By Greg Echlin
Murray sits in the southwestern corner of Kentucky. It’s a college town that has never buzzed like this over Murray State’s basketball team. The hot topic this week centers around the weekly coaches’ poll.
A group of Murray State supporters meets each week at a burger joint across the street from the CFSB Center where the Racers play their home games. They talk Racer basketball, this year under first-year coach Steve Prohm. Among the group is Benny Purcell, the Racers’ first career 1,000-point scorer .
“Murray State’s had great basketball and history. In the ‘30s they had great basketball,” said Purcell, who played in the early 1950s. ” Since ’48, we’ve only had about four or five teams that weren’t competitive. And they weren’t terrible. It’s a history of basketball. That’s what it’s been, so I would put this team right up with the best we’ve had.”
Point guard Isaiah Canaan, a junior from Biloxi, Mississippi, leads the Racers in scoring with an 18-point average. The play of Canaan and his teammates have allowed Prohm to successfully make the transition into his first job as a head coach. Prohm was an assistant for five years under Billy Kennedy, who moved on to Texas A&M last May. Before making their current run through the Ohio Valley Conference schedule, Prohm’s Racers made some noise during the
“We’ve given Memphis their only home loss,” said Prohm. “Southern Miss is 20-3. We beat them for the Great Alaska Shootout. We beat Dayton. They’ve beaten the likes of Temple and Alabama. We’ve got some very good wins.”
The Racers figure to be the highest seed the Ohio Valley Conference has ever had. Since the seeding system began in 1979, no OVC team has been seeded higher than Western Kentucky, 7th in 1980.
“Whether we’re a 3-seed or a 10-seed, it doesn’t matter,” said Prohm. “Your first round game is going to be extremely competitive and extremely tough. We’re going to have to be extremely prepared.”
With the tournament looming, Racer fans are savoring every moment of this exceptional season. Navy blue and gold T-Shirts are a hot item at the university book store. Store manager Karol Hardison explains that a new motto will be unfurled each week for the the rest of the season.
“At least once a week, maybe twice a week with different sayings on them,” Hardison said. “This week, Saturday will be our ‘Be Bold. Wear Gold.’ So we’re concentrating more on the gold shirts. The first one that came in is ‘We Refuse to Lose.’ That came in at the end of last week.”
But even with all the gold evident in Murray, Kentucky University’s blue and white can still be seen around campus. Wildcats fan J.R. Owens, who grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky, admitted he’s climbing on the Racer bandwagon.
“I’ve never really been a Murray State fan until this year,” he said. ”It’s always Kentucky. But we’re doing good, so I’m becoming a fan.”
The Racers’ winning streak has led to exposure on the airwaves and in the social media. But university president Randy Dunn said the current success of the men’s basketball team has led to other benefits.
“We’re a school of about 10,600 students. We typically have 1,500 or 1,600 new freshmen or transfers come in,” Dunn said. “We’re seeing our admits for next fall up by about 300. That’s very significant. We’re not doing anything drastically different, so we do attribute a lot of that to the prominence and visibililty of men’s basketball.”
Last year, Virginia Commonwealth came out of nowhere to make the Final Four. Butler University, a mid-major from the Horizon Conference, advanced to the title game against Connecticut. Prohm hopes this year’s Racers can follow their example.
“What they’ve done is let you know it’s possible,” Prohm said. “That the door can be knocked down. Now we just have to put ourselves in a position to try to get to the door so we can knock it down one time. We’ve got a great group. How far we can go, I don’t know, but I like this team’s chances on a neutral floor against almost any team.”