The group of Murray, Kentuckians who make the nearly three-hour journey to Memphis 41 times a year will tell you it's worth it. Then again, what might you expect from a group that has had a courtside seat to one of the most remarkable journeys in basketball.
The evolution of Grizzlies guard Ja Morant from accidentally recruited high school player to mid-major sensation to NBA All-Star starter, has been a breathtaking ride folks around Murray State University -- a blue-blood mid-major located in the basketball-obsessed Bluegrass State -- are only too happy to recount.
"He's a once in a lifetime player, a once in a lifetime person," said Racers coach Matt McMahon, who would know. The 43-year-old Oak Ridge, Tennessee, native presided over Morant's meteoric rise, which included 54 wins over two seasons from 2017 to 2019, consecutive Ohio Valley Conference regular-season and tournament championships, and consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, including a first-round upset of Marquette in 2019. Morant had a 16-assist triple-double in that win.
"The energy and joy he plays the game with, he brought that to our program," said McMahon, who called Morant "a culture builder." One who "impacts winning and makes every person in your organization better."
The effects are ever present in McMahon's program today, which joined AP No. 1 Auburn on Saturday in becoming the first teams in Division I to 20 wins this season.
The winning actually started with regularity some 40 years ago when SEC Coach of the Year Ron Greene, a former Murray State player, left Mississippi State after one season to take over a Racers program that had fallen on hard times. In his first year, the 1978-1979 campaign, Greene went 4-22. The next year he won 23 games. Murray State has had just two losing seasons since.
The school has produced 14 All-Americans and 25 NBA draft picks, most notably Popeye Jones, Isaiah Canaan, Cameron Payne and Morant. Shaq Buchanan went undrafted but currently plays in the G League for the Memphis Hustle.
Murray State has also been a launching pad for young coaches. Names like Mark Gottfried, Mick Cronin, Billy Kennedy, Steve Prohm and now Prohm's successor, McMahon, who has emerged as a top candidate for a Power 5 job, should he have interest.
"You're talking about a guy who comes to the gym every day with an unbelievable amount of energy," says Racers guard Tevin Brown. "There's never really a dull moment playing for him."
Racers in both name and pace of play, Murray State ranks among the top 10 scoring teams in Division I at 82.1 PPG and fourth in scoring margin at 18.5 PPG. Brown and fellow junior KJ Williams lead the way, each averaging better than 17 PPG. Both started as freshmen alongside Morant on the 2018-2019 squad.
"[KJ] has really stepped it up in league play," said McMahon, noting Williams set a school record for field goal percentage (69.8%) his freshman year almost exclusively "on dunks and drop-offs off Ja's dribble penetration. Now he can score with either hand in the post, he shoots it well and his rebounding (second best in the OVC at 8.9 RPG) has gone to another level."
Brown is on a level of his own, and in many ways always has been in the eyes of Murray State. The top recruiting target of then-Racers assistant James Kane, Brown was competing at a small AAU event in Kentucky in 2016, when another player stole the show -- a largely unknown 6-3 dynamo who's now internationally renowned. Both players ultimately ended up at MSU, the decision of a lifetime for Brown.
"I couldn't have made a better choice," Brown said. "Playing with [Morant] got me a lot of notoriety, but it also made me a better player. Somebody with as high a basketball IQ as he has, it's helped my game in every aspect."
Sophomore guard Justice "Juice" Hill and South Carolina transfer Trae Hannibal, whom McMahon calls "a middle linebacker playing guard," complement a group that hung with Auburn before losing 71-58 in late December. But the signature moment of the season to date came inside that familiar arena in Memphis -- the one Racers Nation journeys three hours to, 41 times a year.
Down 14 at the half to Penny Hardaway's team inside FedEx Forum, Murray State outscored the Tigers 48-32 over the final 20 minutes, capturing a 74-72 win.
"It just showed we have great character as a team," Williams said. "Coach Mac told us, 'Don't worry about the score, play up to the principles we value, execute on the offensive and defensive standpoint,' and we came out with the win."
Now 20-2, 10-0 in OVC play, the Racers could be poised to make even more noise in March, a journey Murray, Kentucky, would again welcome.
