The undefeated Murray State Racers were confronted with a most precarious predicament last Wednesday night. They trailed by nine points with just under 13 minutes remaining in their game at Morehead State. The 6,000-plus fans who packed Ellis T. Johnson Arena stood on their feet, anticipating their team was about to hand its Ohio Valley Conference rival their first loss.
Instinctively, Murray State's leader and top scorer, 6-foot junior point guard Isaiah Canaan, looked over at the bench to see if his coach, Steve Prohm, would signal for a time out. The signal never came. "I was looking to see what he wanted, but sometimes he'll look at me and be like, do we need to call time out? And most of the time I tell him we don't," Canaan said. "He trusts us to make the right decisions."
That trust was soon validated. Over the next six minutes, Morehead State failed to score a single point as the Racers clawed their way back, eventually taking the lead on a three-pointer by 6-3 senior guard Donte Poole. Murray State pulled away during the last four minutes to win, 66-60. That improved the Racers' record to 19-0, and they made it a cool 20-0 three days later when they thumped SIU Edwardsville by 17 points.
An hour before Murray State took the floor for win number 20, top-ranked Syracuse lost at Notre Dame. That left Murray State as the nation's lone unbeaten team. And given the overall weakness of the Ohio Valley -- Murray State is the only team in the OVC ranked in the top 160 of the RPI, and one of just four ranked in the top 200 -- that raises the titillating possibility that the Racers could be the first team to enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten since UNLV in 1991.
Murray State is 11th in this week's AP poll, its highest ranking ever. This team has talent, but there is no Jimmer or Dougie in sight. Instead, the Racers have ascended through old-school intangibles like maturity, poise, and most of all, trust.
While it may appear to casual sports fans that this program has come out of nowhere, that is far from true. For the last three decades, Murray State has been one of the top mid-majors in college basketball. This will be the school's 25th consecutive winning season. Only three programs (Syracuse, Arizona and Kansas) can boast longer streaks. The Racers have won the last two OVC regular-season titles, and their 22 titles are the most of any team in the league. They have played in 14 NCAA tournaments and won two first-round games, the last coming over fourth-seeded Vanderbilt two years ago.
Not surprisingly, Murray State has served as a springboard for several coaches who found lucrative work in power conferences. They include Mark Gottfried, Mike Cronin and Billy Kennedy, who left last spring to fill the vacancy at Texas A&M. In order for mid-major programs to remain successful, they must build a culture that can withstand that kind of change. It helps to promote from within the way Xavier did Chris Mack, Butler did for Brad Stevens and Gonzaga did for Mark Few. All three were assistants who were promoted after their bosses left for bigger jobs.
So when Kennedy exited for College Station last spring, Murray State turned to Prohm, 37, who had served as an assistant to Kennedy for 12 years at three different schools. Though the school never seriously looked at other candidates, Prohm benefited from an outpouring of support from fans, alumni and boosters. He also got a subtle assist from Canaan (pronounced "Cannon"), who let it be known that he might transfer if someone else got the job. Canaan never forgot that Prohm recruited him to Murray State long before Canaan blew up during his senior year in high school. After Canaan led Biloxi (Miss.) High to a 30-3 record and a 5A state championship, several schools tried to convince him to de-commit from Murray State, but Canaan returned Prohm's loyalty. He did so again last spring. Said Canaan, "I told him before the season, 'I've always got your back, good or bad."
Canaan is part of a seven-man junior class that is at the core of this team's success. They were freshmen on the team that went 31-5 and beat Vanderbilt, and in their two-plus years at Murray State they have gone 74-14. Like Prohm, many of the players assumed bigger responsibilities after the Racers lost two of their top three scorers from last season. Canaan came off the bench 12 times as a sophomore. Poole was a backup who ranked eighth on the team in minutes. Senior forward Ivan Aska suffered a severe drop-off from his sophomore to his junior seasons, but before he was sidelined by a broken bone in his hand three weeks ago, he was the team's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. (Aska is expected to return to the lineup this Saturday.)
Eight of the Racers' top nine players are juniors and seniors. All of that experience has enabled them to survive several close calls. They needed two overtimes to beat Southern Miss in the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving. They faced a 12-point deficit midway through the second half at UAB on Nov. 20 but rallied to win by seven. They had Memphis down 11 points on the road on Dec. 11, but they withstood a furious Tigers comeback in the last two minutes to win by four. "We can pretty much say we've been through every situation," Canaan said. "That's part of being upperclassmen. We understand what to do in certain situations in a game, how things are supposed to happen. We really know what it takes to win."
