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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
New season. Old story.
Murray State looks like it's ready to make another run at the Ohio Valley Conference title.
One year after starting practices with 10 new players, Racers coach Mick Cronin returns the nucleus of the 2004-05 team. He lost only two backups, 6-8 forward Reggie Jackson (4.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg) and Shane Dansby (3.6 ppg, 1.6 rpg).
Cronin will be glad to see familiar faces at practice.
"That's the thing I'm looking forward to," he said. "This is the first time in my [head] coaching career I have returning players who have played for me, players who know a little bit about our style and have a feel for our coaching staff and have a feel for each other."
Despite the new personnel last season, the Racers made a run at the regular-season title before finishing tied for second with Eastern Kentucky, a game behind Tennessee Tech. The Racers won three of their last four regular-season games before being upset by Southeast Missouri State, 61-58, in the opening round of the tournament.
"I feel like it was a very successful season under the circumstances," said Cronin, who lost point guard Adam Chiles, dismissed from the team before the season after he was arrested. "I'm very proud of the team for what it accomplished. We look to take off from that and use last season as a springboard to have a great season."
Murray State looks loaded, starting in the backcourt.
Senior point guard Keith Jenifer (7.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.0 apg), a 6-2 transfer from Virginia, had to dust off the rust from more than a year off last season and should be much-improved.
"He definitely needed to play," Cronin said. "He'd sat out for 20 months and lost some of his rhythm. He didn't start to get confident until later in the season. He's somebody who should benefit greatly having played and played for me as well. Our relationship has evolved over the course of the season. He's somebody who should have a much better season."
Jenifer started all 28 games and was second on the team in minutes (29.9). Look for Jennifer to score more this season.
"He passes first, but sometimes you've got to look to score to keep defenses honest," Cronin said. "If he could score 10- to 12 points per game, it would be a big lift to the team."
Trey Pearson, a 6-2 junior guard, can also play point guard but spends most of the time on court as a shooting guard with Jenifer.
Pearson (14.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.7 apg) sat out the 2003-04 season after transferring from Ole Miss. He led the team in three-pointers (66-of-158), was fourth in the OVC in three-point percentage (.418) and three-pointers per game (2.44) and was chosen to the All-OVC first team.
"Pearson was our best player from an all-around standpoint," Cronin said. "Hopefully having been in that situation of being our best player and having to show up every night, he'll be in a better position to handle the role.
"He's also a very good defender. He led the team in steals and deflections. He's a guy who can beat you off the dribble and also shoot from the three-point line. He needed to get stronger and in better condition to handle the go-to role, and he's had a great off-season."
Cronin signed 6-1 freshman guard Tyler Holloway out of Austin High School in Decatur, Ala., in the fall of 2004.
"He will be the best shooter on the team from Day One," Cronin said. "He's a natural point guard but he's also a tremendous shooter."
Also returning is 6-2 senior guard Darnell Hopkins (10.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg), who started 15 games at shooting guard/wing and was second on the team in scoring and second in three-pointers (42-of-114).
"He's can really score," Cronin said. "He can take the ball to the basket with authority but we need him to shoot the ball with a little more consistency. Our whole team needs to shoot the ball better from the perimeter. He has the strength and toughness to be a very good defensive player. He needs to improve his defense and rebounding."
Justin Orr, a 6-6 sophomore, returns at small forward. Orr split starting time with Hopkins and will battle for time again. Orr (4.5 ppg, 1.3 rpg) started 10 games and averaged 21 minutes; Hopkins averaged 22 minutes.
"Orr averaged 10 [points] a game over the last 10 games," Cronin said. "He really came on late in the season. He's a talented player. He can handle it and pass. He's worked to improve his perimeter shot. He has a tremendously bright future."
Power forward Shawn Witherspoon, a 6-5 junior, returns at the power forward spot after starting 23-of-27 games in which he played. Witherspoon (9.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg) improved his three-point shooting last year -- he made 25-of-65 -- and this year Cronin wants to see him improve on taking it to the basket.
"He relied too much on the three," Cronin said. "He's got to take it to the basket. He initiates the defense at the front of the press, and he's a veteran leader."
Witherspoon isn't a lock for the starting job. He'll be pushed by 6-6, 200-pound senior Issian Redding (8.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), who started nine games and averaged 19.2 minutes. He was the team's fourth-leading scorer.
"He's a very talented guy," Cronin said. "He had an adjustment period after junior college. He's had a tremendous off-season and has gotten in better shape. He's a totally different person from our strength and conditioning program."
Also vying for time are 6-6 freshman forward Marqise Wright and 6-7 red-shirt freshman forward Mike McCoy.
Wright was the leading scorer in Georgia last season at Johnson High School in Gainesville, Ga. He averaged 31.8 points, 15.1 rebounds and six assists while leading Johnson to the quarterfinals of the Class 3A state tournament.
"Marqise is a very skilled player with good size," Cronin said. "He was obviously a great scorer in high school, but he also has a high basketball IQ and makes great decisions with the ball. He is capable of scoring on the perimeter and using his strength to finish baskets inside while taking contact. His versatility will be a huge asset for us."
Charles Johnson, a 6-7, 220-pound senior, can play either post position. Johnson (4.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg) started 10 games last season and averaged 16.8 minutes.
At the low post, 6-foot-10, 250-pound senior Pearson Griffith returns as the starter. Griffith (4.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg) started 17 games and averaged 14.8 minutes. Two newcomers will push him for the job.
Tony Easley, a 6-9, 200-pound center, played for Auburn High School in Auburn, Ala., and averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds as a freshman last year. Auburn went 30-7 and won the Class 5A state championship.
Easley was only 17 when he signed in the spring, and Cronin expects him to keep growing.
"He has a tremendous upside as a player because of his great hands and athleticism," Cronin said. "With hard work in the weight room and natural maturing of his body, Tony is going to be an excellent player and an important part of our future."
Rob Kennedy, a 6-9, 240-pound center from Mineral Area College in Missouri, had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in the off-season but should be full speed for the preseason.
"He could make a major difference for us if he can make the adjustment [from junior college ball]," Cronin said. "He's a great finisher. He can score inside or outside and can even step out and shoot the three."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Murray State looks like it's loaded again.
Jenifer and Pearson, after transferring from Virginia and Ole Miss, respectively, got back into basketball shape last season after sitting out a year. Both should be better with a year in the OVC behind them.
Hopkins played starter's minutes in the backcourt last season and will make a run at a starting job, along with Justin Orr, who finished strong last season. Shawn Witherspoon will be another factor at either forward spot.
In the frontcourt, the Racers return starting low post Griffith and Redding. Redding could win the starting power forward job.
The Racers bolstered their backcourt and frontcourt with newcomers, too, including Wright, a forward who led Georgia high schools in scoring last season.
There will be plenty of competition when the Racers begin preseason workouts, and that bodes well for the OVC season.
"Obviously we need to develop more consistency and we need to play better defensively," Cronin said. "Our field-goal percentage defense was over 45 percent (.465). We've got to be a little stronger and tougher mentally and physically if we're going to make the climb to the top of the conference and make a run at the national level because we've got to be better defensively. With the leadership and experience we have coming back, hopefully we'll be able to do that."
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