SAN DIEGO–Murray State will have its hands full with West Virginia’s smoldering defense on Friday afternoon. The Racers have yet to face such a grueling defense but it’s a challenge the team is up for.
“Not to the level they do where they’re second in the country in forced turnover percentage and they hit you for 40 straight minutes,” Murray State head coach Matt McMahon said about facing a defense as tough as the Mountaineers. “We’ve played against pressing teams but we know this will be different.
“We’re fortunate we have great guard play with freshman Ja Morant and our senior Jonathan Stark. You can’t simulate it, the pressure they are going to see. But I expect them to be ready to go on Friday. We know we will have to handle their pressure, not just in the full court. But they’re just as good in the half court with their man-to-man pressure. So we know what they’re up against and it will certainly be a challenge.”
Defensively WVU is one of the best in the nation. The Mountaineers are forcing their opponents to turn it over on 23.0 percent of their possessions, which ranks second in the country.
WVU is 10th in turnovers forced, averaging 16.5 per contest.
The Mountaineers come in 11th in the country with 273 steals and 13th in total blocks with 179.
Jevon Carter and Sagaba Konate are two of the top defenders in the Big 12 and in the country.
Carter is the face of WVU’s pressure defense. He won the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year. Last season he was the NABC Defensive Player of the Year.
The Maywood, Illinois native became just the fifth player (first Power 5) in NCAA history to have more than 1,500 points, 500 rebounds,
500 assists and 300 steals in a career. He leads the Mountaineers in steals, averaging 2.9 per game.
“He seems like the ultimate winner,” McMahon said. “Leader, tough, plays both ends of the floor, makes everyone around him get better. Gets a lot of credit for being National Defensive Player of the Year, 17 points a game, seven assists, primary handler, makes them go. There is a reason he’s All-American, one of the best in the country.”
While Carter is a huge threat on the perimeter, WVU has Konate on the inside.
The sophomore from Bamako, Mali is third in the country in blocks per game (3.3). He has been known for some monstrous blocks this season, including one against Kansas’ Svi Mykhailiuk earlier this year in Morgantown that made highlight reels everywhere.
“He’s a big body,” Racers senior forward Terrell Miller Jr. said. “He plays hard and that’s all I have seen on him on film that he’s a big body. He plays hard.”
Statistically, those are the two that jump off the pages but the Mountaineers have a talented group of players that contribute. Daxter Miles Jr.’s defensive effort is much better this season. Sophomore Logan Routt has been a solid asset defensively. He sets strong screens and can get to the glass.
Beetle Bolden has also improved tremendously on the defensive side of the ball. Wesley Harris has been effective on the inbounds with that giant wingspan in his opponent’s face.
Nonetheless, WVU isn’t the greatest rebounding team on the defensive side and that is something Murray State is hoping to use to its advantage.
“For us, rebounding on the offensive glass we want to be a strength of our team, regardless of who we are playing, “McMahon said. “It’s an effort-type stat. I think that’s why West Virginia is so good at it on the offensive glass because they’re relentless and we try to do the same thing. The opponent doesn’t change how we approach offensive rebounding. We want to do it every game, regardless of who we are playing and I think it’s a stat that impacts winning in a huge way.”
And the Racers know if they want to pull off the upset, they will have to win the battle on the boards.
“I think we are going to have to outbound them,” senior guard Jonathan Stark said. “We cannot get outrebounded. We are also going to have to take care of the ball and make good decisions.”
And the size differential doesn’t scare Murray State.
“He told me it’s going to be a man’s game tomorrow and you know whoever rebounds the ball the best is going to win,” Miller said. “Coach knows my mindset and what type of player I am. We might be oversized but hey, we came here to play and lace up our shoes just like they do.”
The Racers have several shooters and skilled offensive players to cause havoc for the Mountaineers.
Stark averages 21.8 points per game and Miller averages 14.7 points. Ja Morant and Stark combine for a dangerous backcourt. Morant (12.6 points, 6.4 assists) can dish the ball out or take it to the basket himself.
As a team, Murray State shot 38 percent from beyond the arc. Even when contesting those shots in the Big 12 Championship, they fell and that ultimately cost WVU.
But the question remains if the Racers can handle the Mountaineers’ aggressive defense.
“It’s going to be a hard-fought game, probably a lot of runs,” Stark said.
Cover Photo Credit: Shanna Rose, BGS