Court Report: Murray State is still thriving even after losing NBA Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant

Murray State helped create Ja Morant, not the other way around.

This season is the latest evidence of the brawn of one of the best mid-majors in college basketball. The Racers are off to a better start in the Ohio Valley Conference than the previous two seasons when they had Morant and former OVC MVP Jonathan Stark. Murray State's been to 10 NCAA Tournaments since 1997, which is more appearances than approximately 20% of teams from power conferences in that same span. To wit: Murray State's made the NCAAs more frequently in the previous 23 years than Kansas State, Iowa, Arizona State and Wake Forest. It's been just as often as Michigan and Georgetown.

At 17-5 and with a 10-0 mark in the OVC, Murray State's nestled atop the league standings next to undefeated Austin Peay. (More on the Governors in a minute.) Credit to Racers coach Matt McMahon, who's a terrific leader and aligning to be the next Murray State coach to get a gig in a bigger conference, following in the footsteps of Mark Gottfried, Mick Cronin, Billy Kennedy and Steve Prohm. McMahon's an outrageously good 42-4 the past two and a half seasons in conference play and owns an overall 71-16 mark in that span. While Morant -- who just had his No. 12 retired at Murray State over the weekend -- continues to rack up Ws for being awesome at Twitter, Murray State keeps rolling in the post-Ja era. 

"We never once sat down after the season and said, 'How do we replace Ja Morant?'" McMahon told CBS Sports. "That's an impossible task." 

Just so happens that Murray State again has one of the best players in the league in sophomore point Tevin Brown, who is ninth nationally in 3-point percentage (45.7%). Stretch-four KJ Williams has been key too. Murray State's free-throw rate has been big in its continuing OVC dominance. The Racers are top-10 in foul-shots-to-field-goal-attempts, there with the likes of 20-2 Auburn, 17-4 West Virginia and 17-5 Kentucky

"We're less dependent on the ball screen, obviously we had one of the best ball-screen players in college basketball history for the last couple of years," McMahon said. "Tevin Brown, his ability as such a smart player, his ability to move without the ball and read screens and score at such an efficient clip has been huge for us."

In 2019, the OVC put two teams (Murray State, Belmont) into the NCAAs for the first time since 1987. That will be tough to do again, but the conference is the only one (aside from the eight-team Ivy League, only three weeks into conference play) to have two undefeated teams still standing on Feb. 5.

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No Ja, no prob: Matt McMahon has Murray State pushing for an NCAA bid for a third straight season. USATSI

So, hello, Austin Peay. Matt Figger's Governors are right there with Murray State: the Racers rank 144 in KenPom, the Govs 145. Too low, coach? 

"KenPom's computer doesn't have to play my team every day," Figger told me. "Tell that computer to play my point-to-wing entry, because you're not getting a point-to-wing try pass in on us. It's not happening. We play extremely fast and physical on both sides -- all those [KenPom] defensive numbers are kind of skewed because we're making teams play so uncomfortable. They can't pass the ball. Every possession becomes a one-on-one game. It's the equivalent of football. Every time the QB drops back, we have eight or nine in the box and blitzing. So your corner gets beat every once in a while, but we're either sacking the QB or they're getting a touchdown. The way we play wears teams down because you can't simulate it in practice."

The Racers and Governors will face each other for the first time this season on Feb. 13, the most highly anticipated matchup in the conference. Murray State's won 21 straight league games and is the Duke/Kentucky/Kansas of its league. Meantime, Austin Peay hasn't been this good since 2003-04, the last time Peay started 10-0. Peay is 16-7 and cruising a season after it was 22-11, seven of those 11 losses by a combined 21 points.

It also has arguably the two best players in the OVC: junior Terry Taylor and freshman Jordyn Adams.

"I didn't know we were going to be this good at this point in the year -- if I told you that Id be lying," Figger said. "Basically, outside of Terry Taylor, no one had played significant minutes for me on this team. We're playing right now with six freshmen and one redshirt freshman."

Taylor's the best player, without debate, in the OVC. Peay ranks 346th in height, so the 6-5 Taylor is multifaceted in how he dominated for the Govs. Taylor's averaging 22.1 points (top-10 nationally), 9.7 rebounds and shooting 64% from 2-point range.  

