NO. 6 SEED WEST REGION RPI 21
In his first season as a head coach, Murray State's Steve Prohm has used several mantras. There is Great seasons develop, to remind his Racers not to get ahead of themselves with visions of winning streaks and victory totals. There is also Eyes up, aimed at keeping the team focused amid distractions. Finally there's one that's lifted from a leadership handbook that Prohm received as a gift: Don't seek honor. Honor will find you.
Has it ever. Thanks to a gaudy 30--1 record—the best in Racers history—all sorts of honors have been bestowed on the campus in Murray, Ky. The accolades began rolling in during the Racers' 23 straight wins to open the season (the nation's best), which led to the team's first Top 25 ranking since 1998 and eventually the Ohio Valley's regular-season and tournament titles. The campaign also earned Prohm conference coach of the year honors and junior point guard Isaiah Canaan a spot as a Wooden Award finalist.
Add the No. 6 tournament seeding, and it's unlikely that the Racers will sneak up on anyone. Nonetheless, Prohm says, "I think we'll still have that underdog feel, because we're Murray State."
In 2010 the then 13th-seeded Racers upended Vanderbilt in the first round before losing by two points to eventual runner-up Butler. This year the Racers could well be the Butler-like darling. One reason is Canaan, a sturdy and quick 6-footer with the dynamism (19.2 points per game, four games of 30-plus) to emerge as a folk hero. His 47.3% three-point accuracy and his ability to connect in bunches (seven games with five or more treys) can help fell nearly any foe. Add Jewuan Long (44.9% from three) and Donte Poole (39.2%), and the Racers (40.6%) are dangerous from downtown—the tournament's great equalizer.
Ball pressure from Long, the OVC Defensive Player of the Year, and Poole keys a D that holds foes to just 29.5% shooting on threes. That pressure also helps force turnovers on 24.1% of possessions and set up one of the nation's most effective transition offenses.
The Racers have been subject to the are-they-for-real skepticism that often follows a mid-major school that racks up wins, but this team has prevailed in tournament-caliber tests. See its double-digit victory over then No. 21 Saint Mary's and a win at then No. 21 Memphis. "If anybody wants to doubt us, that's on them," Canaan says. "We feel we can compete with whoever."
IN 2010 MURRAY STATE LOST TO EVENTUAL RUNNER-UP BUTLER. THIS YEAR THE RACERS COULD WELL BE THE BUTLER-LIKE DARLING.
JIM BROWN/US PRESSWIRE
BOOK ON ISAIAH Defenses must slow Canaan, a Wooden Award finalist.