On Monday's ESPNU College Basketball Podcast (we're just full of podcast references today), our own Andy Katz listed the country's remaining unbeaten teams. In doing so, he made the point that Murray State -- which just won its toughest game of the season at Memphis Saturday -- is the team most likely to hold on to their undefeated record longest this season.*
He's right. Here are the opponents Murray State will face from now until the end of January. (It's an arbitrary cutoff, but for the purposes of a quick gander, it works):
Arkansas St. (Home)
Tennessee Martin (Home)
Eastern Illinois (Away)
Eastern Kentucky (Home)
Austin Peay (Away)
Tennessee Tech (Home)
Morehead St. (Away)
SIU Edwardsville (Away)
Eastern Illinois (Home)
Here's the thing: The schedule doesn't get much tougher after that. Murray State will get a BracketBusters game in there somewhere, of course, but that game is at home, for one and in general, the OVC is a really weak league this season. (Where have you gone, Kenneth Faried? Oh, right, the NBA. Nevermind.) So forget the end of January, or whether the Racers can be the last undefeated team in the country. Let's get to the bigger question: Can Murray State make it through the whole season without a loss?
Ken Pomeroy devoted a blog post to just that notion this week. Ken's answer, based on his single-game projections and the strength of the various teams involved, is a resounding: "Hey -- why not?"
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.
One insane statement not in that blockquote but also worth mentioning: According to Ken, Murray State has no less than a 70 percent chance to win any single game left on their schedule. That's a combination of a two things: Murray State being really good, and the rest of the OVC being really bad. (It is ranked No. 27 in Pomeroy's conference rankings. And yes, that calculation includes Murray State.)
If the Racers were not the Racers and were instead, say, the Duke Blue Devils, you can bet someone would have already written the requisite "Don't look now, but this team might go undefeated!" column. As in most years, that column would be wrong. But in Murray State's case, it may just be warranted.
Of course, it's still a long shot. There's a lot of season left, a lot of opportunities to have that one off game. It only takes one seemingly harmless Ohio Valley squad to crop up and play lights-out on any given night. That's college hoops.
Murray State's undefeated chances are, in the big scheme, still very slim. But if any 2011-12 team has a shot to get to March without a loss on its record, it's the Racers. Stay tuned.
*It should be noted that Syracuse has a very good chance of being that team, too. If the Orange get past their road game at NC State Saturday, they'll be heavy favorites in pretty much every game until they travel to Louisville in mid-February.