Friday February 13th, 2015

It sure is nice that Cameron Payne backs up his name, which makes it sound like he's capable of inflicting biblical damage on his opponents, with his game.

Murray State’s top dog hasn’t exactly made Racers fans forget about Isaiah Canaan, now with the Houston Rockets, but he’s certainly made the transition without him seem seamless. Payne, a 6'2" guard, is the Ohio Valley Conference’s leading scorer (just a half-point ahead of Eastern Kentucky’s Corey Walden) at 19.4 points per game, but he is also second in the league in assists (5.8) and tacks on 3.5 rebounds.

If anyone was sleeping on Payne before Saturday’s game against Austin Peay, the sophomore guard’s 27-point explosion should’ve woken them up.

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Payne has only improved on a freshman season playing when he was trying to replace Caanan's impact. With the spotlight—and defensive attention—squarely on the former Tennessee Mr. Basketball winner as a sophomore, he’s done nothing but impress. His offensive rating is up more than 10 points (117.9 from 106.9) from a season ago, and his assist rate is up five points (39.0 from 34.0)

The Racers are 22-4 on the year with a perfect 12-0 conference record heading into Thursday night’s game against SIU Edwardsville. Boasting a top-30 offense in adjusted efficiency and the Ohio Valley’s best scoring and rebounding margins, Murray State is in great shape to make its first NCAA tournament since 2012, when the Racers were a No. 6 seed in Steve Prohm’s first season.

[tile:8113521Prohm knows how valuable Payne is to the success of the team, and the sophomore’s knacks for hitting big shots and getting his teammates involved are big factors in the Racers' success this season. Four different Racers average in double digits in scoring, and the team shoots almost 40 percent from beyond the arc.

“He has the ability to make a special play every possession, but just make the great play when you have to make the great play,” Prohm told Rob Dauster of NBCSports.com in October. “Hit singles and doubles, make the homerun play when you have to.”

If the Racers get into the Big Dance, Payne’s likely to inflict, well, some pain on his first-round opponent. Nobody better be sleeping on him then.

Weekend Spotlight: Green Bay (20-5) vs. Valparaiso (22-4), Friday, 7 p.m. EST, ESPN2

The Horizon is tight at the top, with a little help from the poor conference performances by Youngstown State and Illinois-Chicago, and Friday night’s primetime matchup between Green Bay and Valpo could go a long way toward determining the eventual seeding of the league.

Green Bay is an elite defensive team (19th in adjusted efficiency) and has one of the most dynamic point guards, Keifer Sykes, in all of college basketball. The Phoenix won the first meeting over the Crusaders by a single point in Green Bay, and they’ll head into a feisty road environment at the ARC.

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Alec Peters, Valpo’s explosive sophomore forward, is averaging 17.3 points (on 46.7 percent shooting from deep) and 6.4 rebounds a game, but he was held to just nine points in the Jan. 23 loss to the Phoenix. If the Crusaders are going to split the season series, they’ll need Peters to play his best.

Player To Watch: Andrew Rowsey, G, UNC Asheville

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For a brief moment there, one of the most beautiful things in college basketball was the seven-way tie at 8-4 in the Big South. Alas, nothing gold can stay. And you have UNC Asheville to thank. The Bulldogs knocked off Gardner-Webb on Monday night to become the first 9-4 team in the conference. Since then, though, they dropped a home game against Presbyterian and find themselves alone in second place behind a three-way tie for first in the conference. Leading the Bulldogs is Rowsey, a 5'10" sophomore who is averaging 18.8 points per game (and hitting 92.2% of his free throws).

Rowsey was the Big South freshman of the year last season and led the conference in scoring at just over 20 points per game. Scoring is nothing new for the Rockbridge (Va.) High School grad—he averaged almost 36 points his senior year. Asheville travels to Winthrop on Wednesday, with Radford and High Point to follow. If the Bulldogs want to battle back to first, Rowsey’s going to have to keep on getting buckets.

Stat Of The Week: 9

That’s the number of teams currently ranked in the kenpom.com top 50 that Long Beach State played out of conference. The worst stretch was in December, when Beach played four top-50 teams in a row (Stephen F. Austin, San Diego State, Texas, Saint John’s), then Syracuse (ranked 61st on kenpom.com) and Louisville (11th).

While the 49ers weren’t able to take advantage of most of those games and can claim only a split with Xavier as their marquee non-conference win, it seems to have paid dividends in conference play. Long Beach State has dropped two in a row, to UC Irvine at home and UC Davis on the road, and it trails just those two teams at third place (7-3) in the conference. We’ll see soon enough if challenging his team so much at the beginning of the year will pay off in the league tournament, but Dan Monson should be commended for scheduling tough.

Plus, the 49ers had one of the coolest giveaways in all of college basketball last weekend. That can’t hurt.

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