Team preview: Murray State

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2003-04 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: November 6, 2003, 2:22 PM ET
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Mick Cronin took over as Murray State's coach last spring, knowing what is expected of this program year after year after year.

Twenty-something wins. Championships. Postseason berths.

In a state that is basketball crazy, Murray fits right in. Expectations are of the highest. Cronin knows it.

"That's why I came here," Cronin said. "I figured there are good jobs and bad jobs. I'd rather take a good job.

"Murray State, among the coaches, this is a job a lot of guys wanted and I'm fortunate to get the opportunity because it's where people have been successful. I hope to build on the success and continue it."

Cronin takes over for Tevester Anderson, who retired briefly last spring before taking over as head coach at Jackson State.

Anderson spent the last couple of years on the Murray hot seat. He saved his job with a late-season run in 2001-02, a run that took the Racers to the OVC Tournament title and an NCAA Tournament berth.

Last season, Anderson's Racers flirted with an upset of eventual tournament champion Austin Peay in an OVC Tournament semifinal before losing in overtime. Soon after, Anderson retired.

Enter Cronin.

"After a thorough search process, it was clear to everyone that Mick Cronin was the best candidate for this job," Murray athletics director E.W. Dennison said at the introduction of Cronin. "This is a great day for Murray State and we're proud to have him in our family."

Cronin quickly made a climb up the ladder to one of the better mid-major coaching jobs in the country.

A 1997 graduate at Cincinnati, Cronin spent eight years as an assistant-six years at Cincinnati and the past two at Louisville. During his time as an assistant, Cronin was able to learn from two of the must successful head coaches in the business, Cincinnati's Bob Huggins and Louisville's Rick Pitino.

Street & Smith's rated Cronin as "the No. 1 assistant coach in Conference USA" and "Most ready to be a head coach" after the 2002-03 season.

At Louisville, Cronin earned the distinction as "the top recruiting assistant in the nation" by The Sporting News after helping the Cardinals land back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes. He played a prominent role in helping the Cardinals land 2003 C-USA Freshman-of-the-Year Francisco Garcia and C-USA All-Freshman player Taquan Dean. While at Cincinnati, Cronin helped Huggins put together two No. 1-ranked recruited classes and another ranked in the top 10 nationally.

"Mick is a relentless recruiter and he communicates with players as well as any coach I have every worked with," Pitino said. "The Racers and Mick are entering a great marriage that is going to be successful for both parties."

Cronin does not inherit a team short on talent.

Senior forward Cuthbert Victor was on the All-OVC second team last season and is one of five Racers with starting experience.

Add to that newcomers Kelvin Brown, Adam Chiles and Pearson Griffith, and it's the same old Racer story-they don't rebuild, they reload.

Chiles spent a year at Kentucky before going to Vincennes (Ind.) University, while Brown signed with South Florida out of high school before going to Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College.

"Murray State probably has the most talented players in the league," Southeast Missouri State coach Gary Garner said.

The Racers' biggest loss from last year's team was 6-8 center James Singleton (14.9 ppg, 11.0 rpg), chosen to the All-OVC first team. Singleton, who earned All-OVC second-team honors as a junior, led the league in rebounding last year, was 10th in field-goal percentage (.541) and second in blocked shots per game (1.79).

"No question, [Singleton] was a great player," Cronin said. "He leaves a pretty big void, but we have two good junior college post players coming in with Pearson Griffith and Kelvin Brown."

Griffith, 6-10 and 240 pounds, was rated among the top 10 junior college post players after spending two seasons at Murray State-yes, that's right-Community College in Oklahoma.

Brown, a 6-7, 220-pound junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., averaged 22.6 points and 10.9 rebounds last year at Fort Scott, shooting 51.3 percent from the floor. He earned all-state honors while at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale and led the team to Class 6A state titles as a junior and senior.

"[Brown] was a big-time junior college player and a top-50 recruit out of high school," Cronin said. "We expect him and Griffith to contribute right away.

"Kelvin is more of a scorer and rebounder, whereas Pearson is 6-10 and is a good shot blocker and rebounder. He's a long-armed guy who can really block shots and improve a defense with his ability to block shots."

Brown can play in the paint as well as the perimeter.

"He fits into our style of play because he's a great rebounder who can run and press, but he can also score," Cronin said. "He's a very versatile forward who can score inside as well as outside."

Victor, who is 6-5 and 220 pounds, can play either forward spot. He is an outstanding athlete and defender.

Last season, Victor (15.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg) was fourth in the league in rebounding, field-goal percentage (.596) and blocked shots per game (1.31). He started as a sophomore and averaged 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds.

