As Murray State star Isaiah Canaan considered last spring whether to enter the NBA draft or return to school for his senior year, his mind kept drifting to all the things he'd miss by turning pro.
He wanted to earn his degree, to experience senior night, to lead the Racers back to the NCAA tournament and to soak up the experience of being one of the nation's most talked-about college basketball players as a senior. All of that seemed like a lot to give up to Canaan, especially when slipping to the second round and not receiving a guaranteed NBA contract was a realistic possibility.
For all of those reasons, Canaan is back at Murray State and ready to lead a program that has become very accustomed to success during his tenure. The Racers started 23-0 last season, won the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title and won a game in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
Despite the loss of three key starters from last year's team, Canaan believes the Racers have the ability to make another similar run in his senior season. He joined me this week to chat about his decision to return to school, how losing his home in Hurricane Katrina changed him as a person and what his favorite moment from last year's record-setting season was.
JE: You attended LeBron's camp, Deron Williams camp and Chris Paul camp this summer. What kind of feedback did you get from the NBA folks on where your game is at and where you need to improve?
IC: They all said I looked like a fullback because of how strong I am. They said I should continue doing what I've been doing but show that I can be a point guard at the next level. They realize my job is to be a scorer at times because I have to for me to be good, but they wanted to see if I can be a floor general, run a team and set up my teammates. I can do whatever a coach asks me. If they need me to be a pass-first point guard, I can do that. I'm not a selfish player. Here at school, I have to step into a scoring role sometimes for us to be successful, but at the same time I can get my teammates involved. Some people realized that. Some people still want to see if I can do that.
JE: Everyone at those camps are some of the best guards in the nation next season. How did you feel like you stacked up?
IC: I don't like to toot my own horn — I like other people to say it — but I felt like I matched up pretty good. I'm a lot stronger than some of them. That helped me going to the goal and drawing contact. If people want to press me, I'm quick enough to go by them and I can shoot it better than some of the guards. I felt like I matched up well. I don't back down from nobody.
JE: You've spoken in the past about having to take refuge in the attic of a church in Biloxi with your grandmother as the floodwater from Hurricane Katrina covered other rooftops. How do you think that experienced has changed you as a person?
IC: It helped me grow up a lot faster than I would have. Having your life flash in front of you, it makes you realize you can't take anything for granted because it can all be taken away from you. I was in the ninth grade — 14 years old. To have everything taken away is hard, but at the same time it helped me grow up quick and mature and it helped me see life more maturely than I would have. There can't be anything worse than losing everything you worked for all your life, so I use it as a tool to make me a better person in my everyday life.
IC: Definitely. In the game of basketball, you're going to have ups and downs. Not everything is going to be the way you want it. I've learned to deal with it.
JE: How long did it take you and your grandma to rebuild and get back on your feet?
IC: It took us about three years. We stayed in a FEMA trailer for two years and then we rebuilt my house. So it took us about three years to get back to where we were and really get back on our feet.
JE: Share the story of how you ended up at Murray State. When did they begin showing interest in you, and what made you choose them even after some of the more high-profile programs finally started recruiting you?
IC: They saw me a little bit my sophomore year and really stayed on me hard my junior year and going into my senior year. Coach Prohm did a great job recruiting me. He was at my school a lot. He was at all my AAU tournaments a lot. It got to the point where my friends knew Coach Prohm was at my school before I did. He did a great job recruiting me. He told me if I kept working, I'd be a special player. He told me the tradition at Murray State was all about winning, and I wanted to be a winner. Some people ask why I didn't turn them down and go to the bigger schools once they started coming in. I always say that once someone believes in you, that's a big deal. That's why I stuck it out, and I don't ever regret it.
JE: So it got to the point where your friends knew Coach Prohm too?
IC: They always said, 'That man is here to see you again. That school is here to see you again.'
JE: You played about 20 minutes per game your freshman season and you averaged 10.4 points and shot really well from the perimeter. Were you at all surprised by the impact you were able to make in college right away?
IC: They told me I could help with the ability I had. I didn't know how I'd fare in college my first year. I paid close attention to all the new things I needed to learn when I got here. I didn't think I'd have the impact I had, but at the same time I knew I still had a lot of work to do to be one of the best at this level. That's what I wanted to do. I like challenges. So I took it on as a challenge.
JE: You sank a half-court shot from your knees during the first half of a game against Southeast Missouri State your freshman year. Even after everything you accomplished last season, is that still a shot that comes up a lot?
