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Racers hungry as practice opens

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Posted: Saturday, October 16, 2010 9:00 am | Updated: 10:24 am, Mon Oct 18, 2010.

B.J. Jenkins knows exactly where the DVD is.

He watched it often over the summer.

No, it wasn’t Murray State’s thrilling first-round NCAA tournament victory over Vanderbilt that Jenkins, a rising senior, chose to relive during the hot days of July and August.

It was the one the Racers didn’t get.

“To this day I still think about it,” says Jenkins, referencing Murray State’s second-round 54-52 loss to eventual national runner-up Butler. “I watch the game, I watch the loss. I don’t even watch the Vandy win. I just watch the Butler loss.

“It hurts. I can’t describe that feeling. Then, to see them go to the championship game ... that could have been us. This year, I don’t want to say that could have been us.”

Such is the tone with which the Racers began preseason practice Friday afternoon at the freshly-christened CFSB Center.

The returning talent on the squad is well-documented. Murray State gets back eight players who saw significant time from a team that won both the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season and tournament championships and will have one of the more established backcourts anywhere.

The Racers could be even deeper than they were last year. Kennedy says freshmen Shawn Jackson and Chris Griffin have both spent the summer adding strength and will play early in the frontcourt.

An early estimate from the head coach is that Murray State will run 11 to 12 players deep.

But the greatest quality of this squad, from Kennedy’s perspective, is something intangible.

“This whole group, last year and this year, has been a pleasure to coach because you don’t have to coach effort, you don’t have to coach attitude,” he said. “When you can just focus on basketball and winning games, it’s big.”

The focus for the coming weeks of practice will be squarely on Kennedy’s brand of basketball — the suffocating defense fans have come to expect and appreciate from Kennedy-coached squads.

“Every day, it’s a new defensive drill,” says Brandon Garrett, a 6-foot-9 junior college transfer who is also competing for time in the frontcourt in the stead of now-European professional Tony Easley.

In a meeting with the media prior to Friday’s practice, Kennedy didn’t mention a word about his team’s offense. The Racers were a team without stars on the offensive side of the ball last year as one of the most balanced scoring squads in the nation.

And that’s exactly how the coach would like things to remain.

“Establishing the defensive mindset, and not getting caught up in the hype and being pretty,” he said of his squad’s focus. “We’ve got some guys that look pretty off the court, and that’s where we want that to stay. We don’t want them to look pretty on the court.

“We’re just trying to keep that mentality. We want to be a dominating defensive team.”

From a leadership standpoint, both coaches and teammates point to Jenkins as the primary motivator for the squad.

Kennedy credits the 6-foot guard from Virginia Beach, Va., with getting his teammates focused and ensuring they have the right attitude during summer conditioning, which included a new twist this season.

Two weeks ago, the Racers went through “boot camp,” something the staff instituted not only as a conditioning measure but as something that would ideally make the team mentally tougher.

For a week, players were ready to go at 6 a.m., running hills, stadium steps, and pushing 45-pound plates across the football field at Stewart Stadium.

“Boot camp was physical, but we are all in shape,” says Jenkins. “It was more for testing your mind, making you mentally tough. That’s what’s going to help us this year.”

After boot camp, coaches backed off the team for a week before officially opening practice Friday.

The Racers have a little more than three weeks before opening play in an exhibition against Freed-Hardeman on Nov. 9. The first regular-season game is Nov. 15 against East Tennessee State at the CFSB Center.

But Jenkins, who credited the team’s win over Vanderbilt to a summer spent conditioning on the football field, knows now is the time games, even in March, are won.

“This where we won them last year,” he said. “Last year we came out tough in the offseason, pushed each other beyond our limits, and we’re trying to do the same thing this year.”

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