Murray State will drop from No. 7 to out of the top 10 next week after losing to Tennessee State on Thursday night, but coach Steve Prohm doesn’t see how a team that's first loss came Feb. 9 should fade from the NCAA tournament field of 68.
“We’ve got wins over Southern Miss, Memphis and Dayton, and we won 23 games to start the regular season and we were ranked seventh in the coaches' poll,’’ Prohm said by phone after the Racers fell 72-68 to the Tigers to fall to 23-1. “People understand how difficult it is to do that.’’
But Prohm isn’t shying away from the reality: Murray State needs to first win the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title, and that means beating rival Austin Peay this weekend and then Southeast Missouri State on the road before 13th-ranked Saint Mary’s comes to Murray for BracketBusters on Feb. 18.
“The Saint Mary’s game is big,’’ Prohm said. “We have another opportunity to get a top-50 win.’’
Tennessee State coach John Cooper said the Racers were carrying a lot of weight in trying to run the table.
“That’s [a] heavy, heavy burden this late in the season,’’ Cooper said by phone after his Tigers notched the school's first win over a top-25 team. “Teams have been close to them, and that can wear you down. We wanted to be solid and defend.’’
Cooper took over a downtrodden program in 2009 and now has TSU on the upswing. The Tigers are alone in second place in the Ohio Valley at 9-4 (16-10 overall).
“People thought I was crazy for taking this job,’’ Cooper said. “But this confirms to everyone what we were doing. You always need something to show them.’’
Cooper said there now is an opportunity for the Tigers in the OVC tournament, which is played in the school’s hometown of Nashville. He said it bodes well for TSU's program to get some buzz around town in advance of the tournament.
As for the Racers, they now are aware they can’t be complacent. Not after blowing a 13-point lead in the second half Thursday.
“We have to put a stronghold on the league,’’ Prohm said. “This is definitely an NCAA tournament team.’’
It might be, but Prohm also acknowledged the weight of an undefeated run and the pressure of getting surprisingly pushed by SEMO and Tennessee-Martin might have gotten to the Racers.
“You don’t know, but it had been stressful that every single night, everyone expects you to win at Tennessee-Martin by 30,’’ Prohm said. “When Kentucky goes to Auburn, they’re not winning by 30. There are tough wins in these leagues. I don’t want to say a loss is good. We still have an opportunity to win a conference championship.’’
Prohm said the Racers have been giving up too many rebounds, and they were indeed outrebounded Thursday. And in the end, star guard Isaiah Canaan penetrated too deep late in the game, turned the ball over and then committed a foul as the Racers were trying to tie the Tigers in the final seconds. Still, it's hard to fault Canaan for much of anything on a night when he scored 31 points and was 7-of-10 from beyond the arc (10-of-13 overall).
For Canaan and the rest of his teammates, the pressure of an undefeated regular season is now lifted, but the pressure of ensuring a conference title and an NCAA tourney berth lingers.
“We’ve done a good job of keeping everything in focus,’’ Prohm said. “Our goal is to win a conference championship. We never talked about the undefeated stuff with our guys.’’