NCAA Tournament: First Round
#3 North Carolina (22-7) vs. #14 Murray State (24-6)
Dayton, Ohio - Dayton Arena
Friday, 9:40 p.m., CBS (Gus Johnson, Len Elmore)
"I'm just glad some of those guys from last year are in the NBA." -- MSU head coach Mick Cronin
"I was hoping I'd get to play against them before I graduate. I know of no player in America who wouldn't like to play against North Carolina." -- Pearson Griffith
"I was surprised [we weren't seeded higher] ... but we'll get a chance to prove how good we are." -- Mick Cronin
How They've Fared Against Top Competition: Playing in the Ohio Valley Conference (ranked the No. 20 conference by the RPI), isn't going to provide elite competition. The Racers compiled a 17-3 in-conference record, including going 10-0 at home, before capturing the OVC Tournament title. But MSU did have three "quality" opponents on its 2005-06 slate -- Tennessee, Cincinnati and Southern Illinois -- and gave each of them a tough game. The Racers led at Tennessee by six at the half, took Cincinnati to overtime and had the lead for much of the second half against Southern Illinois.
Giant Killers: Several weeks before the NCAA Tournament field was announced, ESPN The Magazine analyzed the 64 best conference teams by using 10 statistical categories that were deemed the most telling of a potential "Giant Killer." Only five of the 64 teams passed the magazine's test by meeting all 10 key categories -- one of which was Murray State. ESPN highlighted the Racers' quick full-court press and aggressive play. "The combo of flash and smash will cause all kinds of head scratching in an unfamiliar foe's film room," the article said.
Disciple: Head coach Mick Cronin, in his third season at MSU, is one of the games top up-and-coming coaches. And he learned from some of the biggest names in the game as an assistant. Tough defense and rebounding? That's from five years under Bob Huggins at Cincinnati. The full-court press? That's from two years under Rick Pitino at Louisville. Now only at the age of 33, he's in the midst of his third-straight successful season with the Racers, and was named 2006 OVC Coach of the Year.
Starpower?: A balanced offensive team will lead to wins, but not necessarily individual stardom. The top eight players in the rotation range in scoring average from 10.8 points to 5.0 points, and as a result, only one member of the team made the all-conference team -- Shawn Witherspoon. At 6-5, 220, the well-rounded junior wing led the Racers in scoring (10.8 ppg), rebounding (7.8 rpg), field goal percentage (53%), steals (1.7) and was second in assists (3.2) -- he even led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.39).
Lockdown: While the Racers have some offensive weapons, with six players capable of hitting three-pointers (MSU averages 21 three-point attempts per game, shooting a combined 36%), their success is predicated on their defense. Their full-court press and tight half-court defense produced 14.7 turnovers per game, while opponents also managed only 39.7% shooting and 61.1 points per game. In the post, senior center Pearson Griffith emerged into one of the best shotblockers in school history. His 78 rejections this season set an MSU single-season record. Griffith's 3.7 blocks per game in the OVC tournament earned him tournament MVP honors.
Remember Me?: The starting point guard for the Racers is a familiar face to Tar Heel fans. Senior Keith Jenifer played two seasons at Virginia before transferring to Murray State. Playing for then-coach Pete Gillen in Charlottesville, Jenifer started a total of 29 games from 2001-2003, averaging 4.6 points and 3.8 assists -- and he was 3-0 in his three games against the Tar Heels. Since arriving at MSU, the speedy floor leader has not been a big scoring threat, but has led the team in assists both seasons.
This Isn't Greensboro: The city of Murray, Kentucky is 377 miles from the site of the game in Dayton, Ohio. "We're excited about being in Dayton because our fans can get there," Cronin said. The distance from Chapel Hill to Dayton? 511 miles.
Series History: The two schools have only met once before, which was in the first round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament, an 80-70 UNC victory in Tallahassee, Fla. The Racers led that game at halftime, 42-41, before Jerry Stackhouse (25 points) and the Final-Four-bound Tar Heels pulled away in the second half.
Location: Murray, Ky.
Conference: Ohio Valley
Colors: Navy & Gold
Head Coach: Mick Cronin
Record at MSU: 69-23
Probable Starting Lineup:
Keith Jenifer (6-2, 175, G, Sr.) – 5.0 ppg, 3.4 apg
Darnell Hopkins (6-2, 190, G, Sr.) – 9.0 ppg
Shawn Witherspoon (6-5, 220, F, Jr.) – 10.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg
Justin Orr (6-6, 205, F, So.) – 8.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg
Pearson Griffith (6-10, 255, C, Sr.) – 7.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg
Trey Pearson (6-2, 182, G, Jr.) – 10.0 ppg, 2.9 apg
Issian Redding (6-6, 220, F, Sr.) – 8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg
Tyler Holloway (6-2, 175, G, Fr.) – 6.1 ppg
Chuck Johnson (6-7, 222, G, Sr.) – 3.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg
Griffith ... Pearson
Orr ... Hopkins
Holloway ... Johnson