Tonight’s game will mark the 149th between Murray State and WKU, but for many of the Toppers, it will be their first taste at one of the oldest rivalries in college basketball.
“I’ve heard about it. Very competitive,” sophomore forward O’Karo Akamune said. “I really don’t know too much about it. Just go out and play. I’m not familiar with it, but I’m ready to go out and play.”
Murray State enters Diddle Arena as one of the country’s 21 unbeaten Division I teams with a 7-0 record.
The Racers boast wins over Alabama-Birmingham and Southern Mississippi and won the Great Alaska Shootout.
The team is made up of all juniors and seniors with the exception of two freshman.
Murray State won the last meeting — a 69-60 win at the CSFB Center — but WKU has won the last two at Diddle Arena.
Head Coach Ken McDonald said the Toppers will have to beat a “quality basketball team” to keep that trend going.
“It’s a quality basketball team that we’re playing with good experience coming back — guys that have NCAA experience, that have winning experience and some toughness about them,” he said. “We’re going to have to bring it. We really are. We’re gonna have to have a lot of guys on the positive side affecting the game and helping.”
Murray State is led in scoring by junior guard Isaiah Canaan, who’s averaging 20.6 points per game.
Senior guard/forward Donte Poole is second on the team in scoring with a 14.4 points per game average.
“It starts with their guard play,” McDonald said. “You hear that all the time about the NCAA Tournament — the guard play. They have very, very strong guards at the one, the two, the three. All guys that score it, guys that manage the game right. They’re strong. They handle pressure well.”
Freshman guard Kevin Kaspar said the key to beating Murray State is shutting down Canaan, Poole and the rest of the Racer guards.
“They haven’t lost too many guys, so they brought their whole squad back,” he said. “I heard they have pretty good shooters, pretty good guards, their big men are pretty good. We’ve just got to guard them, defend them as we’re doing before.”
While the Toppers will be looking to end one winning streak, they’ll be looking to start one of their own as they search for their second win of the season Thursday night.
It will have to be a young team beating a more experienced team for that to happen.
McDonald said that shouldn’t be a problem as long as his players stay within the game plan.
“I think that at times the emotions can work against you,” he said. “We want it at the beginning of the game and then we got to get our composure. I’ve been encouraging the veterans to continue their development, but I’m also encouraging the newcomers that they have to start to mature on the court and they can’t let people speed them up.
“One part is the maturity and managing the game part. If we can make a jump in that area in this game, we’re gonna have a chance.”