About a month ago, I joined Andy Katz on his weekly podcast to discuss a variety of topics. One of them was Murray State and its place among the country’s elite teams. Andy asked if I could envision any scenario in which the Racers could ascend to into the top 10 of the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. My answer came quickly.
“Heck, no,” I said.
Yet here we are, just one month away from the postseason, and Murray State is tied for seventh -- seventh -- in this week’s poll. All the credit in the world should be given to first-year coach Steve Prohm and the Racers, who will take a 23-0 record into Thursday’s game against Tennessee State. Still, the obvious question is impossible to ignore.
Is this really the seventh-best team in the country?
The answer, of course, is no.
Last week Murray State struggled to defeat Southeast Missouri State (81-73) and Tennessee-Martin (65-58). So I’m not sure I’d like the Racers’ chances against Duke, Kansas, Georgetown, Michigan State or some of the other teams ranked below them in the poll. That’s not a knock on the Racers, who can only play the schedule they’ve been given. But while bigger schools across the country are battling it out in tough, parity-laden leagues, Murray State is building up a gaudy record in a weak Ohio Valley Conference.
The Racers are a great, great team. But they’re not one of 10 best in America. And even the people voting them that high know it.
Here are some other quick thoughts about this week’s poll:
Kentucky is in first place for the third straight week, but it will be interesting to see how long the Wildcats can maintain that position. John Calipari’s squad hosts Florida on Tuesday before traveling to Vanderbilt on Saturday. Kentucky has played just one ranked team (Louisville) in the past two months.
Saturday’s 74-71 victory over Kansas helped Missouri retain its No. 4 ranking. That seems about right for the Tigers, who have a huge game coming up this weekend against No. 6 Baylor in Columbia.
Speaking of Baylor, no team in America is facing a bigger week than Scott Drew’s Bears. Baylor hosts Kansas on Wednesday before traveling to Columbia for Saturday’s game against the Tigers. That’s two top-10 teams in four days. Baylor lost to Missouri 89-88 on Jan. 21 in Waco and to Kansas by 18 points Jan. 16 in Lawrence. The Bears are searching for their first conference title in men’s basketball since 1945. Baylor has won four straight games but has not looked all that impressive in doing so. It squeaked by unranked Texas A&M (63-60) and Oklahoma State (64-60) last week.
Cameron Indoor Stadium is an excellent venue when it comes to ambience and nostalgia. But can we please stop calling it “one of the toughest environments in college basketball”? I’m not even sure it’s in the top 10. If the place was so intimidating the Blue Devils wouldn’t be toting home losses to Florida State and Miami. The latter of those setbacks occurred Sunday and caused Duke to fall to No. 9 in the poll, which seems about right for this team.
I was glad to see that Creighton didn’t fall too far in the aftermath of Saturday’s loss at Northern Iowa. The Bluejays went from No. 12 to No. 15. Road games are tough in any conference --especially when you’re playing against your head coach's former school, which was the case Saturday for Greg McDermott.
It’s hard to tell what to make of No. 20 Marquette after the Golden Eagles’ 17-point loss at Notre Dame on Saturday. Marquette was without Davante Gardner, who has been a huge presence for Buzz Williams’ team in the paint. With Gardner in the lineup, Marquette had won seven straight games entering its tilt with the Fighting Irish. I’m a little skeptical of Marquette at this point but certainly not ready to write it off.
No. 20 Virginia has made tremendous strides under Tony Bennett, but until the Cavaliers beat someone, I’m not sure I’d keep them in the Top 25. They entered their two biggest games of the season (against Duke and Florida State) with a ton of hype and lost them both. Virginia also struggled to beat so-so teams such as North Carolina State (61-60) and Clemson (65-61) and lost to conference bottom-feeder Virginia Tech -- at home, no less. I don’t think they’ve earned their ranking ... yet.
It’s probably tough for unranked schools such as Gonzaga, Iowa State, Southern Miss and Notre Dame to see Harvard ranked No. 22. The Crimson is 20-2 with a few nice wins over St. Joseph's, Florida State and Central Florida. But Harvard’s résumé isn’t nearly as impressive as those of the aforementioned teams. And on Saturday it struggled to beat Columbia before emerging 57-52 at home.