Still, they have never been through the situation they are in right now. Besides the media glare that is only going to get hotter (especially since they have no mid-week game this week), the Racers know that every road arena they play in will be filled to capacity with fans lusting to witness history. They will also be subject of rabid debate -- Will they get an at-large? Where should they be ranked? Where should they be seeded? -- as well as speculation over whether they can reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. "We know the target on our back just grew a lot bigger," Canaan said. "Each game is going to be somebody's championship game. They're going to give us their best shot."
Prohm and his players are saying all the right things about taking the season one game at a time, but they're also wise enough to savor this moment. "This is such a high right now for our school and our community," Prohm said. "You just don't know if you'll experience something like this again."
To keep his players focused on the precious present, Prohm often uses the phrase "eyes up." It is a reference to a passage from Scripture, a daily invocation designed to keep this team focused, humble and hopeful. As the Racers lift their eyes up, the nation's eyes will be increasingly fixed on them, but that doesn't mean they need to call time out. Trust me: These guys are ready for their close-up.
• Why upsets happen: Notre Dame senior guard Scott Martin was shooting eight percent from three-point range coming into last weekend. At one point this season Martin had missed 18 straight threes. He attempted two of them against Syracuse and made them both. He also made five of his eight shot attempts overall. Stuff happens.
• All the talk about Missouri focuses on their guards, but my goodness Ricardo Ratliffe is having some kind of season. The Tigers' 6-8 senior forward had 27 points and eight rebounds in the Tigers' win at Baylor on Saturday. He is shooting 77.2 percent on the season, which has him on pace to break the NCAA Division I record of 74.6 set by Oregon State's Steve Johnson in 1991.
• As for Baylor, we need to stop talking about the reluctance of the Bears' big men to score in the post and start talking more about their inability to defend in the post. Yes, I mean you, Perry Jones.
• Michael Snaer's buzzer-beating, three-pointer to top Duke was truly a shot for the ages. But the more impressive part of the play was the way Luke Loucks aggressively but calmly dribbled up the floor and, instead of firing up an off-balance try of his own, rifled the pass to Snaer in the corner. It was one of the best examples of poise under pressure that I've seen in a long, long time.
• It's also worth nothing that Duke was unable to stop Loucks from advancing the ball, and that the Seminoles shot 54 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range. This may be the worst defensive team Coach K has had in more than a decade.
• Two guys who don't get talked about much for first team All-America but should: Michigan State's Draymond Green and West Virginia's Kevin Jones. Those dudes can play for me anytime.
• So let me see if I've got this straight. Ohio State sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. scores 28 points against Indiana. It was just the second time all season he scored in double figures. He followed it up by scoring two points in 20 minutes in a blowout win at Nebraska. Yup. Got it.
• I'm hearing more and more that NBA scouts consider Weber State guard Damien Lillard, who's leading the nation in scoring at 25.1 points per game, to be the best point guard in the country.
• By the way, is anyone paying attention to the season Oakland guard Reggie Hamilton is having? He's right behind Lillard in the scoring rankings. The kid has broken the 30-point mark in three of his last four games.
• If nothing else good happens at Texas this season (and it has been that kind of season in Austin), I'm glad to see fifth-year senior Clint Chapman going out with a bang. I sat through a three-hour practice in October and watched Rick Barnes mercilessly (but accurately) ride Chapman for being too soft. Chapman has been stuck on the pine all through his career, but he has been the Longhorns' leading rebounder and second-leading scorer in Big 12 games. I hope he feels good about himself.
• I don't know that I've ever seen a more impressive freshman debut than what Jarnell Stokes is doing at Tennessee. In just his third college game, Stokes had 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in the Volunteers' win over UConn. Hard to believe a month ago this kid was still in high school.
• Speaking of Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin was really rocking that T-shirt, which he was wearing to promote a charity set up by Pat Summitt. Since UT won, maybe Martin should wear a T-shirt the rest of the season, just like the St. John's coaches are still wearing open collars and sneakers after they did it for a win over Duke last year. I've always said it was silly that basketball coaches wear suits.
• I've been praising Vanderbilt to the hilt the last few weeks, but once again the Commodores could not summon their defense when they needed it. Mississippi State came out with a 14-0 burst to start the second half, yet the Commodores were powerless to stop them. And how do you let a team shoot 12 more free throws than you on your own home court? Smh.
