers lost four starters — including Payne, who was selected No. 14 overall in the NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder — from last year’s squad, as well as head coach Steve Prohm, who took over for Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State.
But the Racers don’t rebuild, they reload.
Despite roster turnover and a new coach, the Racers are still expected to compete in the Ohio Valley Conference. League coaches picked Murray State to win the West Division and finish second overall in the preseason poll — not bad for a team that returns only two key contributors from last season.
Why are high expectations so high for a team clearly in transition? For one thing, the Racers are expected to compete on a yearly basis based purely on their track record — the team has won either the division or conference for six straight seasons, and hasn’t finished lower than second since 2003.
Another reason for Murray State’s high expectations is the program’s continuity in its coaching staff. Prohm is gone, but his replacement — Matt McMahon — was on Prohm’s staff the previous four seasons before taking over as head coach. Because of that familiarity, a smooth coaching transition from Prohm to McMahon should be expected.
But although the coaching transition should be smooth, McMahon is still faced with guiding a young, inexperienced squad this season. Senior Jeffrey Moss (11.9 ppg in 2014-15) is the single returning starter for the Racers, and Justin Seymour (7.1 ppg) is the only other returning rotation player.
In terms of experience, the cupboard is pretty bare. But the Racers have — you guessed it — reloaded with talented newcomers, led by two transfers who will play vital roles in the team’s success.
Damarcus Croaker transferred to Murray State after spending two seasons at Texas. Croaker is a former top recruit who showed a lot of potential his freshman season, playing in 33 games and starting two for the Longhorns.
However, Croaker appeared in only five contests his sophomore season, and hopes to find a fresh start at Murray State. With the team’s inexperience, he will get his chance to shine right away.
The other transfer expected to make an immediate impact is Gee McGhee, a versatile forward who transferred from Chattanooga.
The former Southern Conference All-Freshman Team selection is a do-everything forward who can score, pass and rebound. At Chattanooga, he averaged 10 ppg, 4.8 rpg and led the team in assists and steals as a sophomore. This season, the Racers will need him to put up similar numbers.
With the combination of Moss, Seymour, Croaker and McGhee, the Racers have a core that is talented enough to remain competitive in the OVC this season.
Will the Racers win 29 games again? No, but the Racers should still eclipse 20 wins and make a run at a postseason tournament.
More importantly, this season will provide McMahon and Murray State with a chance to build for the future by developing a talented freshman class and focus on recruiting.
Reload, rebuild — however you look at it — there’s a reason why Murray State has been one of the most consistent mid-majors in college basketball for the past decade. The Racers have figured out the formula for winning — good coaching, solid recruiting — and have stuck with it.
Don’t expect that to change this season, or any time soon.