"We have a mature team, who's stayed focused on the next game," McMahon said. "They've done a great job balancing the success we've had and the attention that comes with it, with the hard work and discipline that winning requires."
Other mid-major mastery:
• What a 48 hours in C-USA! First Jordan "Jelly" Walker beat the buzzer Thursday at Western Kentucky:
🚨🏀 KC's Dagger of the Day Pt. II 🏀🚨@UAB_MBB does it in dramatic fashion!! Jelly Walker delivers the game winner to lift the Blazers past Western Kentucky! The amazing @Hassel_Chris with a PERFECT call of this dagger! @CBSSports pic.twitter.com/sFPLNPVmka— Kevin Connors (@kevconnorsespn) January 28, 2022
• Then, Saturday in Ruston, Tylor Perry delivered the dagger for North Texas!
• Cool angle of Jalen Williams' game winner for Santa Clara in Thursday's takedown of BYU:
• Gotta imagine if there were a KC's Community College Top 10, the buzzer-beater of the week would go to Isaiah Gaines and the Northwest Mississippi CC Rangers:
A full court game-winner for Isaiah Gaines and the @NWCC_Rangers (MS) beat Itawamba Community College (MS) in Fulton, MS. #SCTop10 | #SportsCenter— Brad Logan (@BradLoganCOTE) February 1, 2022
What a call from Adam Gore (@GoreSports).
🎥 via @NWCC_MBK pic.twitter.com/CYiGsVxMIm
• Penn sophomore Jordan Dingle has posted back-to-back 31-point performances. It's the first time a Penn player has had consecutive 30-point games in Ivy League play, and the first time it has happened period since Keven McDonald did it in the 1975 Sugar Bowl Classic.
• Longwood is the lone undefeated team in Big South play at 8-0, the program's best start to the league season since becoming conference members in 2012-13.
• UNC Wilmington extended its winning streak to 12 games this week, a new school record. Coach Takayo Siddle's team posted the first perfect January in school history (8-0) and owns the third-longest active winning streak in Division I.
• On the subject of winning streaks, Jacksonville State has won 10 in a row and remains the only unbeaten team in ASUN play (8-0). Coach Ray Harper's team posted an eye-opening 77-67 road win over Liberty, snapping the Flames' 45-game home winning streak.
• Speaking of Liberty, few NBA teams, let alone college hoop teams, have as dazzling a pregame introduction as the Flames:
Court 🅿️rojection 2.0 pic.twitter.com/EbM7Jd8CE6— Liberty Men's Basketball (@LibertyMBB_) January 28, 2022
• Cool to see the Summit League expand its postseason tournament to 10 teams starting in 2023. The two extra teams will give the event an extra day of games next march in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
KC's Mid-Major Top 10 for this week:
1. Murray State Racers (Ohio Valley)
Last week: 5
Annnnnnddd NEW!!!!!!!!!!!!! What a rise for the Racers who joined Auburn on Saturday in becoming the first teams in D-I to 20 wins this season. Interestingly, Coach Matt McMahon's team hasn't lost since that Auburn game on Dec. 22, winning 10 straight and eight games in a 17-day span. Murray State is 10-0 in Ohio Valley Conference play, with an average margin of victory of 19.1 PPG. A July move to the Missouri Valley Conference can't come soon enough for the OVC's remaining teams.
Next up: at Austin Peay (Thursday)
2. Boise State Broncos (Mountain West)
Last week: 8
Just one team in D-I has a longer winning streak than the Broncos, and it's AP No. 1 Auburn (18 straight). Coach Leon Rice's squad has won a ridiculous 14 in a row, eight straight in Mountain West play including road victories at Utah State, San Diego State and Fresno State. Since Nov. 30 only one team (Nevada) has scored more than 63 points on Boise State. Thursday's battle at Wyoming will be a fight in a phone booth.
Next up: at Wyoming (Thursday)
3. Saint Mary's Gaels (WCC)
Last week: 6
The Committee is not a fan of defending losses, so let's simply underscore the Gaels' W's this season. Coach Randy Bennett's team has two Quadrant 1 wins (at Utah State and at San Francisco) and three Quad 2 wins (Oregon on a neutral court, Notre Dame on a neutral court and vs. Missouri State). Sure the final two weeks of February are an absolute winepress (Gonzaga twice, vs. BYU and San Francisco), but at 5-1 right now in the ultra-competitive WCC, the cabernet in Moraga sure has a smooth finish.