• One more thing from that game: I heard Jimmy Dykes comment on ESPN that the fans in Memorial Gymnasium got awfully quiet when Mississippi State made that big run. I've always thought the really great crowds are the ones that make more noise, not less, when their team falls behind. Food for thought.
• Michigan 6-10 sophomore forward Jon Horford should be cleared to practice soon as he heals from an injured right foot, but coach John Beilein is still deciding whether to redshirt him. It would really sting to put Horford in the lineup, which would burn his season, but the Wolverines have been pretty thin in the frontcourt since he went out last month. Then again, if Jordan Morgan can play as manly as he did against Arkansas (16 points, six rebounds in 25 minutes), Michigan won't miss Horford so much.
• Add Dayton's Archie Miller to the list of coaches who did well by taking over a program where the coach was hired away instead of being fired. (Think UNLV's Dave Rice, Missouri's Frank Haith and George Mason's Paul Hewitt.) I'm not surprised that Miller is doing a terrific job, but the Flyers' success (they are now alone in first place atop the Atlantic 10) underscores why I've long believed Dayton is one of the best jobs in the country. The fans love their hoops (witness their support of the NCAA tournament play-in games), the facilities are terrific, and the Flyers play in a league where only half the teams are really competing.
• One thing people are missing in the Todd O'Brien saga: The kid might just be a better player than anyone realizes. Mike Davis keeps telling me O'Brien is very skilled for a seven-footer and could really help the Blazers. Maybe Phil Martelli is afraid of being embarrassed that he didn't play O'Brien more while he was at St. Joseph's.
• Whenever I hear an announcer use the phrase "over the back," I remember what the great basketball philosopher king Clark Kellogg taught me: It's OK to be over the back. It's not OK to to be on the back.
• The general feeling among athletic directors and coaches I talk to is that the $2,000 stipend is going to become a reality at some point. It's just a question of how it gets implemented, not whether. Ironically, one of the objections that the lesser programs have is that when the legislation was originally crafted, it was limited to players who were on full scholarships. A lot of mid-majors and low-majors have players on partial scholarships, and they want to have the option of giving money to those athletes as well. In other words, the little guys are looking for ways to spend more, not less. That's encouraging.
• Seriously, Oregon, that court has got to go.
• Seems like every couple of weeks, a different UNLV player catches fire. The last two weeks that player has been 6-3 junior guard Anthony Marshall, who has averaged 22 points on 52 percent shooting over his last three games. Just one more reason I really like this team.
• Since the NCAA's supervisor of officials John Adams mentioned to me the increased tendency of defenders to "walk" into a shooter, I've noticed that it actually happens a lot and is rarely called. I hope the refs clean that up. Just because a defender doesn't hack a shooter's arm doesn't mean he hasn't committed a foul.
• Here's why teams lose: Washington was trailing Cal by three points with less than 10 seconds to play at home last Thursday night. Washington guard Abdul Gaddy brought the ball upcourt and handed it off to senior forward Darnell Gant. To that point Gant had missed all eight of his shot attempts and was 0-for-5 from three-point range. So what does he do? He fires another three-pointer and misses. Hard to believe the Huskies couldn't get a better shot in that situation, especially since Lorenzo Romar had just called time out to set up the final sequence.
• I've been as big an Andre Drummond booster as anyone, but when Jim Calhoun said after UConn's loss to Cincinnati that "we should have an inside game by this time," you knew there was genuine cause for concern.
• Priority number one for Indiana is to take better care of the ball. The Hoosiers are ranked last in the Big Ten in turnover margin. They had a total of 45 turnovers during their three-game losing streak. During the loss to Nebraska, Indiana committed 10 turnovers in the first half, and for the game the Cornhuskers has 16 points off turnovers.
• I can't tell you how much I love that Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin did not call time out before Sean Kilpatrick's game-winning three-pointer at UConn. I get very frustrated when coaches call time out in that situation. All it does is give the other coach a chance to set his defense while you draw up a play that's probably going to break. Remember what Bob Knight used to say: If my kids don't know what to do by that point then I haven't done my job during practice.
