On November 30th, 2014, I was standing in my kitchen warming up what had to be my fifth plate of Thanksgiving leftovers. Despite originally planning to make the short trip to Nashville to watch Murray State in the Music City Challenge, I decided to stay home, and due to the surprising absence of any video feeds out of Municipal Auditorium, I was listening to the Racers on the radio as my microwave whirred on.
I remember this was all happening during the second half. Drake, who were a lowly 1-5 entering the game, had just hit a three to take a two-point lead with 11:30 remaining. And I remember thinking to myself, “maybe Murray just isn’t that good.”
That night was win number 1 of this Racers current 19-game winning streak.
…and boy, you can’t say that now.
Well, you can, as Austin Peay fans reminded me this weekend. But when you’re trailing throughout, and end up losing by double-digits, it’s pretty hollow when you do.
You don’t have to go far to realize that ‘The streak’ is now on the minds of Murray fans. On twitter, the official Murray State men’s basketball account posted an photo immediately after the game with a big number 19. Fans are calling out media members who don’t put the Racers in the top-25, pointing out ‘the streak.’ Media members are asking one another if the Racers can finish the conference season undefeated. (I know — I was asked just this morning on the radio) The momentum behind it has been growing for a few weeks now, and even the players can’t wholly ignore it.
But what does ‘the streak’ actually mean? Is pressure building? Does it put a bigger target on the Racers back than is there usually?
…and is there a streak without November?
Without November, that terrible 2-4 start, Murray State head coach Steve Prohm doesn’t have a reason to start to #drivethepiling. The Racers, who you might remember shot an inordinate number of three’s during the first month of the year, might not have made the adjustments that helped them become a top-30 offense in the nation. Does the defense, which gave up 89 to Xavier, 93 to Valparaiso, even 77 to Houston, become one of the best in the OVC?
Some of these questions don’t really have answers. But others might.
Does Murray State ‘Need’ To Lose?
This is always one of my favorite questions surrounding teams on long winning streaks, because while you often hear it in hush tones, if you actually ask a fan about it, they always answer “of course not!” whether they secretly think it or not.
In Ohio Valley Conference history, four teams have finished conference play with an undefeated record: Western Kentucky did it three times, and Austin Peay once. Those three WKU seasons all started before 1970.
There were OVC Tournaments two of their three years. They won one in 1965-66, and lost the other, in 1949-50. It should also be noted that in 1949, teams played just eight conference games. Austin Peay went 16-0 in 2003-04. They would lose the OVC Championship game 66-60 that season to Murray State, a team that had won seven straight, and 12 of their last 13 heading into that title game; That one loss was to Austin Peay. Undefeated or not, it wasn’t exactly a shocking upset. So, there’s no where near enough evidence, especially modern evidence in the OVC’s past to determine whether or not a team ‘should’ lose before the conference tournament.
But what about other conferences? We were able to go back to 2000-01, and looked at the conference records, and tournament finish, for teams outside of the “power five” conferences. I’ll use (NCAA) to denote when teams lost to an eventual NCAA Tournament team as well. Here’s the full list:
- 2013-14 Wichita State (MVC) 18-0, WON
- 2013-14 SF Austin (Southland) 18-0, WON
- 2012-13 Memphis (CUSA) 16-0, WON
- 2012-13 Norfolk State (MEAC) 16-0, LOST in quarterfinals to Bethune-Cookman
- 2012-13 Gonzaga (WCC) 16-0, WON
- 2009-10 Butler (Horizon) 18-0, WON
- 2008-09 Memphis (CUSA) 16-0, WON
- 2008-09 Gonzaga (WCC) 14-0, WON
- 2007-08 Memphis (CUSA) 16-0, WON
- 2007-08 Cornell (Ivy) 14-0, No conference tournament
- 2007-08 Davison (Southern) 20-0, WON
- 2006-07 Winthrop (Big South) 14-0, WON
- 2006-07 Memphis (CUSA) 16-0, WON
- 2005-06 George Washington (A10) 16-0, LOST in quarterfinals to Temple
- 2005-06 Bucknell (Patriot) 14-0, WON
- 2005-06 Gonzaga (WCC) 14-0, WON
- 2004-05 Pacific (Big West) 18-0, LOST in title game to Utah State (NCAA)
- 2004-05 Davidson (Southern) 16-0, LOST in semifinals to NC-Greensboro
- 2003-04 St. Joseph’s (A10) 16-0, LOST in title game to Xavier (NCAA)
- 2003-04 Austin Peay (OVC) 16-0, LOST in title game to Murray State (NCAA)
- 2003-04 Gonzaga (WCC) 14-0, WON
- 2002-03 Weber State (Big Sky) 14-0, WON
- 2002-03 Pennsylvania (Ivy), No conference tournament
In summary, since 2001-02, teams which ran the table in their conference regular season won 15 out of 21 conference tournament’s, or 71%. In the OVC since 2001-02, the top seed has won six out of 13, or 46%.
