JONESBORO — Arkansas State is well aware of the challenge it faces this evening.
Defending Ohio Valley Conference champion Murray State made an a improbable but impressive run last year and is off to a strong start this season. The Racers will try to continue their recent success when they collide with Arkansas State in a non-conference matchup tonight at the Convocation Center.
Tipoff is 7:35 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on KFIN (FM-107.9).
Arkansas State coach John Brady said Murray State will be one of the toughest opponents his team plays all season. It’s a key matchup for the Red Wolves in building their own run of success.
"I think Murray State is as good a team as we will play all year," Brady said following Tuesday’s practice. "We’ve got them at home, and we’ll see what happens. We should be ready to play, and I think our team is excited about playing them."
Arkansas State (6-3) is coming off a 69-57 win over Austin Peay on Sunday, and has won two straight. The Red Wolves are perfect at home this season, where they are unbeaten in four games, and may need to be perfect against Murray State to remain unbeaten there.
The Racers (8-1) were one of college basketball’s more intriguing teams last season. They won their first 23 games, climbed as high as No. 9 in the rankings, and were the nation’s last undefeated team before falling late in the season to Tennessee State.
This season has only been a little different so far.
Murray State has won eight of its first nine games, losing only to Colorado in the Charleston Classic. The Racers have reeled off five straight wins since the defeat and are receiving votes for The Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Brady says the Racers are a good, well-rounded team with almost no deficiencies that he can spot.
"They’re a good passing team," Brady said. "They’re a very efficient team and they don’t turn it over much. They’ve got perimeter players that see things that are happening before they actually happen, and they shoot it pretty well. They’re a team that can go on runs and we’ve got to eliminate their runs."
The two teams met last year in Murray, Ky., with the Racers pulling away in the second half for a 66-53 victory. ASU led most of the first half, but Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan got hot from the outside, hitting five of his six 3-pointers, and the Racers took a double-digit lead early in the second half and never trailed again.
Canaan is a big concern for ASU coming into the return game this evening.
The 6-foot-1 senior is considered one college basketball’s most dangerous threats to score the basketball from the outside. He leads the Racers with 21.3 points a game while shooting 43.7 percent from behind the 3-point line.
Canaan led Murray State last year in scoring while shooting a remarkable 45.6 percent from outside the arc.
While Canaan can clearly score it, Brady said he’s a much more complete player than just a shooter.
"He’s a great passer and he plays the pick-and-roll extremely well," Brady said. "He can drive it and create his shot. He’s just an excellent guard that reminds me a lot of (former NBA star) Joe Dumars. He can play on the ball, off the ball, handles it really well, shoots it well and is an excellent passer."
Arkansas State plans to run a handful of defenders at Canaan in hopes of keeping him from getting in a rhythm. Sophomore Rakeem Dickerson, junior Ed Townsel and senior Marcus Hooten will rotate in an effort to keep a fresh defender on Canaan.
But as dangerous as Canaan has been, the Racers have another player in forward Ed Daniel who could be equally important for Arkansas State to stop.
Daniel, a 6-foot-7 senior, is averaging a double-double of 17 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. He’s shooting 59.5 percent from the field and recorded six straight double-doubles before having the streak snapped Sunday against Western Kentucky.
"Outside of Canaan, he’s the key to their team," Brady said of Daniel. "When he’s out of the game, they’re not as effective because he’s so active and so involved. He plays extremely hard. We’re going to have to do a good job on him around the goal."
As a team, Murray State is shooting 48.2 percent overall and 38 percent from 3-point range. The Racers are averaging 79 points and have three players scoring in double figures, including Canaan, Daniels and senior forward Stacy Wilson (16.3 ppg) providing the bulk of their production.
Arkansas State has been balanced this season with four players averaging double figures. The Red Wolves are led by Townsel, who is scoring 16.3 points and shooting 48.3 percent from the perimeter.
Murray State only lost two games all of last season, falling to Marquette in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Brady knows it will take an outstanding effort to hand Murray State its second loss of this season.
"We certainly have a great deal of respect for them," he said.