THIS WEEK'S AP BALLOT
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (2)
2. Missouri (7)
3. Syracuse (1)
4. Kansas (8)
5. Ohio State (4)
6. Baylor (3)
7. North Carolina (9)
8. Duke (5)
9. Michigan State (6)
10. Georgetown (11)
11. UNLV (12)
12. Michigan (13)
13. Florida (16)
14. Murray State (14)
15. Florida State (NR)
16. San Diego State (23)
17. Mississippi State (17)
18. Marquette (19)
19. Virginia (15)
20. Indiana (10)
21. West Virginia (20)
22. Creighton (25)
23. Saint Mary's (21)
24. Gonzaga (22)
25. Cincinnati (NR)
Dropped out: UConn (18), Illinois (24)
When I released my poll ballot on Twitter Sunday night, I expected a barrage of anger from Syracuse fans who have been on me since I left Ohio State at No. 1 for a couple of weeks despite the Buckeyes' loss at Kansas. (When Ohio State lost at Indiana on New Year's Eve, I moved Cuse to the top.) After all, the Orange were without Fab Melo when they lost at Notre Dame on Saturday. Didn't they deserve the same mulligan?
The barrage never came. I'm sure that was partly because many Syracuse fans (not to mention millions of other decent Americans) were far more interested in the NFC Championship Game than my poll ballot. But I also sense that even Syracuse fans understand that a) Melo is no Sully and b) Notre Dame is no Kansas. Moreover, even though Syracuse deserved to be ranked No. 1 until they lost, the fact is that the Orange's most impressive win came at home against Florida on Dec. 2. Their best RPI wins were at home against Seton Hall (8) and Marquette (12). They have yet to play, much less beat, a top-50 team on the road, and they only have two left on their schedule: Feb. 12 at Louisville (41), and Feb. 25 at UConn (17).
My point is not that Syracuse can't win a national championship. That specter is far more plausible than the notion this time last year that a UConn squad headed for a 9-9 Big East record was going to win it all. I just think it's important to put Syracuse's resume into perspective. This is a very good team, clearly one of the best in America. But we don't have enough evidence yet to make the case that this team is destined for greatness.
As for the top spot this week, I saw some people try to make the case on Twitter for Missouri at No. 1, but I never wavered in my decision to go with Kentucky. Kentucky actually has a slightly better resume -- the Wildcats have wins over Kansas (neutral) and North Carolina (home), and their one loss came on a buzzer-beating, three-pointer at Indiana. Missouri's best wins are over Baylor (road) and Illinois (neutral). Its lone defeat came by 16 points at Kansas State. Plus, I've had Kentucky ranked ahead of Mizzou on my ballot all season long. I need indisputable evidence to reverse that order.
Still, the fact that Missouri is ranked second in the third week of January and scored maybe the best road win anyone has had this season? Incredibly impressive and awfully surprising. My hat's off to 'em.
Elsewhere, it may seem jarring to some that UConn went from 18th to not ranked, but to be honest it was not a hard call. Remember, not only did UConn lose twice last week (to unranked teams I might add, including one at home to Cincinnati), the Huskies have now dropped four of their last six. The road ahead doesn't get easier, with three of UConn's next four games coming on the road.
You can also see several places which illustrate how hard it is to keep head-to-head results in order. There are just too many games by this point of the season. I also feel like it's important to honor the precedents set by previous ballots. Yes, Creighton won at San Diego State, but the Bluejays also lost at home to Missouri State, and the Aztecs just beat UNLV at home and New Mexico on the road. Then again, since San Diego State's win over UNLV came at home, and since UNLV has a win over North Carolina, I still feel like the Rebels should be ranked ahead of both. I was also set to rank Vanderbilt ahead of Marquette this week because Vandy won at Marquette by 17 points three weeks ago. But the Commodores blew that game at home to Mississippi State, so I couldn't pull the trigger.
As for Murray State, I am still capping the Racers at No. 14. If someone honestly and truly believes Murray State is better than the 14th-best team in the country, go ahead and rank them where you see fit. But to just keep moving them up because they're winning while teams from tougher conferences are losing, that doesn't make sense to me. I'm not saying I won't move them higher no matter what happens, but for the time being I'm holding steady.
As usual, there were a lot of teams I looked at closely but couldn't rank because not enough teams lost. My close-but-no-cigar list this week includes Illinois, Weber State, Wichita State, Wisconsin, Harvard, Iowa State and Vanderbilt. Obviously those teams need to keep winning to get ranked, but they also need someone ahead of them to lose their way out. There are only so many spots, and this is a results-driven business.