Next up: at Portland (Thursday)
4. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (Missouri Valley)
Last week: 1
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. For four weeks the Ramblers held down the top spot in KC's Mid-Major Top 10, but after two losses in four games to close out January (albeit to very good Missouri State and Drake teams), there's mild cause for concern. Coach Drew Valentine's team can give the Committee a figurative dose of melatonin with a bounce-back effort against Missouri State, who beat Loyola by 10 in Chicago just two weeks ago.
Next up: at Missouri State (Sunday)
5. Davidson Wildcats (Atlantic 10)
Last week: 2
It was a bounce-back week for the Wildcats following that Jan. 26 hiccup against VCU. In his 1,000th game on the Davidson sideline, coach Bob McKillop earned a hard-fought win over La Salle, then Tuesday night in Olean the Cats outlasted St. Bonaventure to move to 7-1 in A-10 play. With just three more regular-season games against teams with winning records, the Cats might want to buy, not rent, here in the poll of record.
Next up: at George Washington (Saturday)
6. UAB Blazers (Conference USA)
Last week: 7
Jordan "Jelly" Walker's heroics saved the day in a Thursday road win over Western Kentucky (see above), but coach Andy Kennedy's bunch was tripped up by Marshall just 48 hours later. Regardless, we're not just blowing smoke at a UAB team that's 12-3 since Dec. 1 with wins at Saint Louis, North Texas and Louisiana Tech ... these guys are fire. Four of the first five games in February are at Bartow Arena. We're bullish on the Blazers.
Next up: vs. Middle Tennessee (Saturday)
7. BYU Cougars (WCC)
Last week: 3
How good has coach Mark Pope been in his three seasons in Provo? Thursday's tough loss at Santa Clara, followed by Saturday's puzzling defeat at Pacific, marked the first time the Cougars have dropped back-to-back regular season games on Pope's watch. That's the positive spin. Here's the sobering one: Both losses were unacceptable for a team with aspirations to stay on this list. Absolutely no better way to bounce back than the opportunities this week inside the Marriott Center against San Francisco (Thursday) and AP No. 2 Gonzaga (Saturday)
Next up: vs. San Francisco (Thursday)
8. Iona Gaels (MAAC)
Last week: 9
A second straight week inside the poll of record for coach Rick Pitino, who celebrated an equally prestigious milestone Sunday by winning his 800th career D-I game. The Gaels toppled St. Peter's 85-77 for their seventh straight win and 10th in 10 tries in MAAC play. You and me talking here -- Iona is probably not losing a game in conference this season.
Next up: at Canisius (Friday)
9. Wyoming Cowboys (Mountain West)
Last week: Unranked
The university that produced #BillsMafia franchise savior Josh Allen is in the midst of what could be its finest season since the days of Fennis Dembo. Coach Jeff Linder's team has won eight of nine to move to 17-3 and 6-1 in the rugged Mountain West. Hunter Maldonado's career-high 35 points in Monday's OT "Border War" victory over Colorado State was the Pokes' signature win of the season to date. Also, there's no cooler nickname in the game than the "Dome of Doom," aka Wyoming's Arena-Auditorium.
Next up: vs. UNLV (Friday)
10. North Texas Mean Green (Conference USA)
Last week: Unranked
We might have known the Mean Green would surface here after their solid showing at the ESPN Events Invitational in November. Coach Grant McCasland's club battled both Kansas and Miami before leaving Orlando with a win over a tough Drake team. Since that Miami loss, UNT is 13-1, and keep in mind this group has been there and done that. In last year's NCAA tournament, North Texas stunned 4-seed Purdue in a thrilling first-round OT win. No one will be stunned this season if it happens again.
Next up: vs. UTSA (Saturday)
Others receiving votes: San Francisco, San Diego State, Colorado State, Belmont
Dropped out: Colorado State (No. 4), San Francisco (No. 10)
ESPN Stats & Information researcher Jared Berson contributed to this article.