More than any other team in the league, Murray State is the biggest mystery. The names on the jersey have changed, the faces and numbers unique. No NBA scouts filling seats courtside. The lack of a big afro apparent.
This year, there are no expectations. The stars of last year, of 31-2 the year before, are long gone. The expectant leader heading into this season was first marred by injury, and will soon leave the school and the city altogether.
But that doesn’t change who everyone expects the Racers to be. Sure, most people outside of the city of Murray can’t name a pair of players on this squad. With the exception of the most hardcore fans, many will have never heard of the Racers point guard when he takes the floor against their team.
In many ways, for the first time in his three years, the focus is on the only known commodity: head coach Steve Prohm. More so than previous, the team’s success or lack there of feels to be on his shoulders — it’s not only his ability to recruit, but his ability to adapt to change. This is the year, his first without a certain future NBAer on the roster, we really learn what Prohm, a man who is 52-12 in his career, is truly made of.
While 31-2 will most certainly always be remembered, it’s years like this that can cement a coach’s young legacy…although I’m almost certain he’d beg to differ if I actually dared to say to to him personally. He’d tell me it’s not about him, it’s about the players, and without skipping a beat go into a story about something remarkable one of his young kids did in a recent practice.
I know, because he’s done it many times before.
If this year’s team goes 10-18, Prohm will be the first to take the blame. 21-7, all the glory will go to the players. But make no mistake: while this season is about the ten young men who don the Racers blue and gold, their coach is facing his greatest challenge in his young career.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE…WELL, OLD, REALLY
As I sat down for the first time this season in the CFSB Center Saturday night, the question was simple enough; Just who are these Racers, and what are they capable of. I rarely watch exhibition games, or place much stock in them when I do. By it’s name alone, an exhibition is essentially a practice, played with game rules.
As is often the case, the answer to my question proves itself much more complex. There’s something about this team, through one night at least, that reminds me of last season.
That may not be a ringing endorsement, mind you. Last year’s team, for all their expectations, proved to be somewhat disappointing in the end. Even so, they were close, maybe even one errant dribble close, to punching another ticket to the NCAA tournament, and adding to their own storied history.
But this comparsion is less about the bad, the disappointment, and more about the hope. No matter what happened last season, no matter which “lesser” opponent topped the Racers, there was always the belief that in the end, Murray State would be there, as they so often are.
As I watched this team in their opening exhibition game, I’m already starting to see the hope the runs through Racer Nation. And unlike just even a week ago, I’m starting to see a path to success for this year’s squad. Maybe not a title, an instant return to greatness that every fan of every team would give almost anything to see, but a road to something good.
At worst, this year’s team will provide the base for a bright future.
At best, that future becomes the present.
“They’re different from the outside,” Prohm says of the expectations swirling around the Racers. Murray State was picked in a tie atop the West Division, a vote that occurred before their expectant leader, Zay Jackson, went down to injury.
“Internally, in that community and in that university, they’re the same. They all think we’re supposed to win a conference championship, and that’s our expectation, that’s our goal.”
The comparison to last year isn’t just at the surface. It’s not just about an overall trajectory the team and it’s fans could expect, but it’s even the team’s makeup. Whereas last year’s team was led by the unselfish and incredibly talented Isaiah Canaan, this year’s team is led by a freshman, Cameron Payne, whose basketball IQ and court vision are abundantly clear.
“You don’t want to hype guys up,” Prohm said of his freshman, “but he’s got a chance, if he continues to work and develop, a chance to be one of the great one’s here.”
Instead of Ed Daniel anchoring the inside, there’s Jarvis Williams, a JUCO transfer who stands 6’8 and has the ability to be an offensive enforcer in the paint.
“Williams has been outstanding,” Prohm said at OVC media day. “Really, really athletic. Can score around the basket. As good of a rebounder as we’ve had there at chasing balls down of the offensive end.”
That’s high praise from a coach that’s had a really good rebounder the past two seasons.
Of course, time will tell how well the comparison truly adds up. Both Isaiah and Ed spent four years in the Racers program. Payne and Williams are both just in their first.
Also like last year, I have some questions about the supporting cast. Not necessilary in talent, but consistency, something the Racers lacked throughout much of a troubling January and February last year.
Most of us, including head coach Steve Prohm himself, have said we simply didn’t know what this team would do before they hit the floor for the first time.
“I didn’t know what to expect tonight,” Prohm said after his squad’s exhibition win. “I had no idea. We really only have one or two guys that had played significant minutes at all from last year’s team.”