Men's Basketball

Murray State basks in the glow of perfection

Murray State fans got loud for the cameras before the Racers beat Tennessee Tech on Jan. 14. Murray hasn't lost at home since February.
Murray State fans got loud for the cameras before the Racers beat Tennessee Tech on Jan. 14. Murray hasn't lost at home since February. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Murray State basketball has crafted some memorable seasons before.

But Racers fans have never seen anything like this one.

Through 20 games, Murray State is the only unbeaten team in NCAA Division I.

The Racers are No. 11 in The Association Press weekly poll, No. 9 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.

Murray's previous highest AP ranking was 16th, twice in the early 1950s. This is their first season in the coaches' poll, which began in 1991.

"I would say it's been magical, even by Murray State standards," said Dave Winder, color commentator on the Racer TV network and assistant athletics director for media relations. "The Racers have been to 14 NCAAs, so it's not like they've never had successful basketball. But something like this doesn't come along every day."

Murray has won the Ohio Valley Conference championship 20 times, including 14 tournament titles.

The Racers' 25th consecutive winning season also is their first year with Steve Prohm as head coach.

An assistant for five seasons, Prohm took over when Billy Kennedy moved to Texas A&M.

"It's actually been amazing from the standpoint, I don't think anyone expected it," said Neal Bradley, in his 21st season as radio voice of the Racers. "When you have a first-year head coach, we lost three starters (to graduation) ... you have a feeling that you're probably going to be in for some early struggles.

"But they started winning, got confidence; we found out that the senior leadership, plus Isaiah Canaan, it's really a tough team. And it's a team that just will not lose."

Interview requests are off the charts. Winder uses three folders to keep track — requested, pending and done.

Fan interest also has taken off.

"Total surprise. We're very happy," said Janice McClard, a fan of about 30 years who traveled from Murray for last week's game at Morehead. "It's the talk of the town."

Bradley recalled a recent trip to buy groceries.

"Two aisles over, I was hearing conversation, and (Murray basketball) was all they were talking about," he said. "One of them was a woman about 75 years old; the others were young kids in their twenties. It's just all over the place."

The CFSB Center, where Murray has won 16 games in a row, was filled with a record-sellout 8,691 fans two weekends ago for an 82-74 win over Tennessee Tech.

"Eighty-six-hundred people," trainer Eric Frederick said. "Shoot, that's half the population of Murray that came to our last home game. So they're excited."

Last week, more than 6,000 fans nearly filled Morehead's Johnson Arena for a thrilling 66-60 Murray win.

"Being ranked carries a load," said Canaan, a 6-foot junior point guard from Biloxi, Miss. "Every night we come out and play, it's going to be somebody's championship game."

With each win, the load increases.

"We try not to think about the record. That's just extra pressure," said Donte Poole, a 6-3 senior from Las Vegas. "We kind of try to leave that to the media and the critics to worry about the records."

Winder says the players have done well at living the cliché — play 'em one game at a time.

Bradley says that the significance of what was happening was upon him before he knew it. After a 76-72 December victory at Memphis, though, someone pointed out that Murray would be favored in every game thereafter.

An undefeated season is not the focus, though.

"Our goal, first and foremost, is just to win the Ohio Valley Conference championship. That's our goal," Prohm said. "Then, our second goal at the end of the year will be to win the conference tournament. Then it will be to advance as far as we can in the NCAA Tournament.

"We haven't changed our goals. 'Did you ever believe you'd be 19-0?' Well, we thought we could win our first game. Then we prepared for our second game; we thought we could win our second game. I say it all the time: Great seasons, they develop."

Six January wins have developed despite the absence of big man Ivan Aska. The 6-7 senior, averaging 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds, broke a bone in his right hand during a Dec. 30 game at Eastern Illinois. He is expected to rejoin practice this week and play Saturday against the same Eastern Illinois squad.

Murray, atop the OVC in scoring (75.6 ppg) and scoring defense (61.0 ppg), is led by Canaan. He is second in the OVC in scoring (18.7 ppg) and three-point percentage (47.2), third in free-throw accuracy (82.9) and fourth in assists (4.0).

"He's Murray State's point-guard version of our Kenneth Faried a year ago," Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall said. "He's probably the best mid-major point guard in America, like Kenneth was the best mid-major big guy in America.

"He's a guy that is going to have the ball in his hands every time down the floor. He's a very, very talented guy because not only can he shoot it, but he makes his teammates better, he gets to the foul line, he doesn't miss much from the line. ... We're only halfway there but, right now, there's no doubt about it — he'd get my vote for player of the year."

Poole is ninth in the league in scoring (14.6), eighth in three-point percentage (41.0), and second in free-throw accuracy (85.4) and steals (2.3).

Jewuan Long, a 6-1 senior from Jackson, Tenn., adds 8.7 points a game. Ed Daniel, a 6-7 junior from Birmingham, Ala., averages 7.7 points and 5.0 rebounds and leads the OVC with 1.5 blocks a game.

Latreze Mushatt, a 6-5 junior from Saginaw, Mich., who has started in Aska's absence, contributes 3.8 points and 4.8 rebounds.

Bradley says Prohm gives players freedom to operate on offense. He is not as quick to call timeouts as many coaches, trusting that his players will execute.

So far, they have.

Murray hasn't drawn such attention since knocking off highly favored Vanderbilt in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

This might be better, though.

"Some people have asked me 'how does this compare to when the Racers beat Vandy in the tournament?' " Winder said. "I said, 'well, that was like for four days. This is going on six weeks of national attention.' To me, professionally, it's the best experience I've ever had."