Poised with one of her deepest, but unproven, rosters since taking the job at Murray State, Racer women’s basketball coach Rechelle Turner doesn’t want to live with consistently being picked to finish eighth in the Ohio Valley Conference.
But after finishing there last season and being recently picked there again by league coaches and sports information directors for 2020-21, it’s an unfortunately familiar place.
MSU was just good enough to make the OVC Tournament in Evansville a year ago, but wasn’t good enough to contend for its coveted crown. Gutting injuries cut down the potential for any strong finish, and a first-round matchup with UT Martin — relatively healthy with impressive depth — delivered a difficult blow.
“It seems that we live there,” Turner said Tuesday, virtually, during OVC Media Day. “We live at eighth. But that’s what we deserve at this point in what we’ve been able to do. But we just take it on as a challenge. There are so many good teams in this league, that I don’t think being eighth can be considered anything negative because there are so many good teams, and the teams have so much depth.”
Now, she hopes ... she believes ... this team is among those with depth — a depth that’s quality enough to contend sooner, rather than later.
Any success in 2020-21 will have to begin with the returned health of junior point guard Macey Turley and redshirt-sophomore forward Macie Gibson, who both served as considerable contributors before season-ending injury last year.
The potential leadership from seniors G’Torria Swinton and Laci Hawthorne, as well as the high probability of marked improvements from forward/guard Alexis Burpo and leading larcenist Lex Mayes, also will be important benchmarks for the Racers.
But a freshman quintet and two junior-college transfers (Manna Mensah, Jalexis Russell), coupled with the healthy return of redshirt-freshman Jentri Worley and a seasoned Reagan Blackburn (4.4 ppg, 27% from three), mean Turner and her team will be touting a wide swathe of looks on both sides of the ball.
And on Nov. 25, when the Racers open their season at the University of Kentucky, all the toys are coming out of the bag ... even if it is a month before Christmas.
“We’re going to have a pretty deep rotation, and I believe there’s a possibility that lineups will change — depending on who we are playing,” Turner said. “There may be nights where we need more speed. There may be nights where we need a little bit of a bigger (team) on the court. The starting lineup might be on a rotation, but we feel like there will be nine or 10 kids who can earn some time.”
It’s a luxury she and her staff can afford in 2020-21, as the NCAA ruled for a free year of eligibility due to the pandemic. Though still unsure of the upcoming recruitment process and ensuing conversations within the team, Turner notes the team’s attitude remains committed to “We Over Me,” with anticipation (and, perhaps, anxiety) about the precipice on which this season so delicately sits.
“Right now, we’re just trying to focus on the moment,” Turner added. “Each and every day, we just know to go out and give it our all, because we may not be able to go out and practice the next day.”
While the Racers do return four players who averaged double-digit figures a season ago (Turley, Burpo, Hawthorne, Mayes), and a fifth who nearly did (Gibson, 8.6 ppg), shooting percentages were squeezed, and the bench never truly erupted with any consistency.
Turner has already noted the basketball is finding the hoop much more frequently in practice, and Hawthorne — one of last year’s top newcomers in the OVC (10.1 ppg/9.3 rpg/40.7% shooting) — attests it’s one of the team’s most obvious improvements from a strange offseason.
“It’s definitely offensively, I can say,” she said. “We have a lot more pieces. I feel like our freshman class is really, really good. Everyone can score, and that’s really, really good. It’s going to help us a lot. We definitely have some depth this year, and there’s lots of talent on our team. I feel like I’m playing my position, and they’re making me better and I’m making them better.”
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