Absurd balance carries Murray St. to top of Ohio Valley Conference
Murray State, 22-3 overall and 13-0 in the OVC, has won 13 consecutive games
The balanced Racers boast six players who are averaging between 10 and 11 ppg
Murray State has been an NCAA regular, going 11 times in the past 22 years
Murray State coach Billy Kennedy spent Super Bowl Sunday like many of his fellow Metarie, La., natives. The Saints fan parked himself in front of the pregame coverage at 1 in the afternoon, and concluded his Saints-fest around midnight, listening to a New Orleans sports talk radio show online.
"It hadn't happened in 43 years," Kennedy says in his Cajun accent. "I wasn't missing it."
And while he was an observer of his favorite NFL team's championship run, Kennedy may well be front and center in another championship celebration in the next few weeks. After back-to-back second-place finishes in the Ohio Valley Conference, Kennedy has his Racers at 13-0 in the OVC and 22-3 overall. Murray State has the second-longest winning streak in the nation behind Siena at 13 and its average margin of victory is 19.1 points.
The league season has been somewhat of a breeze for the Racers, but Saturday night they were tested in a last-possession game at home against Austin Peay. Isacc Miles hit a buzzer-beating jumper to secure a 65-63 win and continue the win streak, and Kennedy was pleased to have some pressure on his players in the second half.
"We've picked up some bad habits," Kennedy says. "We've been up at half by 15 or 20 most games, and there is slippage that you can see as a coach. As a player, they are not able to see it because they are winning. So it was good to be able to win a close game."
Murray State features what has to be one of the most balanced scoring teams in the history of college basketball. Through Monday, the top six scorers for the Racers were averaging 10.6, 10.4, 10.3, 10.1, 10.0 and 10.0 points per game.
"When you have that, you can have some guys have some off nights shooting and still win games because you are balanced throughout your lineup," Kennedy says. "That's obviously been a strength of our team. We are an unselfish team and we have good balance. That makes it fun to coach. The biggest disadvantage is late-game situations, but it is a double-edged sword. We may not have a go-to guy, but we can hurt teams with multiple guys."
When asked who his best all-around player is, Kennedy tries to come up with an answer, pointing to Miles, because "he does so many things," but then he begins to praise big man Danero Thomas and his offensive development. After a pause, he finally gives up.
"That's a really good question," he says. "We don't really have a clear-cut best player."
Murray State prides itself on an aggressive, man-to-man defense that is second in the NCAA in steals per game (11.3) and 13th in field goal percentage defense (38.1). As a result of their steals and fast-break opportunities that often result in layups, the Racers are shooting 51.1 percent from the floor -- good for second in the nation.
Murray State was voted league co-favorite with Morehead State before the season, and Morehead sits just two games back at 11-2. However, in the teams' first matchup this season, the Racers won by 30 and want to carry that momentum into the second meeting (Feb. 25) and OVC tournament.
Success is nothing new at Murray State. The Racers are in the midst of their 23rd consecutive winning season, a mark surpassed only by Syracuse, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arizona. But it has been four years since Mick Cronin last took Murray State to the NCAA tournament. Kennedy knows in his fourth year at the helm, his team needs to finish the season in the Big Dance.
Murray State has been an NCAA regular, going 11 times in the past 22 years. It's most significant moment came in 1990, when, as a No. 16 seed, it took No. 1 seed Michigan State to overtime before losing 75-71. If the Racers keep up their current pace, they won't be facing a No. 1 in the first round (SI's Andy Glockner has them projected as a No. 14 seed) and could provide a first-round scare.
"We're a mini-Kentucky here at Murray State," Kennedy says. "People expect us to win every game and win the (OVC) tournament, so that's what we have to be able to do."
And then Kennedy can throw a Super party of his own.
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