MURRAY, Ky. (BVM) – It seems like clockwork that the Murray State men’s basketball team is making its way towards national relevance. Since the late 80’s, the Racers have been one of those small schools that the NCAA Tournament is built around, a team that does well enough in its own conference to make its way into the field of 64 but likely won’t make too much noise there. However, in the Racers’ case, they’ve made noise on a number of occasions, once as a top 25 team, earning its highest AP ranking and another time having a young phenom leading the charge. This time, this team doesn’t have a once in a generation talent, a stat-stuffer or even a long unbeaten streak, but that’s just fine with these Racers.
This season, Murray State currently sits in the Ohio Valley Conference’s driver’s seat as it makes its way toward conference tournament time. With a 18-2 overall record and an unbeaten mark in OVC play, it appears that the Racers are in prime position to win their 28th regular season conference title. If they are able to ride that momentum to a conference tournament win, the team would make its 18th March Madness field and this time a team–first mentality may make the difference for their Cinderella story.
Murray State is also slowly gaining respect nationally. In the Jan. 24 AP Poll, the Racers received 10 top 25 votes, putting them on the outside looking in. However, with 16-2 Davidson placed at No. 25, the opportunity for a smaller program to jump onto the list is certainly within reach. If the Racers can make it into the polls by year’s end, it will be the first time for the program since March 2015, establishing this team as a special one in program history.
As of Jan. 24, the Racers are No. 33 in the NCAA Net Rankings, No. 48 in the Ken Pomeroy Rankings and No. 5 in the CollegeInsider.com Poll, a strong showing by any stretch.
However, unlike the last time the Racers made the tournament field during the 2018-19 season, Ja Morant is not coming out of the locker room. While Morant helped put the team on a national stage by averaging 24.5 points per game and electrifying the crowds with highlight reel dunks, this Murray State team is built more like that of the 2011-12 unit who entered the field with just one loss on the year and split their scoring between all-time Racer great Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole, who averaged 19 and 14 points, respectively on the season. But that year was full of pressure, as one of the last unbeaten teams in the country thanks to its first loss coming against Tennessee State on Feb. 9, the Racers were given their highest seed in program history and expectations were sky high.
That team would go farther than any Murray State team did before, making it to the Round of 32 before being beaten by Marquette. The Morant led team would get revenge on Marquette in the tournament’s opening round before also getting bounced in the Round of 32. But, this team isn’t one of those teams. This team doesn’t have the same hurdles that those teams had when they made the field.
The biggest benefit for the Racers’ current iteration is their ability to score the ball. While they don’t have a dominating presence like Morant, that may work in the team’s favor as they won’t have to rely on one player being hot throughout games. Instead, the Racers have three double-digit scorers led by junior guard Tevin Brown averaging 17.7 points followed closely by junior forward KJ Williams with 16.8 and sophomore guard Justice Hill with 13.1. This has allowed Murray State to rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring offense with 82.6 points per game.
“I think when you’re building a team you don’t want to be able to beat people one way,” Racers head coach Matt McMahon said after the team’s victory over Tennessee Tech on Jan. 24. “Because if on that night you don’t have it, you’re done.”
Though their offense has been strong, their defense has also allowed the team to excel. While the offense has been scoring over 80 points a game, the defense has been able to hold teams under 65 points a game at 63.4. This gives the Racers a top five scoring margin in the country where they are ranked alongside highly-ranked programs Arizona, Baylor, Gonzaga and Houston.
“We have balance offensively, we have multiple guys in double figures, but then I think even in the grander scheme of things we have balance on the offensive end and the defensive end,” McMahon said. “I think we’re top 50 in the country in offensive efficiency and top 50 in defensive efficiency so that gives you an opportunity to win games in multiple ways. I’m just really proud of our players for staying focused and continuing to work hard on both ends of the court.”
The team does have a bad loss on its resume, dropping a Nov. 22 game to East Tennessee State in the first round of the Naples Invitational, but that was early in the season which tends to happen to even the best teams. However, the team’s second loss, like a fine wine, only seems to get better with age. That’s because Murray State lost to current No. 1 team Auburn at their stadium 71-58 on Dec. 22. Certainly not a bad loss by any means as the Tigers have only dropped one game the entire season. The Racers also have a quality win over Memphis, which was at the time considered to be one of the most talented teams in the country.
While there is still a lot that could happen between now and March Madness, the Racers have put themselves in a strong position to be a Cinderella team in the tournament. With a crucial game against last year’s OVC representative Morehead State, who are also unbeaten in conference play this year, on Jan. 29, the last thing Murray State can do is get complacent. However, constructed as a team with the ability to score from all angles and a track record of postseason success, expect this Racers team to make its own place in program history.