While the season technically began in mid-November, the real season gets underway tonight for the Colonels (5-2, 0-0).

Eastern Kentucky University men’s basketball welcomes defending Ohio Valley Conference champions Murray State into McBrayer Arena.

Tip is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

The Racers (3-6, 1-0) are the lone conference team that second-year coach Jeff Neubauer did not get beat a year ago.

“Obviously, Murray has always been the measuring stick for the OVC. They are the team that has won the most consistently in this conference,” Neubauer said. “They have the best returning player in the league back — Shawn Witherspoon. And they were obviously not picked to win the league this year, but they are still the measuring stick for this conference.”

EKU is currently 3-0 at home this season and have won three of its last four league opening games. However, Murray has won five of the last six games between the two schools and owns a 89-57 series edge.

This is the first game back in McBrayer Arena since a win over Kenyon College, 63-52, on Nov. 20. EKU is coming back home after a three-game road trip, which included wins over the University of North Carolina at Asheville and James Madison University.

“We have played well here at home, especially against East Tennessee State,” Neubauer said. “That was probably our best home performance, but actually we’ve played really well on the road. I think we played better at Asheville and James Madison than we did at our home games.”

The last four games have been played without Darnell Dialls, and before running into in-state rival Western Kentucky, the Colonels were 3-0 without the center.

The Lexington native has been sidelined after re-injurying his right knee in practice. He had surgery to try and fix the problem, but remains day-to-day.

“His status would still be listed as day-to-day. I do hope that he’ll play soon, I’m just not sure if it will be Thursday,” Neubauer said.

Mike Rose leads the team in scoring with 14.1 points per game, while Julian Mascoll (13 ppg) and Adam Leonard (10.4 ppg) also average in double figures. Jamaal Douglas has 7.3 ppg and 5.4 rebounds, while Mike Brock contributes 4.9 ppg and a team high 6.4 rpg.

Just like EKU a year ago, the Racers saw head coach Nick Cronin accept the University of Cincinnati job after winning the conference title.

Billy Kennedy took over for Murray and has one major contributor in preseason OVC Player of the Year pick in Shawn Witherspoon back. Along with the senior forward, sophomore guard Tyler Holloway also played a key role in MSU’s title run.

Kennedy had a lot of holes to replace with Witherspoon being the lone returning starter of just four letterwinners back.

The first-year coach picked up two transfers from Birmingham Southern. The seniors — Ed Horton and Dwayne Paul — were able to play immediately because BS no longer offers basketball. Along with Horton and Paul, Kennedy picked up two junior college transfers in Bruce Carter and Kevin Thomas.

“I think a lot is being made that only Witherspoon and Holloway return from the guys that played last year, but they also have a kid, Curtis Parker, is there but sat out last year. Rob Kennedy did contribute some last year and they also picked up two guys that played at Birmingham Southern and that have played and have college experience,” Neubauer said. “They have a lot of college basketball experience and a lot of talent on their roster.”

Carter is currently their leading scorer with 10.7 ppg. Witherspoon is averaging 10.3 and Holloway chips in with 10.

The Racers are winless on the road this season, a fact that Neubauer equates more to the strength of schedule than the talent of the team. Murray defeated Eastern Illinois, 53-50, on Nov. 25.

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