Evaluating Murray State’s Chances In March Madness

Posted by rtmsf on March 4th, 2012

David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after observing Murray State at the OVC Tournament this weekend.

If it is possible in college basketball to win 30 games in relative anonymity, Murray State has done it.  The Racers, who became a story in college basketball when they were the last team undefeated team this season, capped off a remarkable run to capture the Ohio Valley Conference championship with a 54-52 victory over conference runner-up Tennessee State Saturday in Nashville.  But while the Racers dominated their league (their only loss coming to the same Tennessee State team on February 9) and ascended to a rare Top 10 ranking that they have held for a good portion of the season, most of America still doesn’t know a lot about this team, which is led by first-year coach Steve Prohm.

Murray's Dream Season Continues, But Now As OVC Champions

The discussion surrounding the Racers over the past few weeks has not been whether they would make the NCAA Tournament without winning the OVC automatic bid – that became a foregone conclusion after Murray State’s BracketBuster win over St. Mary’s – but where they would be seeded.  While Prohm said after the game that a look at the Racers’ body of work would justify as high as a #2 seed, he admitted that a “four, five, or six” is more likely.  What is most important to him is that his team’s loyal fans – and they dominated the crowds in Nashville over the weekend – have a chance to see them play. “I just want proximity. Nashville, Louisville. Somewhere where our fans can come and support our guys,” Prohm said.

More important than proximity to the small town of Murray in Western Kentucky, or the number next to the team’s name when it is announced on Selection Sunday, is the matchup Murray State will face.  What everyone wants to know about the Racers is how far they can go in the Tournament.  Will they duplicate one-loss St. Joseph’s run to the Elite Eight in 2004, or are they more like the 2006 George Washington team that went 26-2 but was eliminated in the Second Round?  If the last several years of the NCAA Tournament have taught us anything about mid-majors, you should underestimate how far the Racers can advance at your own peril.

MurrayState is led by potential first-team All-American Isaiah Canaan.  The 6’0” junior guard has drawn significant praise from those who follow the game closely.  Those who haven’t seen him likely aren’t aware of just how good Canaan is.  He leads the team in scoring at 19.4 points per game and shoots a robust 48.2% from three-point range, which is good for 12th in the nation despite the fact that he attempts more than six threes per game.  But his stats don’t tell the whole story. Canaan’s play is spectacular yet steady, and his calm demeanor and willingness to defer to his teammates are what makes him special.  Former Vermont head coach and current Westwood One analyst Tom Brennan, who watched the Racers the past two days, praises Canaan’s game.  “He would be a great guy to coach. Never changes expression.”

But Canaan isn’t the only member of the Racers’ backcourt to worry about.  Senior Donte Poole garnered OVC Tournament MVP honors largely based on his 25-point semifinal performance against Tennessee Tech.  Fellow senior guard Jewuan Long is the third member of the starting backcourt, and though he admitted after the game that the play wasn’t designed for him, he made the game-winning basket against Tennessee State with 4.4 seconds remaining.   The Racers also bring guard Tay Jackson off the bench.  The talented freshman has struggled to shoot the ball throughout the season, but he is a solid contributor whose quickness and athleticism allow him to break down defenses with penetration, and suffer no drop-off on the defensive end when he is in the game.

While they aren’t big, Murray State’s guards are quick, shoot well, and should give teams fits in the Big Dance.  As with most mid-majors, though, it is the Racers’ inside game that gives cause for concern and creates doubt among many as to whether a deep March run is possible.  The starting forwards, Ivan Aska and Ed Daniel, are solid.  Aska is the team’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, and Daniel, who was in foul trouble early against Tennessee State and saw limited minutes, is the classic “glue guy” every team needs. The only size Prohm brings off the bench for appreciable minutes is 6’9” junior Latreze Mushatt.  If the Racers’ struggles with Tennessee State’s frontline of Robert Covington and Kellen Thornton on Saturday are any indication, an NCAA Tournament foe with significant size is going to give Murraysome real problems.  The Tigers dominated the glass, earning a 34-24 edge in rebounds.  “I think the one concern you would have with them is their size, obviously,” Brennan said.

Steve Prohm Has Effectively Managed His Team in His First Year on the Job (US Presswire/J. Brown)

It is not surprising that a perimeter-oriented team that has had success against quality opponents handles its business behind the arc, but the Racers are exceptional at both making and preventing opponents from making threes. They rank fourth nationally in three-point field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage defense, a testament to their effort on both ends-. “The core thing of our program is about defense.  We’ve been a great defensive team in the half-court,” Prohm said after Saturday’s win.

Because of their lack of size – Aska and Daniel are both 6’7” and Mushatt 6’5” — Murray State’s most obvious struggles come on the glass.  They outrebound their opponents on average and are relatively effective on the offensive boards, but they don’t fare as well on the defensive glass.  And while the Racers may have been able to dominate their opponents behind Canaan and the rest of their lethal perimeter attack, they are bound to face an opponent in the Tournament that tests their ability on the inside.

Given their gaudy 30-1 record, it is not surprising that the Racers’ RPI profile is strong.  While their in-conference schedule has provided few opportunities for top-100 wins, Murray State is 3-0 against the RPI top 50 (Southern Mississippi, Memphis, and St. Mary’s), and owns a fourth win against a top-100 team.  They are more highly regarded in the RPI (No. 24) than they are by either kenpom.com (No. 47) or Sagarin (No. 41), but top-50 rankings in each show that a relatively high seed is in the offering.

Ultimately, neither the lofty ranking in the polls nor these more objective indicators will have any bearing on how far this team goes in the NCAA Tournament.  As with every other participant in the Big Dance, success will depend largely on matchups.  A run to the Sweet Sixteen appears entirely possible, and would undoubtedly be a success that would vindicate Prohm’s club. “If they got through the first weekend, it wouldn’t shock me, not one bit,” Brennan said.  “But the expectations are so high for a team at this level.  There is going to be a lot of pressure.  But they’re really, really good.” Tennessee Tech Coach Steve Payne agrees:  “They’re good.  Their record is what it is and they’re ranked where they’re ranked for a reason.  I don’t know how you can look at them at say they’re not a great basketball team.  They’re the best team in our conference in the 10 years I’ve been here.”

So while a repeat of the recent Cinderella runs that have seen the likes of George Mason, Butler, and VCU land in the Final Four is not likely for this Murray State team, it wasn’t likely for any of those squads either, and if the Racers can survive and advance past the first weekend of the Big Dance, anything can surely happen.

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