"He's a very steady guy," Cronin said. "We'll try to work on his [ball-handling] skills and improve his ability to score from the perimeter, whether it's driving to the basket or making three-point shots (where he was 11-of-36 last season)."

Andi Hornig, a 7-0, 269-pound senior center, will again be relegated to a backup's role. Hornig (2.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg) averaged 9.9 minutes last season, starting one game, and has made only minimal progress since arriving at Murray from Germany.

Petar Roncevic, a 6-9, 213-pound center, may not get as much time as Hornig. Roncevic played in four games last season, averaging 1.8 minutes, and didn't score.

Cronin hopes the demanding off-season workout schedule will pay off for 6-5 senior forward Antione Whelchel (7.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg). As a sophomore, Whelchel started all 32 games and averaged 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds, but slumped last year and eventually lost his starting job and playing time.

He started 18 games and averaged 25.2 minutes.

Whelchel, listed at 249 pounds, has endured rigorous workouts after earning his fourth year of eligibility back.

"He's got to be in his best shape," Cronin said. "He's lost 15 pounds and is getting his quickness and athleticism back. That's hard after your sophomore year when you're an all-league [type] guy. We're trying to get him back to that."

Whelchel can play either forward position and has good shooting range (33.3 percent, 27-for-81, from three-point range last season).

Shawn Witherspoon, a 6-5 red-shirt freshman, can also play either forward position, but is more suited for small forward. Witherspoon was chosen to the Class 6A all-state team his last two years at Oviedo (Fla.) High School. As a senior, he averaged 22.9 points and 11.1 rebounds, and he was Florida's Class 6A Player of the Year as a junior.

In the backcourt, the 6-0 Chiles will battle 5-11 senior Kevin Paschel for the starting job at point guard.

Chiles, from Louisville, Ky., led Vincennes to a 25-8 record last season, averaging 13.5 points. Against No. 1-ranked and eventual NJCAA national champion Southeastern Iowa, Chiles scored a career-high 48 and was 8-of-9 from three-point range.

As a senior at Ballard High in Louisville, Chiles averaged 16.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 steals. Ballard was 90-13 in his three years there.

"He's an explosive guard that can create offense off the dribble, which is something this team needs at the guard position," Cronin said. "He's my kind of guy in that he has great toughness on both ends of the floor. He led his team to a state championship in high school and he's a proven winner."

Paschel (5.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 2.1 apg) started 11 games last season and averaged 20.1 minutes.

Like Whelchel, Paschel should benefit from some off-season training.

"When I got the job Kevin was 195 pounds," Cronin said. "Now he's at 180. He will be in the best shape of his college career."

Two seniors, 6-1 Rick Jones and 6-6 Chris Shumate, will also battle for starting jobs in the backcourt.

Jones (10.6 ppg, 1.0 rpg), who spent one season at Vanderbilt (1999-2000), started 18 games last season and led the team in three-pointers (77-of-197 for 39.1 percent). He was eighth in the OVC in three-point percentage and fourth in three-pointers per game (2.66).

Jones was occasionally used at point guard, but will benefit when playing his natural position at off guard.

Shumate (13.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) started 26 games last season on the wing. He was third on the team in scoring and second in three-pointers, shooting 33.9 percent from behind the arc (38-for-112).

"Our guard play will determine our level of success," Cronin said. "Chiles will be a big key. Paschel got his fourth year back and Rick Jones is a good player. They will be a big key to our success. When you play an up-tempo style like we're going to play, you've got to have good guards who can get it up the court and make good decisions."

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

OK, so Murray State lost All-OVC post James Singleton. He can be replaced. As always, Murray has players ready and apparently able to take over.

The Racers will replace Singleton with junior college transfers Brown and Griffith and a high-octane, up-tempo style under Cronin.

Cronin also landed former Kentucky point guard Chiles to run the team, and he has an abundance of experienced players returning.

By no means does Cronin take over a down program, even though Murray fans weren't happy with the final season of the Anderson regime.

"Those three guys coming in from junior college (Chiles, Brown and post Griffith), we need all of them to make an impact for us to be successful," Cronin said.

All should indeed make an impact.

Victor may be the team's top player when the season begins, but he will have to perform to retain that label. Veteran guards Jones and Paschel and wing Shumate will be pushed to keep their starting jobs and quality minutes.

More than one OVC coach has said the Racers are loaded, perhaps with more talent than any team in the league. If Cronin can get the Racers clicking, they'll be in contention for the OVC title.

That's a place where the Racers and their fans are accustomed to being.

"I look at this as a great challenge, and at the same time it's a tremendous opportunity," Cronin said, "to be at a place where basketball is so important. That's the great thing about being a coach in Kentucky."

For the most comprehensive previews on all 327 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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