How Good Is Murray State?

Murray State is the last unbeaten team in college basketball, as the Racers bring a 20-0 record into Saturday night’s game against Eastern Illinois. Who are these guys? Can they make it the rest of the regular season and through the conference tournament unbeaten? And if so, where do they fit among the national powers? TheSportsNotebook takes a crack today at answering all three…

This is a team built heavily around the guards and around three-point shooting. The starting backcourt is Isaiah Canaan, Donte Poole and Jewan Long. The leading scorer is Canaan, who not only produces the points (19 ppg), but is also the one that runs the floor show. It’s a mark that Canaan is a great player, but all things being equal, it’s probably preferable that your point guard and lead scorer not be one in the same.

Poole is a solid complementary piece, averaging 14 ppg, and has a nice touch behind the arc, where he shoots 41 percent, but he needs someone like Canaan to be the main man offensively. Long offers some possibility for improvement. He’s only averaging nine game, but in his limited shooting, he’s hitting 53 percent from the floor and even better from three-point range. Is it worth the while of Coach Scott Prohm to get Long some more looks at the basket? Perhaps try and free him up off a screen and be in position to receive a pass from Canaan after the latter has beaten his man off the dribble.

We should also note that Canaan’s shares his backcourt mates ability to shoot the three, connecting 47 percent. The other thing these guards all have in common is that they run small, with Canaan going at an even 6’0”, Long at 6’1” and Poole at 6’3”, meaning creating matchup problems by moving a guard down low isn’t an option.

The frontcourt is small, with Ivan Aska and Ed Daniel each going 6’7”. Aska is the better player of the two, averaging 13 points/6 rebounds, compared to Daniel’s 8/5 line. Aska is currently nursing a hand injury but is expected to play on Saturday night. Clearly the Racers are going to scare no one with their post presence.

Nor will the bench dazzle anybody. Latreze Mushatt and Zay Jackson are the only non-starters getting any kind of significant minutes and both are guards. Mushatt is in the mold of the starters, with his ability to hit the three, and at 6’5” he does have some size, relative to his position. Jackson is a freshman with a lot of work to do to get better.

It probably comes across to the reader that I’m underwhelmed by the Racers. The Ohio Valley Conference really can’t offer adequate competition. The four best teams after Murray State after Southeast Missouri State (11-9), Tennessee Teach (13-8), Eastern Kentucky (12-10) and Tennessee State (12-10). Those overall records speak for themselves regarding how much Murray is being tested. The push for the undefeated season won’t be seriously tested until February 15 when the Racers go on the road for consecutive games with Southeast Missouri, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech. That trio ends the regular season for a league that has to start its tournament early so they can get the final on TV early in ESPN’s Championship Week.

Let’s say Murray State runs the table. Where do you seed them in the NCAA Tournament? I read in a mainstream source recently (I can’t recall where) that a #1 seed was a distinct possibility. If  you take the Bracketology work of Joe Lunardi at seriously—and I do—he’s got the team currently seeded seventh. That’s a big gap to cover to even get up to a #2 by season’s end, where you’re not going to play anyone even remotely impressive. How does Murray State compare to Lunardi’s current projected #1’s of Syracuse, Kentucky, Ohio State and Kansas? Do the Racers have anyone that could stop the interior post men that all four of these programs have? Isn’t it easy to see Syracuse repeatedly pounding it down to Joseph or Melo, or Kentucky pounding to Terrence Jones. Or Jared Sullinger having the game of his life?  We can consider what Kansas’ Thomas Robinson might do to Aska and Daniel.

But on the flip side, will the backcourts of the nation’s leading teams be ready for what Murray State will throw at them. Would Aaron Craft for Ohio State be mismatched by Canaan in the open floor. Or would a thin Kansas backcourt be run ragged by the deeper Racers? Would the Syracuse defense be able to extend and stop the three-point bombing rampage?

All are fair questions, and it’s why, while I couldn’t see seeding Murray on the top line, I can’t see putting them at #7 along with Seton Hall, Florida State and Illinois (Florida State also looks seeded to low, but that’s another story). When you put the Racers into a head-to-head matchup, I can see just about anything and it revolves around hitting threes. If they get guards open for clean looks and knock them down, anything’s possible. If they were rushed into shots and the threes were taken under duress, we’re talking about a first-round exit.

If the NCAA Tournament were an NBA-style best-of-seven format, I’d be confident going against the Racers. No one can sustain that kind of three-point shooting for an entire series against a good defense, with last year’s Dallas Mavericks being the exception that proves the rule. But in a one-game shot, I can see Canaan becoming the folk hero of this March.