Murray State-St. John's: 10 observations

I just finished watching Murray State’s 72-67 victory over St. John’s in a Charleston (S.C.) Classic semifinal on ESPN3. Great finish on a Friday night. Great finish on any night. The Racers’ experience and maturity helped them maintain their poise and overcome St. John’s double-digit advantage in the first half. But the Red Storm nearly held on for the win.

Here are 10 observations from this Charleston Classic semifinal, a game that set up a Murray State-Colorado matchup for the championship Sunday:

  1. Murray State’s backcourt is fierce: Isaiah Canaan missed eight of his first 10 shots. And the Murray State offense felt his absence from the stat sheet. The Racers were down 32-19 with 2 minutes, 53 seconds to go in the first half. But Canaan (15 points) and Stacy Wilson (23 points), both seniors, led an 11-3 run that cut St. John’s lead to five at halftime. They were the difference-makers for a Murray State team that received a minimal contribution (six points) from its bench.

  2. Depth could be a big problem for Murray State: Murray State’s comeback was impressive. It closed strong on defense (St. John’s was just 2-for-10 after Murray State tied the game 59-59 with 6:01 to play). But the Racers were fortunate that Ed Daniel (15 points, 11 rebounds) avoided foul trouble. He had to fend off a talented, athletic St. John’s frontcourt. But how long can he operate alone inside? And will Wilson (4.3 points per game in 2011-12) bail Canaan out every time he gets off to a rocky start? I was impressed with Murray State’s tenacity. But it was also clear that this program has limited depth, especially inside, with the departures of Ivan Aska, Donte Poole, Jewuan Long and Zay Jackson, who was suspended for the season.

  3. Steve Lavin has the leader he needs: The St. John’s coach has a very young team (every starter is an underclassmen). But D'Angelo Harrison is the leader within that group. He’s just a sophomore. But he’s averaging 23.3 ppg for a 2-1 St. John’s squad. He took some tough shots down the stretch against Murray State but even as the Racers charged back, Harrison (game-high 27 points, 9 rebounds) maintained the aggression that made him an offensive catalyst in the first half. And even as he struggled late, he wanted the ball. That’s a good sign for Lavin’s squad.

  4. St. John’s needs more discipline: St. John’s blew an eight-point lead in the second half against Detroit. And it squandered a 13-point advantage Friday against Murray State. In those moments, the Red Storm’s youth was evident. Murray State hit shots from the outside when St. John’s failed to get back in transition throughout the second half. Lavin’s squad also committed 14 turnovers.

  5. But the Red Storm could be a factor in the Big East: Again, it’s early. And that’s why I think there are more positives for this St. John’s squad than negatives. Harrison leads a young nucleus that’s both promising and inconsistent. And help is on the way with transfer Jamal Branch set to join the team in December. Junior-college transfer Orlando Sanchez will help, too, if he’s cleared to play. It’s a raw squad but it’s one that could be dangerous in a few months, assuming it continues to develop and mature. But that’s no guarantee within a program that depends on so many young athletes.

  6. Coaching mattered: Lavin certainly won the coaching duel against Steve Prohm in the first half. St. John’s pressured Canaan and disrupted Murray State’s offense with a zone that relied on its athleticism, speed and length. But Prohm won the matchup in the second half. He exploited St. John’s sloppy transition defense. And he eliminated the easy buckets that St. John’s had feasted on prior to halftime by clogging the lane.

  7. Jakarr Sampson: The St. John’s freshman pulled off multiple impressive dunks. He’s ferocious at the rim. Sampson (14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 turnovers) doesn’t play like a freshman. A lot of potential.

  8. The 3-ball is Murray State’s neutralizer: Again, Murray State’s depth could be a problem. But the Racers (10-for-30) shoot so well from the perimeter that they’ll be a challenge for a lot of teams. Murray State, fifth in the nation last season with a 40.6 percent clip from beyond the arc, missed most of its attempts against St. John’s. But the Racers hit them when they needed them in the second half.

  9. Canaan’s work ethic is the key to his success: The gamers shake things off. And Canaan had to do that after his rough start. The early shots didn’t fall for the All-American. But it didn’t impact his confidence. He hit a huge 3-pointer to put the Racers ahead 64-59 with 4:41 to go. That was a dagger.

  10. Chris Obekpa’s block tally: Through three games, the freshman has 15 blocks. He established a school record with eight blocks against Detroit. He had one against Charleston and six more against Murray State. It’s early, so we can’t get too excited … Forget that. This youngster is one of the nation’s top shot-blockers. Impressive start for Obekpa.