Twenty-four hours ago, the Murray State Racers were the darlings of the human rankers. Despite being nowhere to be found in the top 25 according to pre-programmed ranking systems like the Ratings Percentage Index (MSU is currently No. 34) or the Pomeroy ratings (No. 73), Steve Prohm's team was ranked No. 7 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and had many looking ahead to a BracketBusters meeting with Saint Mary's and a possible unbeaten regular season.
The cause of this disparity is simple. Murray State's season-opening 23-game winning streak was the engine for its rise through the polls. When you win, your ranking improves. It's always been that way, and the Racers certainly didn't invent the rules.
Then this happened:
Tennessee State 72, Murray State 68.
And just as the rules caused the Racers' rise through the polls, Thursday's home loss to Tennessee State will precipitate their fall. Now the questions become exactly how good this team really is and what to expect of it as the postseason approaches.
Isaiah Canaan is a phenomenal scoring point guard, Donte Poole has been lethally effective on offense from both sides of the arc (and at the line), and this entire team earns free throws with a machine-like regularity that even Frank Martin can appreciate. It's no mistake that the Racers won 23 straight.
In fact, I believe Murray State is far and away the best Ohio Valley team we've seen since ... Murray State in 2010. If you don't remember that team, trust me, Brad Stevens does. A bounce here and a rebound there, and the Racers would have advanced to the Sweet 16 instead of Butler. Two years after that team gave the Bulldogs everything they could handle, Murray State has already all but locked up an at-large NCAA tournament bid -- a remarkable statement to make about an OVC team in early February.
As important as the number of losses: When they happen
I want to return to that 2010 Murray State team for a moment, the one that very nearly knocked off Butler in the NCAA tournament round of 32. The precedent it set can help us get a handle on the 2012 team we see before us.
In 2009-10, the Racers lost their first game of the season (at California), then suffered two additional setbacks (at Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky) before starting conference play. The team also lost a close game in league play that season at Morehead State and finished 17-1 in-conference. A 17-1 record speaks for itself, and indeed we saw in that year's tournament just how good that team really was. (MSU beat Vanderbilt in the round of 64.) But what's interesting and possibly even instructive for our current purposes is that the Racers that season outscored opponents in OVC play by 0.25 points per possession, a larger margin than what we're seeing from this season's team (plus-0.19). Also note that the Ohio Valley in 2010 was ranked No. 20 nationally by Pomeroy, while this season the league is ranked No. 26.
In short, that 2010 team was excellent. There is a chance, in fact, that the team from two seasons ago was superior to this group. But because the Racers stumbled out of the gate and suffered some losses early in the season, there was no chance for a national interest to form the way it has this season. As a result, in 2009-10 Murray State was never ranked in the Top 25. Not once. Particularly for a team outside the "major" conferences, crashing the Top 25 can hinge on many factors besides performance, and Murray State's very high ranking this season may not be the best measure of what it's done on the court.
What BracketBusters might teach us
Speaking of in-conference scoring margins, the Racers will welcome Saint Mary's to the CFSB Center next weekend. The Gaels furnish another interesting point of comparison for this MSU team. SMC is ranked in the teens nationally (No. 16 in the AP poll, No. 13 in the coaches' poll), a high position the Gaels attained by, you guessed it, putting together a really impressive win streak (that coincidentally, also ended last night). In addition if you've been following along with me this season as I track the per-possession performance of teams in the West Coast Conference, you know that Randy Bennett's group has outscored its league opponents by 0.22 points per trip. That's an excellent figure, one that's almost identical to what Murray State has done in the OVC. But the WCC, populated by the likes of Gonzaga and Brigham Young, is the superior league, meaning SMC's performance has been even more impressive than Murray State's. Beating the Racers on their home floor is no easy task for anyone -- even the team that actually beat the Racers on their home court. But what we can say is that if Saint Mary's and MSU met on a neutral floor, it would be the lower-ranked Gaels who would have to be classified as the favorites.
What the NCAA tournament always teaches us
At the moment, MSU is projected as a No. 7 seed by my ESPN.com colleague Joe Lunardi. The Racers rank well behind all four of Lunardi's projected No. 10 seeds (Illinois, Kansas State, Purdue and New Mexico) in the Pomeroy rankings. That's an unusual state of affairs for a team that was ranked No. 7 in the nation.
How overrated was Murray State? Very. Prior to last night the Racers are arguably the most overrated team in the nation, and if this were college football that would be a serious problem. Since it's basketball, however, we can restrict ourselves to a word of warning for MSU's opponent in the NCAA tournament round of 64: Watch out. (Ask Louisville what teams from this conference can do in March.) By the time you see Murray State, rankings won't matter anymore, but this offense will still be very good.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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