It's a battle of two of the best mid-majors in college basketball as No. 7 Murray State takes on No. 10 San Francisco in East Region play at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Thursday night. The committee always likes to put two fantastic mid-major teams against each other, and while it's annoying to some of us, it could be one of the best Round of 64 games we see this season. The two teams have a combined record of 54-11.
Murray State is 30-2 on the season, including a 74-72 win over fellow Tournament team Memphis on the road on Dec. 10, while one of the two losses came against Midwest No. 2 seed Auburn (71-58) on the 22nd of that same month. The Racers went undefeated in the Ohio Valley Conference, running the table in the regular season (18-0) and posting two more wins in the tournament, a stretch that included 13 double-digit victories. Murray State is in the Big Dance for the first time since 2019 when the 12th-seeded Racers upset No. 5 Marquette (83-64) before falling to No. 4 Florida State.
San Francisco (24-9) earned an at-large bid coming out of the West Coast Conference. Head coach Todd Golden has done great things with the Dons, who opened up this season 10-0 with wins over fellow Tournament teams Davidson and UAB, as well as a victory against Fresno State. San Francisco went 0-5 in WCC play against Gonzaga (No. 1 overall seed) and Saint Mary's (No. 5 seed in East region). The Dons last made the dance back in 1998, losing to Utah in the first round. Their last NCAA Tournament victory came back in 1979 when they knocked off BYU in the second round (the field was only 40 teams then, San Francisco was a No. 4 seed and got a first-round bye) before falling to UCLA in the Sweet 16.
East Region: No. 10 San Francisco Dons (24-9) vs. No. 7 Murray State Racers (30-2)
Time: Thursday, March 17 at 9:40 p.m. ET (approximately)
Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: San Francisco -1.5
Keys for San Francisco
The Dons have an efficient offense but don't take full advantage of their free throws. They are 40th nationally in two-point field-goal shooting and 107th from beyond the arc but just 69.2 percent from the charity stripe. They must hit their 3-pointers since 44.4 percent of their total shots come from beyond the arc.
Julian Rishwain is the team's top long-range sniper, as he's connected on 44.3 percent of his attempts (122 total) this season. The offense is powered by the potent backcourt duo of Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz, who combine for 30.7 points per game.
On defense, San Francisco has done a good job in limiting the damage other teams do via the 3-pointer, ranking ninth in the country at 28.9 percent. Because of this, feeding the ball into the post area or finding a way to get inside the paint is critical. This is especially the case with the news coming out on Tuesday that Yauhen Massalski will not play after reinjuring his knee in practice on Monday. A first-team All-WCC selection, Massalski is averaging 13.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game.
The Dons are a middle-of-the-pack team when it comes to creating turnovers, ranking 133rd at 13.1 per game.
Keys for Murray State
As one would expect from a team with only two losses, the Racers don't have a ton of weaknesses. They are 11th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, which means when they miss their shots, they get their own rebound. The squad is really efficient on offense, shooting 53.5 percent inside the 3-point line and 34.7 percent behind it. They are strong defensively too, checking in as a top-50 team in turnover percentage and 3-point defense. One of their few weaknesses is at the free-throw line, where they shoot 69.8 percent as a team. That deficiency is canceled somewhat by their ability to make shots from the field.
Murray State is led by KJ Williams' 18.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. He's very efficient and one of five regulars shooting 50 percent or better. Tevin Brown (16.9 ppg) and Justice Hill (13.2 ppg) form a very potent backcourt and are both capable of draining long-range shots.
I'm looking forward to this game probably more than almost any other because of my appreciation of mid-major basketball. Entering the NCAA Tournament, I thought Murray State had at least Sweet 16 potential with the right matchups. I don't necessarily understand making San Francisco the favorite off the open. The Dons are a solid team, but they couldn't beat their WCC rivals (0-5 vs. Gonzaga and Saint Mary's) that are in this year's field. Give me the 7-seed to move on in this one.
Prediction: Murray State 71, San Francisco 68
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.