Ladies and gents, we’ve got ourselves a developing situation in college hoops. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Murray State Racers — only the no. 10 basketball team in all the land — but if not, it’s time to get hip. Pretty soon the water cooler at your work is going to be abuzz with nothing but Murray State talk, and you don’t want to be seen as the lame-o who can’t hang with the water-sipping crowd. Next thing you know, the bosses are passing you over for a promotion and you’re sorting mail for a bunch of smarmy 22-year-olds wearing Murray State jerseys and looking for the next big thing. That’s the working world, baby. Gotta keep your head on a swivel.
So let’s talk Murray State. Let’s get you “prepped.” And let’s do it in a fake Q&A format, where imaginary people write me questions and I feel fleetingly popular. Phony constructs and emotional palliatives — they get me through the day.
Q. Where is Murray State?
— Victor Franko
That’s actually just a guess, based on the fact that all good small basketball teams are from Kentucky. Hold on, let me look it up.
Paducah, Murray, Kentucky. You probably know it from your political studies as about an hour away from Paducah, which is the seat of McCracken County. There’s also a uranium enrichment plant there, which is why all the Murray State basketball players are 9 feet tall.
Q. Undefeated? How?
— Robert Jefferson
A. It’s a bit odd in this day and age, that’s for sure. But the Racers survived their out-of-conference schedule, which included decent programs such as Memphis, Southern Miss, Dayton, and Alabama-Birmingham. Now they just have to run the table in the Ohio Valley Conference, and 28-0 is within range.
Q. Are they really the no. 10 team in the country?
— Vernon Pinkley
A. If I can throw some Latin at you guys (and I know Grantland readers can handle the hell out a dead language) they are the de jure no. 10 team in the country, but definitely not the de facto no. 10 team in the country. I might have those mixed up. What I’m trying to say is that while the powers that be have seen fit to rank them 10th, the reality is that they’re probably more like … 39th.
Remember those out-of-conference games I was telling you about from 2K11? The Racers squeaked by Southern Miss in double OT, beat San Francisco by three, Memphis by four, and Alaska-Anchorage — a Division II team mostly composed of bored oil riggers taking night classes — by two.
So, just like Baylor before it was annihilated at Kansas, Murray State’s undefeated run has been more survival act than tour de force.
Q. But wait, if Baylor was due for its comeuppance, shouldn’t Murray State be in the same boat?
— Samson Posey
A. I know what you’re thinking: Every Ohio Valley team can beat every other Ohio Valley on any given night. Tried and true. We’ve known it for years. Wait, you weren’t thinking that? That’s not a thing people say?
That’s the difference between Baylor and Murray State. While the Bears face a Big 12 schedule chock-full of great teams, Murray State should be favored by double digits in every remaining game. That link goes to a page that requires a subscription, but if you’re a college hoops fan and you haven’t joined Ken Pomeroy’s site, you’re missing some serious opportunities to nerd out on numbers. It says that Murray State is much better than the remaining nine teams on its schedule. No major conference team can say that at this point in the season.
The real challenge for the Racers, unlike teams in the power six conferences, came at the beginning of the year. Once they made it to conference play unscathed, things got a whole lot easier.
Q. Is that why you’re not talking about Syracuse?
— Glenn Gilpin
A. Exactly. The Orange are an impressive team, and they’re miles better than Murray State. They’ll almost definitely get a 1-seed, make it to the Sweet 16 without a sweat, and be poised to contend for a Final Four berth and a national title. But they won’t go undefeated. There are too many obstacles in the Big East. All it takes is one down night, even against a midlevel conference opponent, to end the streak. That’s why we haven’t seen a major conference team go undefeated in the regular season since Indiana in 1976.
Q. 1976? How many teams have actually gone undefeated?
— Joseph Wladislaw
A. There have been seven undefeated NCAA champions. Indiana was the last, in 1976; UCLA did it four times under John Wooden (1972-73, 1971-72, 1966-67, 1963-64); North Carolina managed it in 1957 by beating Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in triple overtime in the championship; and the Bill Russell/K.C. Jones combo led the San Francisco Dons to the title in 1956.
As far as undefeated regular seasons, it gets rarer as parity grows. In the past 20 years, it’s only happened twice. St. Joe’s did it in 2004, but lost in the A-10 conference tournament and then in the Elite Eight to Oklahoma State. UNLV did it in 1991, but lost in the Final Four to Duke.
It happened more often in the ’70s, with Alcorn State, Indiana State (Larry Legend), Rutgers, Indiana, Marquette, Penn, and N.C. State getting it done before either losing in the tournament or, in the Wolfpack’s case, missing out on the dance due to NCAA violations.