I think it’s safe to put this one to bed: No, Murray State does not need to lose.
Do teams play their best basketball against Murray State because of the streak?
This one is a bit more complex to put together, but I wanted to look at two key areas: Overall offensive efficiency, and three-point shooting — the idea being that teams score more, and hit bigger shots against the Racers.
Automatically, there’s a bit of an issue here: Murray State is second in conference play in defensive efficiency, so logically, teams are going to statistically underperform on offense. But, let’s look at the numbers in conference play anyway.
Let’s start with offensive efficiency. The blue area on the chart below is each team’s OPPP overall in conference play. The green is their OPPP against Murray State.
Only three of Murray State’s 11 opponents (Belmont, Tennessee State, and SEMO) have been more efficient on offense against the Racers than against the OVC as a whole, and two of those were by quite small margins.
So, what about three-point shooting? Let’s compare three-point shooting percentage, the conference average again in blue, their performance against Murray in green.
Again, just three of Murray State’s 11 OVC opponents (TTU, TSU, and SEMO) shot better from three-point range against Murray State than their average against the rest of the conference.
The numbers seem really clear here: Murray’s streak isn’t turning their opponents into superheroes.
A lot of coaches like to use the word ‘special’ to describe players, and often teams. Truth is, every team isn’t special, and every team doesn’t have a special player. But what Murray State has done this year is quite special. Good teams lose. Great teams lose less often. But even great teams often don’t string together wins for more than two months straight. There are a lot of factors that have gone into this streak: talent, coaching, motivation, will, and I truly think the 2-4 start to the season belongs here as well, in addition to a sprinkle of luck. (Kenpom has Murray State as the 12th luckiest team in the nation, and second luckiest in the OVC, if such a metric can actually be measured.)
And there’s no visible sign this streak is anything but a net positive. The Racers aren’t playing tight, they’re still draining shots, and above all they’re still winning.
Assuming every game was a coin flip, a team’s odds of winning 19 in a row is one in 524,228. Obviously, if you’re talented, the odds are a bit higher, since 23 non-Power 5 teams have ran their conference slate unblemished in the last 13 seasons. Whether the streak continues on into a fourth month, or ends in the next week, this team truly deserves to be called ‘special,’ and Murray State fans should realize just how blessed they are that they’ve seen this kind of streak not just once, but twice in just four seasons.
Who’s Number two, part 435,209: So, for those who slept through the past week, here’s the quick recap of what you missed:
- The original ‘Death Valley’ claimed another victim, as Belmont lost both legs of their EKU – Morehead road swing.
- Eastern Illinois led most of the way at Southeast Missouri…except for the end bit.
- SIUE led most of the way at UT Martin…except for the end bit.
- EKU had to hold off a late Tennessee State rally to edge the Tigers by five.
So, who wants to be No. 2 this week? Don’t worry, it’s not a longstanding commitment. In fact, it tends not to last much longer than a week.
I’m standing by two statements I made last week: the East is EKU’s to lose (especially since they’re just half a game back now,) and that UT Martin is the second-best team in the league.
I haven’t even talked about T.J. Sapp yet: After Murray State’s 31-2 year, we learned just how important the ‘role guys’ like Donte Poole and Stacy Wilson really were to Murray. I almost feel we’re going down that same road with Sapp. He was terrific this weekend, posting 22 points in the first half against Austin Peay, helping carry the Racers who were struggling with some severe foul trouble in the opening 20 minutes. I think Sapp’s been good for quite some time, but he’s stuck in the shadow of Cameron Payne a bit. I think this past week has helped remind all of us just how talented that other guard in the backcourt truly is, and how much he’ll be missed when he graduates.
Re-Introducing Marcus Roper: Tennessee State has needed a spark on the offensive end for much of the year. Saturday, they got one from Roper, who dropped 32 on the Colonels, hitting seven three’s in the win. Roper has had three 20+ point games this season, but has struggled since OVC play began. He’s been up and down this season, but the JUCO transfer is showing he can be a deep threat in the next month, and possibly next season.
The shot: This is how you take down the defending OVC champions:
Newell for all-OVC: In case you haven’t noticed, Marshun Newell is having quite the month in Martin. The guard has had seven straight double-digit performances, and double-doubles in three of his last four games. He’s in the top five in conference in rebounding, and top-15 in points, assists, and three-point shooting percentage. Again, he’s 6’3, and averaging nearly seven rebounds a game. There’s a lot of backcourt talent in the OVC, and even on that team, but he has to be on your list of the top-10 players in the league right now.