"Terry is, to me, the most undervalued, underappreciated player in college basketball," Figger said. "He averages close to a double-double and is coming off a career-high nine assists. He's probably, year in and year out, up there with the most double-double guys. He scores in a variety of ways, with his back to the basket, off the dribble, makes 3s, is a problem at 6-5, 230 pounds and long arms. Big hands, skilled, high IQ."

Think Grant Williams at the mid-major level. 

"Terry Taylor is going to statistically put up one of the best careers in college basketball history by the time he's done," McMahon said. "Then they've they've got the incredibly talented freshman." 

McMahon refers to Adams, a former Baylor commit who broke his foot as a prospect and is now a top-20 newcomer in college hoops. I can't proclaim him the next Ja Morant, but he's got a chance to be the next NBA pick out of the OVC in a year or two. He's a very good athlete (if Morant's a 9.5 out of 10 on the athletic scale, Adams is probably an 8) and, per Figger, has the best first-step in the conference. At 17.4 points per game, he's already a top-five guy in the league. 

"He's a hell of a defender," Figger said. "He's guarded Anthony Edwards, Aaron Nesmith, Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones. Guarding the best perimeter shooter and he's putting up big numbers. They're walking away with high-volume shots. We're in a good position. I think I possibly have the two most talented players in the league. With Jordyn, nobody in the league can guard him."

Here's a wow: Against Tennessee State on Jan. 23, Taylor and Adams each scored 37 points in a win. It's the only time in the past 23 seasons that teammates have scored at least 37 points in regulation against a Division I opponent. We've got good storylines and good teams cropping up again in the OVC. There's Cinderella potential here. It could become the best mid-major race into deep February.

Part of why both teams are thriving: they're travel partners, meaning that opponents always have to face Murray State and Austin Peay the same weekend, be it on the road or at home. Murray State is undefeated on Saturdays in league play since Figger got to Austin Peay, bringing a hellacious style with him that makes the prep for both teams a huge task for all other teams in the league. Figger told me that if you prep for Murray State for three days, the 24-hour turn for Peay is a jolt to the system. Conversely, if you spend all that prep time for Peay, it's exhausting and then you have to turn around and play the Goliath of the conference. 

"I've joked with Matt that he owes me about a third of that league trophy every year," Figger said. "Look at the combined records between us against the rest of the league. I give Matt McMahon a lot of credit for our success as well. I'm not dumb to that fact."

Since 2018, Murray State has won 91% of its league games. Since Figger got the Austin Peay, he's won 84% of his conference games (37-9) that don't involve Murray State. In a bizarre scheduling twist, Murray State has to play five of its next six on the road, which is a ludicrous scheduling model for any team in any league, particularly in the dog days of February.

A season ago, Belmont and Murray State each won an NCAA Tournament game. Should either of these two get back into the Big Dance, the OVC will have a healthy shot at yet another upset.

Vandy's Aaron Nesmith hoping to return this season

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Aaron Nesmith was shining for a struggling Vandy team. Will he opt to return this season? USATSI

The best shooter in college basketball hasn't played in almost a month. Vanderbilt's Aaron Nesmith (23.0 ppg, 52.2 3-point%) last played on Jan. 8 due to a stress fracture in his right foot. Nesmith told me on Sunday that he had surgery Jan. 28 that involved two pins being put into his foot to aid recovery. His first session of physical rehab on the foot was Monday. 

"The time period for me, coming back, is not set in stone because they're just waiting to make sure the stress fracture heals to 100%," Nesmith said. "I want to get back to playing as soon as possible. I hope I can still play [this season]."

Nesmith, who wears No. 24, was one of the players featured in my Kobe Bryant piece this week. He quickly became a rising NBA prospect in the first two months of this season because of his sturdy 6-6 frame, 6-10 wingspan and hot shooting touch. Nesmith told me there is one particular aspect of his game that is totally derivative of Bryant's.

"I watched his show 'Details' a bunch," Nesmith said. "At the college level I learned you have to get an advantage any little way you can. I knew Kobe was a mastermind with footwork and how you break down player in the post. All my post moves and my fadeaways, that's straight out of the Kobe book. Every time I work out, I have routine I do. I go from the inside out, shooting-wise, and one part of my routine is back-to-the-basket. My post game is completely modeled after Kobe."  

