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Thursday, January 19, 2012
Donnie Tyndall weighs in on Murray State

By Eamonn Brennan

How good is Murray State? I don't know! Obviously, this is a good team; you can't be 19-0 and not be good. The Racers have a few solid wins on their ledger, including a win at UAB, a win over Dayton, and the win at Memphis that kicked off the whole "Can they go undefeated?" conversation in the first place.

But Murray State's schedule and the woes of the rest of their conference -- the OVC is one of the worst five or six conferences in the country, at least statistically, and that's with Murray State factored in -- have made it difficult to call this one of the 10 best teams in the country, as this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches poll did. It's likewise difficult to begrudge a team that just keeps winning. That counts for something, too. So where should we rank Murray State? How good is this team really?

Murray State's Isaiah Canaan
Murray State leading scorer Isaiah Canaan has helped push Murray State to a perfect 19-0.
Donnie Tyndall should know. The Morehead State coach has been battling the Racers for years in OVC play. He's seen the Racers at their NCAA tournament best two seasons ago; he's seen them when his own Kenneth Faried-led team usurped Murray State in the NCAA tournament (and notched their own first-round upset win over Louisville last season). Tyndall's rebuilding Eagles led Murray State for much of their 66-60 loss Wednesday night; Murray State needed a late 10-0 rally in the final 13 minutes to avoid their first loss of the season.

So, how does Tyndall see the Racers? In Wednesday night's postgame press conference, he nearly stopped himself before giving his honest opinion:
“Just being perfectly honest, I don’t think that their team is as good as their team was two years ago that beat Vanderbilt (in the NCAA tournament) or as good as our team was last year that beat Louisville,” Tyndall said. “But it’s hard to even say that when they’re ranked (12th) in the country and undefeated.”

It is hard to say that. The wins are the wins, after all. And winning at Memphis, for all of the Tigers' struggles this season, is an accomplishment plenty of teams across the country wouldn't have been able to (to use the XBox 360 parlance) unlock. Besides, it should be noted that the Racers aren't even at full strength. They've managed to maintain this undefeated record without the services of their third-leading scorer, senior forward Ivan Aska, who has now missed five games with a broken right hand.

For what it's worth, Murray State has thus far been better this season on a per-possession basis (current kenpom.com rank: No. 39) than they were in 2010, at least by the end of the season (kenpom.com rank then: No. 50). And Isaiah Canaan has become one of the best players in the country, bar none, leading his team in scoring and distribution while doing so in admirably efficient fashion.

Still, Tyndall's opinion is interesting. The entire question -- how good is this team? -- is kind of fascinating. The Racers keep climbing in the polls. They keep on winning. Maybe the question is beside the point. Maybe it's better to stop trying to figure this out, and instead just enjoy the possibility that a team in the modern era -- even one in a struggling mid-major league with no clear competitors -- could finish an entire season undefeated.

Because it may happen. If it does, I don't care how bad the OVC is. Murray State will deserve every word of uninhibited praise we can muster.