The Murray State Racers went to the FedEx Forum and beat the Memphis Tigers 76-72 yesterday. It was a nice upset, the kind that will give the Racers at-large cachet, but the bigger story now is the rest of Murray State’s schedule. They play in the Ohio Valley Conference, a league that is never terribly strong, but his season it is worse than usual, sitting 27th in my conference rankings, a ranking that includes the fact that Murray State is pretty good. Austin Peay (at 2-9 no less) is the second highest-rated team in the league at 184th.
In addition to a slate of 16 league games, they have remaining non-conference contests against 216th-ranked Lipscomb and 204th-ranked Arkansas State, both at home. The Racers have no less than a 70% shot to win any single remaining game. They will also get a BracketBusters game that is not shown on my schedule. That game, though, is also at home.
The stars have aligned for a long run with a zero on the right side of Murray State’s record. College basketball being what it is, the chance of entering the NCAA tournament unbeaten is still quite remote. I have the Racers at 9% to get their conference tourney unbeaten. When you factor in the BracketBusters game and the two games they’ll play in the OVC tournament, the chance of getting to the dance unbeaten is probably in the neighborhood of 6% or so. The chance of losing four games is actually better than the chance of them losing none.
Like any team, Murray State will have 2 or 3 games where they play well below their normal performance, and their opponents will have some games where they play over their heads, and when those happen in the same game, the streak will be over. (Plus, OVC schedule-makers didn’t do the Racers any favors by letting them play the presumed conference doormat, SIU Edwardsville, just once.)
Still, at this point in the season, 6% is probably one of the higher figures we’ve seen since UNLV achieved the feat 21 years ago. If a power conference team was entering league play unbeaten, there would be some debate about whether they could go unbeaten. And normally, some poor pundit would take the side that they can. Murray State is in a situation far more reasonable because they are so much better than any team in their conference.
A power conference team is really never in that position, which is what has made most of those previous discussions somewhat ridiculous. Murray State’s predicament is fairly similar to Saint Joseph’s run in 2004, although there’s a case that Racers’ distance from the rest of its conference is greater than the Hawks’ distance from the rest of the Atlantic 10 that season.
The Racers almost surely won’t run the table, but it will be interesting follow their run, which could last a while. It would also be fascinating to see what the men’s basketball committee would do with a 29-2 team whose second-best win may not be against a tournament team. (I suppose there’s no guarantee their first-best win is against a tournament team.) I’m sure the “eye test” will be brought up. In this case, I’ll refrain from criticism, because I’m not sure any other test will be all that helpful either.
I expect the next few weeks will tell us that Murray State is much better than the rest of its conference, and we already know that on one night they were better than Memphis. Exactly how good that makes Murray State for seeding purposes is open to a lot of interpretation.