Nesmith said he's been a sponge in the past week-plus trying to absorb even more about Bryant. While Nesmith used to be a fan of Bryant's game, now he's a fan of his mind, and that's going to help as he tries to rehab his foot and condition as efficiently as possible.

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There's little doubt in my mind that Sparty on aggregate -- to borrow a soccer term -- would be two games better overall (19-5 vs. 16-7) if Langford had been healthy and able to play the entire season. MSU is still capable of going to the Final Four, but his two-way ability is definitely needed on this team. That's more obvious now than it was in November, even when MSU started 5-3. 

Nice chance! I'm more excited than I probably have a right to be when I envision Greg Gumbel saying something like, "And in the Midwest Regional, first and second round games in Omaha, Nebraska. These games to be played on Friday and Sunday. The No. 8 seed, Rutgers!" That is going to be a great moment if/when it happens. Team Rankings estimates the Scarlet Knights at 59% to get a bid

At 19-3, Louisville might even still be undervalued a smidge. The Cardinals are in first in the ACC and have taken a step up thanks to the emergence of David Johnson factoring in more frequently. The Cards' issues in the tourney could be this: playing a faster-tempo team that thrives off the break. Louisville ranks 300th in turnover percentage. Combine that with their layman-like free-throw rate (179th) and that combo is probably the biggest threat to Louisville not making it to Atlanta -- which of course it made it to in 2013, when it won the national title.

Let's stick with the six traditional bluebloods: Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA. The last time one of those schools was sub-.500 at the start of February was the 2009-10 season, when Indiana (9-11) and UCLA (10-11) did it.

She told me she would, but only if you subscribed, rated five stars and left nice comments in the Apple Podcasts section for the Eye on College Basketball Podcast.

Final shots

  • Reminder: this Saturday CBS will air the annual February top-of-the-bracket reveal at 12:30 p.m. It's the fourth year of this, and we'll see -- if the NCAA Tournament were to begin this weekend -- which teams would be slotted on the No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 lines. I spoke to 2020 committee chairman Kevin White on Tuesday and will have a story later this week about things you need to know with the committee this season.
  • Here's why the Big Ten is going to have a very good shot at putting 10 teams into the tourney: there are 85 Quad 1 games left on the league schedule, but just 21 Quad 2, 13 Quad 3 and five Quad 4. In total, there are 190 Quad 1 opportunities in league play alone. That's amazing.
  • Significant development for Arkansas: Isaiah Joe is out for a while, and that could be the difference in Arkansas being an NCAA Tournament or NIT team
  • Don't know if any player appreciates their situation more right now than San Diego State's Yanni Wetzell. The Aztecs senior closed out last season losing 20 straight games as a bit player at spiraling Vanderbilt. He transfers to SDSU, and now starts every game and is part of a 23-0 team that's tracking to a No. 1 seed. (H/T, Geoff Grammer.)
  • Big mid-major matchup coming Thursday night: William & Mary at Charleston is a solid CAA tilt, but the Grant Riller-Nathan Knight square-off is the selling point. Riller and Knight are both top-10 in usage, per KenPom, and both capable of being on an NBA roster a year from now. 
  • Don't think undefeated San Diego State has a chance at the No. 1 overall seed? Think again. If SDSU does not lose before Selection Sunday, it will have spent more than 65 days at No. 1 in the NET rankings. (It's No. 1 now and most likely isn't falling if it doesn't lose.) A team that does that is not being put anywhere but at the very top of the seed list.
  • Pac-12 nuggets: Arizona's sweep of the Washington schools was the first road sweep by any Pac-12 school so far this season. And since the Pac-12 expanded in 2011, Arizona State is the only school in the league still yet to have a road sweep in the past eight-plus seasons. (Arizona's 14 are the most.)
  • This is the kind of stat/trend I love: Drake's Jonah Jackson has made 43 shots this season -- they're all 3-pointers. Only two players in the 27 years have gone an entire season with all of their made shots as 3-pointers (minimum 40 makes): Oakland's Max Hooper with 117 makes in 2015-16, and Texas State's Brady Richeson with 57 makes in 2001-02. 
  • Shoutout to the road warriors in college basketball: Hofstra, Vermont and Stephen F. Austin all have nine road Ws, the most in the sport. 
CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. This is his 10th season reporting on college basketball for CBS. He also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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