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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.