Night Line: Murray State Has Rebounded, Playing Better Since LosingPosted by EJacoby on February 24th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
While the nation is no longer captured by the potential of an undefeated team, Murray State looks like it prefers it that way. No longer in the first block of SportsCenter highlights or constantly having a spotlight on their Ohio Valley conference games, the Racers have been playing their best ball of the season. Losing at home to Tennessee State two weeks ago was not a fun occasion at the time, but Isaiah Canaan, Donte Poole, and company look like they have turned the experience into an opportunity to play looser and more aggressive, the staple of Murray basketball this season. The Racers got revenge against Tennessee State with an 80-62 win on Thursday night, giving the team another convincing victory since that lone loss. At 27-1, 14-1 in the OVC, and playing better than ever, the Racers couldn’t be happier with how things are playing out and they hope to continue this run into the postseason.
While Murray State’s bid for perfection was giving the program some great time in the spotlight, the added pressure was evident in the team’s lackluster play. In the eight games before the team suffered its first loss, Murray was keeping the undefeated streak alive but also showing signs that it was slipping. The Racers barely hung on to beat Tennessee Tech at home, needed a late run in the final minutes to win at Morehead State, trailed by double digits in the second half versus Southeast Missouri State before storming back for a victory, and defeated 4-26 Tennessee-Martin by just seven points. On February 9, Murray State finally couldn’t make up for its poor play for much of the game and took the home ‘L’ against Tennessee State.
But it’s funny how these things work sometimes. After dropping that home game to the Tigers and their #131 RPI, the Racers received serious backlash from the national media about their legitimacy as a ranked team. Some analysts went as far as saying the team should be on the bubble come tournament selection time if it lost any more games and failed to win the OVC conference tournament. Apparently a top-100 non-conference strength of schedule and nearly flawless win-loss record was not enough to impress the talking heads, at least the ones who reacted so negatively after the loss.
Who knows if Steve Prohm and his players were listening, but they certainly got the message. Since the loss on February 8, Murray State has won four straight games by an average of 15 points. Those games include road contests at the teams ranked second and third in the Ohio Valley, as well as home games against Austin Peay (OVC pre-season favorite) and #24 Saint Mary’s in the marquee BracketBuster matchup. Just as the competition got ramped up, the team has taken its game to another level, and it got its revenge on Thursday night against the Tigers. Canaan scored 24 points in this one, Poole added 16, and the backcourt mates combined to shoot 9-15 from behind the arc. MSU held the Tigers to 40.4% shooting and a paltry 2-15 from behind the arc. Who knows what impact that first loss to Tennessee State had on the team’s psyche, but the results show that the Racers are playing more comfortably as a group. Nine different players scored and played at least eight minutes on Thursday, and the Racers looked stronger than ever.
Murray State still has its doubters, and it definitely is not a guarantee to win anything in the NCAA Tournament. Because, as Coach Prohm puts it, “regardless of where you’re seeded – five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 – you’re going to play somebody good.” But we know one thing for sure, and that’s that the Racers will definitely be dancing. We also have seen the explosive scoring and aggressive perimeter defense that the team has put on display in the past four games, led by the All-American candidate Canaan. The Racers will be long shots to advance far in the postseason as an undersized, mid-major squad, but the collective talent and composure of this team should give it a great opportunity to continue this special season with victories during March Madness.