Game #9-072: Saint John`s vs. Murray State RacersNovember 16, 2012 5:30 pm
With last year's 31-2 record, the Murray State Racers were the mid-major to watch in this year's Charleston Classic. And the Racers showed that in crushing a SEC team on Thursday night in Charleston
. Murray State has always been a successful Ohio Valley team, but has not usually been a major player on the national stage. Like many mid-majors from low conferences, the Racers have won their conference tournament and then gone on to lose once they got to the NCAA Tournament. But what has gotten the Racers to where they are today? Most college basketball teams below the Red Line have had a time in their history where they even more below the national radar than they are now. By contrast, the Racers' opponent this night was St. John's, which in recent years has declined as a program. St. John's legacy in the 1980s is the reason they are above the Red Line in a BCS conference. But the reason a Murray State win would be considered a Red Line Upset is that St. John's history and location in New York City generates more revenue in basketball than Murray State can while facing Big East competition. While more people have now heard of Murray State than in the past, more fans recognize the name St. John's in college basketball.
Like most small colleges, Murray State started in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball, now the NAIA. Murray State basketball began in 1925
and started with games against mostly small colleges from Kentucky and western Tennessee. Some games were not even against collegiate teams, as was more commonplace before World War II. Murray's first conference was the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, consisting of all college teams in Kentucky outside the University of Kentucky. Even current Big East member Louisville was in the conference before their urban location netted them bigger profits than the other Kentucky schools. Murray did grow more than some of the other schools in the KIAC, such as Georgetown College which has good basketball today but has never been able to leave the NAIA. But Murray's location in rural southwestern Kentucky leads to isolation which puts them behind Louisville and even Western Kentucky in Bowling Green. But like the other Kentucky schools, MSU is aided by its surrounding area's love of basketball. Football is played, but not at the expense of basketball. Marshall County just to the north of Murray is one of the top hotbeds for high school basketball in the country.
Murray State was a founding member of the Ohio Valley Conference in 1948, with Louisville in the OVC for a year. The OVC would gain Division I status in 1954, making Murray Division I 14 years prior to nearby mid-major Southern Illinois. After struggling initially in the OVC after a successful NAIA run, Murray State would win the 1964 OVC title to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance falling to defending champion Loyola Chicago in the first round. Murray State has won 15 OVC Tournaments in their history and 23 league titles in their history, making them the premier team in the conference. But prior to its current core group of seniors, Murray State had only one NCAA Tournament win in its history coming back in 1988 under Coach Steve Newton. Murray State was most known for being that team that keeps showing up on brackets that nobody picked. Murray State's history was not too different from most top programs in lesser conferences. But the current group of players have changed the image of Murray State, having won two NCAA Tournament games in the last three years and being the last team in Division I last year to lose a game last season. Tonight in Charleston Murray State would try to build on its legacy and potentially rise into the Top 25 again.
It is not easy trying to build fan support at a mid-major. Many mid-major schools lose potential fans to schools above the Red Line nearby or to professional teams in large markets. Murray State does not have that problem as much, as the big schools in Kentucky or hundreds of miles away in Louisville and Lexington. Murray State is able to develop a loyal following of the Kentucky counties that are well to the west of Bowling Green. In rural southwestern Kentucky, Murray State basketball is the biggest thing going. But that is not a large population base to draw from. And to get fans and support from elsewhere is weakened by its Ohio Valley Conference affiliation. While the internet has provided more online media options for small schools, they still trail their bigger counterparts in availability of games. My 11-year old cousin in Alabama whose parents are Murray State graduates is an Auburn fan. There are no Division I schools in northern Alabama where he lives except for Alabama A&M of the SWAC. To be in 5th grade and follow a mid-major either in Alabama or Murray State would be challenging, as that is not who will be on ESPN or discussed by the other kids in school. Successful mid-majors draw great local support. Trying to attract fans that live more than 50 miles away is often tough. I know many of my fellow High Point graduates who follow another team more because High Point just is not covered nationally, or even well locally. Murray State due to their isolation is also in the same boat even though they have a loyal local following that High Point does not have. Part of Murray State's goal in this Charleston Classic would be to grow national recognition and respect that they often struggled for last year even with a great overall record.
This Friday night game against St. John's was only available on ESPN3. It seems odd that a tournament run by ESPN to help feed the content monster
would not even be available on ESPNU as half the tournament was. To get on national television on most basic cable packages, Murray State would have to beat St. John's and advance to face Colorado in the Charleston Classic Championship. And early on, things did not look promising for the Racers. Canaan shot poorly, and St. John's had a big early lead in the first half. The Red Storm were storming through, and it looked worrisome that St. John's could dominate.
Midway through the first half, the Red Storm led the Racers by 13 points. But the defense of big man Ed Daniel kept Murray State in the game and cut the halftime deficit to 5 points. St. John's held off Murray most of the second half and it appeared that it would not be the big night the Racers wanted. But with about five minutes left in the game, South Carolina native Stacy Wilson took Canaan's role as the hot shooter of the game for Murray State. Suddenly Murray State had the slight lead heading into the final minutes, and the Racers had to protect it. With ten seconds left, St. John's attempted a game tying three that was missed. Daniel got the rebound and before he could be fouled flung the ball most of the length of the court to a wide open Wilson who went for the game clinching dunk similar to the one Daniel had earlier in the game as shown below. Murray State won 72-67 to earn an ESPN2 appearance and another Red Line Upset to go into their national credentials.
This was a big win for the Murray State program. The Racers would be headed for a national TV appearance, which is still important even in the internet age. And these wins are how mid-majors grow. It all comes down to the hard work of a select group of players and coaches to make the difference. In Our Game, our teams cannot afford to go out and buy a championship. Murray State cannot do what Kentucky did across the state in Lexington and get the best NBA prospects out there. It all comes down to what each player and coach can achieve to put Murray State on the map. And this is not just about basketball either. Despite the fact that college students are selecting a school and not a basketball program, Isaiah Canaan and his teammates are the biggest agents in the advertisement of MSU. It is known that college applications go up at national championship winning schools, and if Murray can come close to that their national recognition will extend beyond basketball.