The National Spotlight Is Gone, But Murray State Is Playing OnPosted by BHayes on January 27th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is an RTC correspondent. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. He filed this report from Saturday’s game in Jacksonville, Alabama between Murray State and Jacksonville State.
A year ago, I was one of the many that made the journey to tiny Murray, Kentucky, to catch a glimpse of the team that was capturing the imagination of the college basketball world. By the time I arrived in Murray, the Racers had suffered their first loss (after 23 consecutive victories to open the season), but the hype machine was still steadily churning. College basketball’s most notorious hype generator was even in town that weekend; Dick Vitale screamed his way through a fantastic promotion of the Murray State basketball program, but the Racers really needed no help. Isaiah Canaan boosted his All-American campaign by turning in an utterly brilliant display of marksmanship, the Racers improved to 26-1 by soundly defeating a battle-tested St. Mary’s team, and the 8,500 in attendance felt like it was closer to 20,000 strong that day. Murray had long been a town that loved college basketball and its Racers, but never had it been so articulately announced to the nation as that February afternoon.
Fast forward to today. The Racers were once again on my agenda, but this time a long ways from Murray. Jacksonville, Alabama – a small, sleepy town nestled in the Appalachian foothills – was where I had to drive to find Murray State. Steve Prohm’s team arrived with a 15-4 record but left 15-5 as Jacksonville State decided it was finally time to score its first victory over the school since joining the Ohio Valley Conference in 2003. The Gamecocks are no pushover (now 6-4 in a sneaky-good OVC), but Murray State losing conferences games is still a relative novelty. On this day, a Saturday loaded with scores all across the country, the 65-64 final that flashed across tickers went largely unnoticed. When you consider the shock waves a January 26 Murray State loss would have delivered a year ago, it begs the question – where did everyone go?
Let’s get this out of the way first — this Murray team is just not the same group that ran out to that 23-0 start a year ago. The departures of Donte Poole, Jewuan Long, and Ivan Aska have all hurt (as expected), and even Ed Daniel’s substantial improvement has not been enough to compensate for those personnel losses. So the Racers have suffered, but the drop-off of the play on the court has paled in comparison to that of the Racers’ national buzz. No longer are they the sexy mid-major, the team that nobody knows anything about but everyone wants to talk about; no longer are they a viable destination for a Dick Vitale February jaunt. Their moment has come and gone, and a 15-4 record, even if three of the losses were by single-figures to top-80 teams, just isn’t enough to maintain eye contact with the college basketball world.
Aside from three NBA scouts in attendance to get a first-hand view of the diminutive Canaan, there was little fanfare that followed the Racers to Alabama. Sure, the Jacksonville State faithful (special shout-out to as engaged a band as you will find anywhere) celebrated a big win over the OVC’s dominant program, but Murray State will push forward without the media attention it faced a year ago. The passionate Murray community may be just fine without all the national attention, but the Murray case shows just how fickle the whims of the college basketball world can be. For better or worse, the eyes of college basketball fans are often being pulled in a dozen directions; quite literally, there are 347 (and Jack Taylor may tell you, sometimes more) possible destinations of origin for that next captivating story, the next Murray State. So let Canaan and company serve as an example for whoever is up next – you don’t necessarily have to enjoy it, but just know that the spotlight rarely sticks around for too long.