Obviously, Murray State fits more into the Alcorn State mold than 1976 Indiana. Still, going undefeated is absurdly tough even in the small conferences, and if the Racers manage the feat, they’ll at least be a nice footnote in college basketball history.
Q. Will Murray State get a 1-seed in the big dance if they run the table?
— Roscoe Lever
A. It’s very, very possible. A 2-seed is more likely, but when you consider some of the top power-six teams — including Ohio State, North Carolina, Kansas — have three losses already, I don’t see any reason why Murray State can’t sneak in through the back door. Right now, there are exactly two undisputed no. 1 seeds — Syracuse and Kentucky. Duke and Baylor control their own destiny as far as that’s concerned, but anyone who saw Baylor’s performance against Kansas or Duke’s against Temple should have serious doubts about whether either team can put together a 1-seed run over the next two months. Missouri is also on the fringes with just one loss, but it inspires even less faith after a bad showing at Kansas State.
So why not Murray State? Let’s pencil in Syracuse and Kentucky, and pretend that Ohio State, UNC, and Kansas all end with five losses and don’t sweep the regular season and conference tourney titles. By then, the Racers would have edged up to the top five, and the committee would almost be compelled to give them a 1 seed.
And if that happens, we can all be on the lookout for college basketball’s white whale: The first ever 16-1 upset in the NCAA tournament.
Q. Tell me about the team. Who’s the coach? Who are the players to watch out for?
— Tassos Bravos
The Racers are coached by Steve Prohm, a tie-flowing-in-the-wind kind of guy in his first year as a head coach of any program.
He was an assistant at the school for five years before that, and also worked as an assistant at Tulane, Southeastern Louisiana, and Centenary. While at Southeastern Louisiana, he did this interview with College Insider, which he surely regrets and which we will now explore in some depth.
Worst date, coach?
“My girlfriend and I had went to the mountains for the day and had a picnic, took walks and just hung out. It was her idea and we had a great time. When we got back to my house (this was year’s ago) my mom met me at the door and told my girl that she needed to leave. I found out that the police had been to my house with a warrant for my arrest because of an unpaid speeding ticket that I had forgot about. My dad was pissed! As great of a day I had, the night was awful!”
Famous person you’d like to date?
Sexiest part of a woman?
Fair enough, coach. I advise all opposing fan bases to distract Prohm by dressing up like belly dancers from here on out. But good-natured ribbing aside, he’s set the school record for consecutive wins and increased Murray State’s already strong basketball profile. This year’s leading scorer is Isaiah Canaan, which is just a wonderful biblical name, and one that has to be a strong omen in the Year of the Tebow. He’s a 6-foot scoring point guard, and he tallied 20 in Wednesday night’s 66-60 road win against Morehead State. He also shoots 47.1 percent from long range, which is fairly insane by human standards and seventh overall among D-1 players with 100 attempts.
Here’s the lamest highlight video you’ve ever seen, with Canaan’s non-free throw points from Wednesday night. Unfortunately, most of his points came on foul shots (he was 10-of-11) at the line, so there’s not much here.
I also like how that TV station saves money by using the same cameras and graphics they bought used from the Soviet Union in 1974.
Anyway, Donte Poole (6-foot-3 guard) and Ivan Aska (6-foot-7 forward) also average double digits. The team is fifth nationally in 3-point shooting percentage, ninth at getting to the line, and in the top 20 in defending the 3 and forcing turnovers. They’re not great on the glass, and in general they’re a guard-heavy group that Ken Pomeroy measures as the 333rd smallest team in America. Here are some additional highlights from Wednesday night:
Q. I notice they had to come back from being down 15-4 last night. Isn’t that a bad sign?
— Pedro Jiminez
A. Look, we could sit here all day and play Negative Nancy and Grouchy Gus, man, but is that really how you want to live your life?
In all seriousness, I think the answer to this question is no. They obviously got off to a bad start, but resilience on the road is no easy task, and I think the comeback is a positive indication of the team’s character more than the early deficit is a sign of weakness.
Q. For these fake questions, you’re just using character names from The Dirty Dozen, aren’t you?
— Archer Maggott
A. Now who’s the dork, former high school classmates?
Q. Hey, I really admire your work.
— Wes Anderson, filmmaker
A. Seriously? I’m a huge fan. Can I write your next film with you?
Q. Absolutely not.
A. Man, even fake Wes Anderson won’t indulge my dreams.
Anyway, keep an eye on Murray State. The toughest game left on the schedule comes at Southeast Missouri State on February 15. If the Racers can pull off the perfect season, they’ll be one of the most fascinating tournament teams in recent memory.