Winning is nothing new for the Murray State men’s basketball program.
The Racers are in the midst of their 25th consecutive winning season, and are tied with Connecticut for the fourth-longest streak in the nation behind Syracuse, Kansas and Arizona. They have claimed 22 Ohio Valley Conference titles and advanced to the NCAA Tournament 14 times during the 87-year history of the program. Two years ago, the Racers advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling by two points to Butler — the eventual national runner-up.
But it is not Murray State’s success in years past that basketball buffs are buzzing about. It is the spotless record of 20-0 that has grabbed the attention of the national media and fans outside of the campus in the small town of Murray, Ky., located in the southwestern region of the Bluegrass State.
This week, the Racers are the only remaining unbeaten team in the nation, are No. 11 in The Associated Press poll and have climbed up to No. 9 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ Top 25, becoming the first OVC team to crack the top 10 since Western Kentucky in final poll of the 1970-71 season.
The news of MSU’s perfect record has been splattered all over the ESPN bottom line and sports pages all across the nation, especially after Syracuse suffered its first loss of the season to Notre Dame last weekend.
Fans also are catching Racer Fever. Murray State sold out its last home game against Tennessee Tech on Jan. 14, attracting a record crowd of 8,691 at the CFS Center. It was the largest home crowd for the Racers since 1999. And fans want more. Two of the five remaining home games are sold out, including MSU’s next home game, against Eastern Illinois on Saturday.
“All of the attention we’re getting is good, and we’re taking it in because it isn’t often you have opportunities like this,” junior guard Isaiah Canaan said. “At the same time, we know what got us to this point and staying humble about everything. For us to get attention like some of the bigger schools, we’re blessed and glad to be in this position.”
The Racers are obviously thrilled with the perfect start to the season, but it was hardly expected, especially by outsiders. While MSU won the OVC regular season title last season, the Racers had just two starters returning — Canaan and senior forward Ivan Aska. Plus, the Racers were breaking in a new head coach. Billy Kennedy left for Texas A&M, and his assistant coach of five years, Steve Prohm, would be making his debut as a head coach.
“When the season first started we had goals of what we wanted to achieve, but it has been a process for us,” senior guard Donte Poole said. “We were picked to finish third in our conference. We had doubters that said we weren’t as deep or as good and that we wouldn’t make it as far. We used that to fuel our fire and motivate us. Every time we’d come into the gym or weight room, we would go all out so when it came time to play we were prepared.”
Prohm’s coaching style has also been an integral factor in the Racers’ best start in program history. MSU’s 20-0 mark also gives Prohm the fourth-best start for a first-year head coach in Division I history.
“He is a great caring guy,” Canaan said. “He cares about us like we are his sons. You couldn’t ask for anything better from a coach. For someone like that, who wouldn’t want to come out and play as hard as they can each night?”
|WHO ARE THESE GUYS?|
Murray State is the lone remaining undefeated team in Division I. And outside of their homes, none of these guys are household names.
• Before they were Racers
“When adversity hits us, we don’t buckle … we calm down,” Poole said. “That’s something Coach Prohm has instilled in us — when the game speeds up, he wants us to slow down and not make any mistakes.”
With nine regular season games left on the schedule, the Racers are showing no signs of slowing down. They rank fifth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (41.8), eighth in steals per game (9.3) and 16th in scoring margin (+14.5).
“When you become lackadaisical or you start to relax, that can cause things to go downhill,” Poole said. “Every single day Coach tells us to be tough and work hard and there are no days off. We’re just feeding off our coach. I think the team is kind of like how Coach Prohm is as a person — real tough, gritty and all about one another and willing to do everything for a win.”
With a full week between games, the Racers can bask in their accomplishments and enjoy perfection for a few days before the next challenge.
“There are not a lot people that can say they went 20-0 or do some of the things we’ve done,” Poole said. “It’s a great feeling that you want to embrace.”