25 Most Intriguing Teams for 2010-2011: #20 Murray State

A traditional pre-season top 25? They’re fairly ubiquitous this time of year. Everyone has one, but from Duke to Mississippi Valley State and in between, there’s a lot of intriguing teams for the upcoming college basketball season.

In ascending order of squads that pique our interest, our list consists of teams with a rare chance to make noise, have a lot to prove, quirky schedules, or are just named Kentucky.

Follow along. Story lines aren’t just for the nation’s elite.

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After stunning Vanderbilt with a Danero Thomas buzzer beater, the Murray State Racers took the court on the first weekend of the 2010 NCAA Tournament with a swagger uncommon for most 13th seeded schools. Despite posting a team-record 31 wins en route to an Ohio Valley Conference title, nobody expected very much from head coach Billy Kennedy and his unheralded mid-major.

Maybe that's why their second round battle against the heavily favored Butler Bulldogs ended up being such a visual treat. Aside from the obvious shame of watching two small conference contenders square off so early in the tournament, the Racers came out, stood their ground and actually played Butler to the wire. They lost the game by two measly points, but nobody cared. Their effort that day was not something to be scoffed at. By season's end, only a handful of schools could make a claim that they traded blows with the Bulldogs on the grandest of stages, and Murray State happened to be one them. In mid-major land, that's one heck of a recruiting tool.

With his program on the rise, Kennedy was able to secure a handful of under-the-radar prospects who might serve as the backbone of this team one day. Two freshmen (Shawn Jackson and Chris Griffin) were added to the mix, along with two junior college players (Brandon Garrett and Jeff Reese) and UMKC transfer Latreze Mushatt (who will be eligible in 2011-12). Jackson, a 6'9" center who is already the most physically imposing player on the roster, should see extended minutes right off the bat and is the unquestioned star of the group.

Just so you aren't confused by a bunch of new faces, eight of Murray State's ten leading scorers from a year ago are back and hungrier than ever. That means we're looking at a well-coached, tournament-tested team with enough depth and experience to run with anybody in the country. That kind of stuff is can be quite a nightmare for unsuspecting power conference teams. Just ask Vanderbilt.

What happened this summer?
Team members went through a brutal, one-week boot camp designed to build mental toughness for late in the season. Guard B.J. Jenkins summed it up perfectly, "Boot camp was physical, but we are all in shape." Lofty praise was applied here, as Lindy's tabbed MSU the 31st best team in their 2010-11 preview magazine. The Racers' home arena was renamed from the RSEC to the CFSB Center after a hefty $3.3 million donation by the Community Financial Services Bank. Former big man Tony Easley found a nice gig in Poland.

Games that really matter

  • 11/17 @ Mississippi
  • 11/25 vs. Stanford
  • 12/4 @ Morehead State
  • 12/18 vs. Western Kentucky
  • 2/5 @ Austin Peay
  • 2/7 @ Eastern Illinois
  • 2/24 vs. Morehead State

Most intriguing player
Isacc Miles (6’2" guard; senior) – The only player in school history to ever record a triple-double, Miles has held down a starting guard position for 67 straight games. Looking for senior leadership? Start here. This guy not only led the Racers in scoring during their recent NCAA Tournament run, he also finished first on the team with 3.7 assists per game during the regular season. Keep in mind that his minutes actually declined slightly as a junior (26.9, down from 30.1 as a sophomore). The graduation of swingman Danero Thomas makes Miles' versatility even more crucial, and the Kansas City, Missouri native is expected to see an significantly increased workload in 2010-11. It might be time for one of the OVC's best all-around talents to finally get his due.

What’s on the line?
A second straight journey into the March spotlight. Despite the growing amount of knee-jerk reactions you see in the media these days, it really does take time to build continuity as a mid-major powerhouse. Schools like Gonzaga, Butler and Siena carved out their own roles because they won tournament games. That's all there is to it. Murray State's story might be intriguing, but they need to actually build upon their past success in order to stick around near the top of the heap. The Sweet 16 needs to be the goal. Is this the beginning of something special for Billy Kennedy and his MSU team, or are we watching another part-time Cinderella peak at the right time?   

Projected finish
It's probably safe to assume the selection committee won't be doing the Ohio Valley any favors, so getting two schools into the 68-team field seems fairly unlikely. That puts the pressure, once again, on Murray State's ability to run the table in the OVC tourney. For a program that went out of their way to schedule legit opponents out of conference, this is a frustratingly difficult task to deal with. My money is still on a repeat performance in March, but the road to the promised land will be bumpier than anticipated.

    -  Conference: 1st
    -  Postseason: NCAA second round

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