Murray State upset Vanderbilt on Danero Thomas' buzzer-beating jumper two NCAA tournaments ago, and the Racers—barring an unforeseen collapse—are well on their way to another tournament appearance.
The Racers that advanced to the second round of the 2010 NCAA tournament were a talented bunch, and in many ways, they were very similar to this year's undefeated crew. However, there are also considerable differences.
B.J. Jenkins led a very balanced offensive attack with 10.6 points per game.
In 2010, Murray State was one of the few teams in college basketball to have five players in double-figures.
As impressive as that sounds, though, consider this: Six Racers averaged between 9.7 and 10.6 points per game.
The offensive balance they possessed was extremely rare, but it helped them win and also signified how cohesive they were as a unit. With so many options—and no clear No. 1 threat—opposing defenses couldn't plan on shutting down one 20-point-per-game scorer. They couldn't rely on an off-night by a player like Isaiah Canaan because someone else would pick up the slack.
Offensively, Murray State was very similar to the 2007-08 Xavier team, which featured six players averaging between 9.7 and 12.4 points per game. Those Musketeers reached the Elite Eight.
This year's Murray State has a different type of balance.
Isaiah Canaan (18.5 ppg), Donte Poole (14.6 ppg) and Ivan Aska (12.6 ppg) form a clear big three, but—like two years ago—the Racers still have other scoring threats.
Jewaun Long (8.1 ppg), Ed Daniel (7.8 ppg) and Stacy Wilson (5.7 ppg) are all viable options who have contributed outputs well above their averages on various nights.
Daniel in particular has been tremendous since a hand injury sidelined Aska four games ago. The junior averaged 15.3 points through the first three of those games before foul trouble limited him to 16 minutes in the fourth.
Led by Isaiah Canaan's 48.2 percent long-range shooting, Murray State converted threes at a 37.7 percent clip in 2009-10. B.J. Jenkins and Isacc Miles, who also shot over 37 percent, combined with Canaan to bury 167 treys that year.
Though Jenkins and Miles graduated, the Racers have shot the ball even better this year.
Canaan, once again, leads the way at 48.6 percent, and he, Donte Poole, Jewaun Long and Stacy Wilson have combined to hit 122 three-pointers at a 45.9 percent clip. As a team, the Racers rank No. 4 nationally with a 43.1 percent long-range conversion rate.
While the hot shooting of Poole, Long and Wilson should abate—slightly, at least—that of Canaan, a career 45.2 percent marksman, could persist.
Though Murray State has out-rebounded its opponents this year, the Racers aren't as efficient on the glass as they were in 2009-10.
The Racers, who currently average 32.7 boards per game and out-rebound opponents by 1.8, only have three players averaging above four rebounds per game. With leading rebounder Ivan Aska sidelined since Jan. 4, Murray State has been out-rebounded twice—Eastern Kentucky (31-26) and Tennessee Tech (42-35)—despite Ed Daniel's 7.8 boards per game during that stretch.
The Racers averaged 36.3 rebounds per game and won the nightly battle by 6.3 boards two years ago.
Kenpom evaluates teams by calculating their offensive and defensive efficiencies as well as tempo, luck and strength of schedule.
While advanced numbers like points scored or surrendered per 100 possessions don't paint the whole picture, they illuminate tendencies and can help predict outcomes.
In 2009-10, Murray State ranked No. 71 in offensive efficiency with 108.2 points/100 possessions, No. 35 in defensive efficiency with 91.7 points/100 possessions and No. 197 in tempo with 66.7 possessions.
Somehow, the Racers' tempo is nearly identical this year—66.5 possessions—but their offensive and defensive efficiency have basically flip-flopped. Their 111.1 points/100 possessions ranks No. 32 offensively, while their 94.3 points/100 possessions pits them at No. 69 defensively.
Still, the difference is slight on both ends of the floor.
Consider this, though: From 2004-2010, not a single team ranking worse than No. 30 defensively reached the Final Four. As the old basketball adage says, defense wins championships.
After playing—and beating, obviously—the likes of San Francisco, Southern Mississippi, Dayton and Memphis, this year's Murray State endured a tougher non-conference schedule than the 2009-10 team did.
Excluding USF—a good team that simply can't edge Gonzaga, St. Mary's or BYU for the WCC championship—the other three teams are all potential tournament teams.
As a result, Kenpom ranks the Racers' non-conference strength of schedule at No. 99.
The Racers of two years ago played California, Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky, losing to all three. The Golden Bears were the only eventual NCAA tournament team, but the Bulldogs and Hilltoppers each won 20 games.
That year, Kenpom ranked the Racers' non-conference strength of schedule at No. 234.
Despite only a slight disparity in conference RPI, the Ohio Valley is significantly weaker now because of one main reason: Kenneth Faried is in the NBA.
Faried and Morehead State posed the only serious threat to Murray State in 2009-10, handing the Racers their only OVC loss, going 21-10 and ranking No. 84 in the RPI.
Additionally, four other teams ranked in the RPI's Top 200—nothing spectacular until you realize that only two teams other than Murray State are in the Top 200 this year.
Going 17-1 in the OVC in 2009-10 was certainly more impressive than an undefeated conference campaign would be this year.
B.J. Jenkins, Danero Thomas, Tony Easley, Isacc Miles and Jeffrey McClain are no longer at Murray State. Though they were crucial members of the 2009-10 team, the Racers are still experienced.
Both Isaiah Canaan and Ivan Aska played key roles on that team, and they currently combine for 31.1 points per game. Growing tremendously since their respective freshman and sophomore seasons, the duo is more than capable of leading the Racers.
Donte Poole—who is averaging 14.6 points per game—along with Jewaun Long and Ed Daniel played more than 10 minutes per game for the 2009-10 Racers.
After coaching Murray State to consecutive Ohio Valley regular season championships, Billy Kennedy filled Mark Turgeon's void at Texas A&M. His replacement, however, wasn't hard to find.
Athletic Director Allen Ward signed Steve Prohm, a rookie head coach, to succeed Kennedy. After spending 12 seasons as Kennedy's assistant, Prohm has filled in without missing a beat.
He couldn't be off to a better start.