Murray State Brings Winning Streak to NCAA Battle With WVU
The tendency is, when a Power 5 Conference school plays a low profile opponent like Murray State, drawn as WVU’s first-round opponent in the second game of Friday’s NCAA Tournament opening session in San Diego, is to take them lightly.
This problem is compounded when that team has just come through a deflating, yet strength-sapping final in its conference championship game, much as WVU did when it lost to Kansas for the third time this year on Saturday.
WVU (24-10) better not fall into that trap.
First of all, Murray State (26-5) is a solid opponent with a classy history, a cradle of coaches of sorts over the years, and as recently as two years ago, the Mountaineers were kicked around by little known Stephen F. Austin in the first round of the 2016 Tournament.
There are three holdovers on this year’s WVU team from that group that was beaten 70-56 — Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr. and Esa Ahmad.
“I think when our guys watch the film they will understand how good they are,” Huggins said of the Racers, who bring the nation’s longest current winning streak of 13 games into this battle between No. 5 and a No. 12 seeds.
“We talked about it when we were back in Kansas City, about not being ready to go that game. With JC and Dax leading the charge I don’t think we’ll have the issue we had.”
In the loss to Stephen F. Austin, you will recall, WVU was just dreadful after losing to Kansas in the Big 12 final, 81-71. The Mountaineers fell behind in Brooklyn by three at the end of the first half and were blown out in the second half, having no answers for Thomas Walkup, who scored 33 points, 19 of them from the free throw line on just 20 tries.
Carter was 1-for-7 in the game, 0-for-4 from 3, with two assists and four turnovers for 4 points; Miles was 1-for-3 with two points and Ahmad had 10 points, but shot the ball only four times with three rebounds.
Only Devin Williams showed up with 12 points and 17 rebounds. So who exactly is Murray State?
Well, first you should know it is in Kentucky, where they worship God, the Kentucky Derby, bourbon and basketball… and not necessarily in that order.
Murray State may not be UK or Louisville, but it is king of the Ohio Valley Conference.
It’s all-time top scorer was Jeff Martin, who scored 2,484 points from 1985 to 1989, but it’s top scorer per game these days is guard Jonathan Stark, who averages 17.2 points a game for his career and 21.8 this season.
“He’s so efficient offensively, can score in a variety of ways,” Racers’ coach Matt McMahon said on CBS. “He’s a relentless worker and really delivered this year.”
Stark, of course, will be introduced to Carter, the Doctor of Defense.
If you had to pick an all-time top player at Murray State, though, it would be a name you may be familiar with, Popeye Jones, who scored 2,017 points at the school and is the top all-time rebounder with 1,374, which led the way to a decade-long NBA career.
The Racers have played two of the most memorable games in NCAA Tournament history, upsetting No. 4 seed Vanderbilt in the first round in 2010 on a buzzer better by Danero Thomas and, as a No. 16 seed in 1990, taking No. 1 seed Michigan State to overtime.
In all the history of the NCAA Tournament, a No. 16 seed has not beaten a No. 1 and Murray State is the only No. 16 to force overtime.
This tradition grows out of a roster of top coaches.
McMahon took over from Steve Prohm, who currently is the up and coming coach at Iowa State. Prohm started his career at Murray State by winning his first 23 games and in 2011-12 strung together a 31-2 record.
Prohm took off after his boss, Billy Kennedy, left Murray State following a 31-5 season that included the Vanderbilt upset. WVU is all too familiar with Kennedy, being the coach of the Texas A&M team that beat the Mountaineers in the season opener this year.
Before that was a coach Huggins is all too familiar with, his former assistant at Cincinnati and now the Bearcats successful coach Mick Cronin, who was 69-24 in three years at Murray State.
Going back further there was Mark Gottfried, who won three consecutive OVC championships in his three years at the school before leaving for Alabama, and Ron Greene, who actually was SEC Coach of the Year after winning 23 games at Mississippi State, then left to coach his alma mater, Murray State, for seven years.
Murray State’s toughest opponent faced this season was a Auburn, a game the Racers lost, 81-77.
The Racers were the first team to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament and are after their first victory in the big dance since they earned their last berth in 2012. That year, the No. 6 seed Racers defeated Colorado State handily in the opening round, before losing to Marquette.