IC: That's one of the most talked about ones still. To this day, when people ask I tell them I don't know how I made it. They all love it here. It was a crazy shot, but I'm definitely not going to try it again in a game. If I'm messing around in a gym and somebody wants to see it, I'll try it. They had me reenact it on the news to see how many I could make in 10 tries. I think I said three, but I ended up making one. After I made it, I went to elementary schools and middle schools, and they wanted me to reenact it. From doing that, I got pretty good at it.
JE: So if I had you take 10 of those now, how many do you make?
IC: I'd make three for sure, now.
JE: In the second round of the NCAA tournament your freshman year, you guys had a shot to beat the first Butler team that made the national title game, but you had a big turnover on your final possession. Two-part question for you. How important was that for you guys to see you could compete with one of the nation's best teams? And how motivating was that last possession for you personally?
IC: It was important personally and for the team because right then and there we knew we were capable of competing with some of the better teams in the country. We have used that ever since to motivate us to try to be the best team in our conference and to try to beat the best teams in the country. I guess you can say we showed that a little bit last year. The team we had last year was all on that team. I think that's what made us so successful last year was we were an experienced group, we had been to the tournament and we knew what we were capable of doing. And personally for me, I used [the last possession] as a learning tool. If I ever get in that situation again, I'd know how to succeed and come out of that. The positive thing is it happened at a young age. I'd rather it happen then than go out like that my senior year.
JE: Favorite memory from last year's amazing season?
IC: The Austin Peay game. That was the game when I had 27 points in the first half. You get in a rhythm where you feel like you can't miss. I told my teammates to keep finding me. They kept going in, so I stayed at it.
JE: Your season ended last year with a 62-53 loss to Marquette. Were they just the better team, or were there things you guys feel you could have done differently?
IC: We didn't have our best game. Marquette was a great team, but a few lapses we had defensively we shouldn't have had. The shots we made all season weren't falling for us. We were right there, but Marquette was the better team that day and they deserved to win. We can't really blame nobody besides ourselves.
JE: Take me through your decision last spring to come back to Murray State for your senior season rather than enter the NBA draft. How tough of a choice was that for you?
IC: That was one of the tougher ones. That and deciding what college to go to. The dream to play professionally was right there in your face. It was a toss-up whether I'd go late in the first round or sometime in the early second. A lot of people I talked to said I'd go in the first round, but I didn't want to take that chance of maybe having a bad day at a workout and getting picked in the second round, which is really not guaranteed anything. I knew we had a good team coming back and a good recruiting class. I knew we'd be able to do some of the same things we did last year. I knew I'd get better over the summer with all the camps I'd been invited to. I wanted to experience my senior night, I wanted to graduate. Some people have said I'll be one of the most talked-about players in college basketball this season, and I just wanted to experience those things.
JE: Do you think your decision might have been different if Coach Prohm had taken another job?
IC: It would have. I'd be lying to you if I said that didn't matter. Him coming back, it just made me more comfortable with my decision.
JE: Describe your relationship with Coach Prohm. How has it grown over the past four years?
IC: His personality and the type of person he is, I know I can depend on him if I ever needed it. He's one of the people that believed in me. He looks out for the team and the players before he looks out for himself. It's hard to find that in coaches. He's a great guy. I try to give back to him the best I can. Me being 9 1/2, 10 hours from my hometown, he's someone I can lean on away from home if I ever had any tough times or situations. I know he's one of the people that would be there. I know he has my back just like I have his.
JE: You lost some key players from last year — Donte Poole, Ivan Aska and Jewuan Long in particular. Can you guys have the same success you did a year ago?
IC: I believe so. The core of our team is the seniors. They were on the team last year. I've got a good group around me. And then I really like our young guys. Dexter Fields sat out last year and a couple of the freshmen will help us this year. Our schedule is going to be tough, but I feel like we can compete with any team we get matched up against this year. It's going to be a challenge, and I'm all about those.
JE: Do you get a sense there are people who question whether you guys can repeat what you did last season? And do you draw motivation from that?
IC: Oh yeah, absolutely. We know it's going to be tougher this year. Last year, we might have snuck up on some of the bigger teams, but this year we're the ones being hunted. A lot of people have questioned, 'If I stayed in college, is there anything left to do?' Some people were saying it was going to be hard to match what I did last season.' For me to be better than last year, I have to work on every aspect of my game. Ball handling, decision making, different ways to get my teammates open, different ways to get myself open. I used the Chris Paul camp, the Deron Williams camp and the LeBron camp to learn and to be a better player overall, and I feel like those camps helped me.
JE: What's it going to take for you to view your senior season as a success?
IC: Winning our conference, getting to the NCAA tournament and going further than last year. Even if we're not the last school undefeated this year, we'll be one of the teams talked about for sure. I'm going to try to do everything in my power to make sure that's possible, and I feel like it is possible.