Sunday, January 8, 2012

Murray State

Since the NCAA Tournament changed from a 48 team tournament to a 64 team "bracket" in 1985 there has never been a number 16 seed that has beaten a number one seed.   Only four times has a number sixteen seed come within five points of the number one seed.   The first was Farleigh Dickinson's four point loss in 1985 -- the first 64 team bracket.  East Tennessee State and Princeton fell by single points in the 1989 bracket.  ETSU's loss came to Oklahoma and Princeton's to Georgetown in one of the tournament's most memorable games.   The Princeton/Georgetown game essentially forced CBS to begin televising every game, as much of America missed one of the tournament's most memorable games because it was only available on ESPN.  Finally, Murray State took Michigan State to overtime before losing to the Spartans by only four points in 1990.

Since all four of those games occurred over twenty years ago arguably, they were aberrations in seeding --  where given the lack of things such as schedule strength, RPI, conference RPI and volumes of other information available as the internet became more developed, the seeding committee under seeded what were likely better teams than their sixteen seeds.   We have now had twenty-one tournaments since then or eighty-four games and not one team has come as close as those four teams since then.

Certainly, I would argue that given the updated format of the tournament with two number sixteen seeds coming from play-in games, the chances of a sixteen seed beating a number one seed will increase as these teams will now have the benefit of playing a game before taking the floor against the number one seed and these teams should be better teams just because they will have beaten yet another team before playing in the "real" tournament.

Murray State's near upset of Michigan State over twenty years ago will once again bring national attention as the Racers remain ranked and undefeated.  The longer the Racers win, the more people will wonder who this team is?  What is their history?   Older basketball fans will remember the name Popeye Jones.  Some will recall the epic game against Michigan State when Greg Coble hit a game tying three point shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.  At that time, no one realized how difficult it would be to duplicate what Murray State was doing. 

During the 1990 tournament  Loyola Marymount was captivating the country following Hank Gather's death.  See link    Ball State was advancing to the Sweet 16.  Xavier was a virtual unknown which also made a run to the Sweet 16.  Connecticut's Tate George hit one of the greatest shots in tournament history against Clemson to save UConn's season in a Regional Semifinal matchup.  UNLV bombed Coach K's Duke squad in the final.  Murray State's loss was an overtime footnote in what was one of the greatest tournaments with some of the greatest moments in tournament history.

In the 2010, Murray State upset Vanderbilt with a last second shot by Danero Thomas, but that was when Murray was a  thirteen seed.  Murray State also owns a victory over Jim Valvano's North Carolina State Wolfpack team in the 1988 tournament as a fourteen seed.   The Racers also came close to pulling upsets in 1997 against Duke as a fifteen seed (losing by only three points) and in 2006 against North Carolina as a fourteen seed (losing 69-65). 

The Racer's have won twenty-three Ohio Valley regular season titles along with sixteen Ohio Valley tournament championships.  The best history of Murray State basketball can be found at:  Murray State's budget of 1.5 million makes it the best funded program in the Ohio Valley Conference making it an ideal stepping stone for virtually every coach the gets the position.  Since 1985 coaches Ron Greene (Mississippi State and New Orleans), Steve Newton (South Carolina), Scott Edgar (Duquense), Mark Gottfried (Alabama and North Carolina State), Tevester Anderson (Jackson State), Mick Cronin (Cincinnati) and Billy Kennedy (Texas A & M) have used the job to advance their coaching careers.   Interestingly, Greene returned to Murray, Kentucky coaching at Murray High School during his final three years as a head coach.  See Link:

Until 1941, Murray State played in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.   In 1941, the Racer's, led by future NBA Hall of Famer Joe Fulks played in the championship game of the NAIB (small college tournament) after defeating Oregon College, Alma, Northwest Missouri State and Santa Barbara.   Murray State also throws Fulk's name into the debate as the father of the jump shot.  This blog previously discussed at this topic in depth, and for more information go to: for more on this topic. 

Fulks, also known as "Jumpin Joe" Fulks scored what was then an NBA record 63 points in a game in 1949.  His record stood for ten years until Elgin Baylor topped it.  As an NBA player, Fulks twice made 49 consecutive free throws -- remarkable even in the modern game.  For more on Fulks go to:

In 1949, the Racers again switched conferences, moving from the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to the Ohio Valley Conference.   In 1951 only ten conferences had automatic bids to what would become the modern NCAA Tournament.  1951 was the first year that the NCAA tournament incorporated sixteen teams and would gradually become the more advanced tournament.  Those conference with automatic bids were -- Big Seven (present day Big 12), Big Ten, Border, Eastern (modern Ivy), Missouri Valley, Pacific Coast, Skyline, Southeastern, Southern and Southwest.  The Ohio Valley Conference and Murray State found itself on the edge of all three tournaments -- NIT, NCAA and NAIB.   Sometimes not good enough for either the NIT or NCAA, without an automatic bid to any of the tournaments, but consideration for its teams from all three tournaments.  Adding to the confusion is the fact the during the '40's and into the 1950's neither the NCAA nor NIT tournament were dominant. 

In 1949 and 1950, Western Kentucky won the Ohio Valley and appeared in the NIT both years.  In 1951, Murray State won both the Ohio Valley regular season and tournament championships yet didn't appear in any post season tournament.  It wasn't until 1956 that the Ohio Valley Conference Champion received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.   The early 1950's present some interesting tournament histories for Ohio Valley teams and for purposes of discussion is included here. 

In 1952, the Racers playing in the Ohio Valley lost the Ohio Valley Tournament final against Western Kentucky which went on to the NIT Tournament.  The Racers rebounded from that loss and advanced to the Championship game of the NAIB tournament again, defeating Centenary, West Texas, Whitworth, and Portland before losing in the final to Southwest Missouri State (73-64).  Murray even reached a number 16 national ranking during the '52 season.

In 1953 Eastern Kentucky went only 16-9 and lost in the title game of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament yet still appeared in the NCAA Tournament as the Ohio Valley Conference regular season champion (not an automatic qualifier).  Western Kentucky went to the NIT Tournament that year having beaten Eastern in the Ohio Valley tournament.  In 1954, Western Kentucky went 29-3 won both the Ohio Valley regular season and tournament championships, and still played in the NIT Tournament as the Ohio Valley Conference still did not have an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.  Researching, I cannot find if they chose the NIT over the NCAA which was entirely possible during this period.  As indicated above during this time neither the NCAA nor NIT was a dominate tournament.   Not until 1956 do we first see the Ohio Valley as an automatic entrant into the NCAA tournament and at almost precisely that season the NCAA tournament becoming the main postseason tournament.   Coincidence?  Maybe, but take from it what you will. 
Murray's best player of all time is probably Jeff Martin (Fulks was easily the best professional).  But Martin is the leading scorer in the history of Kentucky college basketball having scored 2,484 points during his career.  However, Jones led the Racer's to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances was a two time Ohio Valley player of the year and if the program has a catalyst as a player it is Jones.   He scored 37 points in the first round game against Michigan State, led the nation in rebounding as a senior and went on to an eleven year NBA career.   Currently, Jones serves as an assistant coach for the New Jersey Nets.

Jones' son is currently a top hockey prospect playing for the Everett Silvertips.    Jones received his nickname as an infant when his older brother was watching and episode of "Popeye" when his infant brother was brought from the hospital after being born.   From that day forward Ronald has been known as Popeye.   Murray State is glad he came.

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