With an All-American candidate and five other rotation players back from a team that won 31 games last season and fell just a few buckets shy of the Sweet 16, Murray State enters next year with high expectations once again.
That's great news for the Racers in every respect except one: Scheduling.
Opposing coaches are wary of agreeing to home-and-home series with Murray State since the Racers are good enough to beat anyone next season yet don't carry the prestige of a high-major or more established mid-major. As a result, Murray State coach Steve Prohm has been unable to fill two vacant home dates because potential opponents either aren't willing to come to Murray or aren't good enough to help the Racers' quest to contend for an at-large bid again.
"It's just tough," Prohm said. "We've still got to get two more home games because so far we're on the road for a tournament and four other games. We haven't gotten anything confirmed yet, but hopefully we can get a couple good programs in here that can help us in the long run."
Since Murray State plays in a league that was 21st in RPI last season even with the Racers' unprecedented success, Prohm knows the only way his team can build a resume worthy of an at-large bid is to notch marquee wins out of conference. Therefore he's trying to put together a schedule that strikes a perfect balance between giving the Racers ample chances to pick up big wins but not over-challenging them.
On Wednesday, Prohm accepted an invitation to the Charleston Classic, a solid eight-team tournament in mid-November featuring Baylor, Colorado, St. John's, Auburn, Dayton, Boston College and Charleston. Murray State previously agreed to a home game against Western Kentucky and road games at Dayton, Lipscomb, Evansville and Arkansas State.
The ideal scenario for Murray State would be to bolster that slate with several strong home-and-home series, but Prohm acknowledges that getting a Kentucky or Louisville to come to Murray is unrealistic. Instead he has tried to follow the same formula Xavier and Butler have in building their programs by targeting 10 or 15 mid-major programs from top 12 RPI leagues like the Missouri Valley, CAA and Atlantic 10.
"Our mindset is trying to get some of the top mid-major teams and we're close on some things," Prohm said. "I don't think we're ever going to get a high-major program to start a series at our place, but that's fine. Hopefully we can get some good mid-majors and continue to bring excitement to our school."
It would be a shame if Murray State can't find some worthy opponents because the Racers have a roster that should be showcased.
Second-team All-American Isaiah Canaan bypassed the NBA draft to return for his senior season and try to build on a junior campaign in which he averaged 19 points and shot 45.6 percent from behind the arc. The talented point guard will anchor a starting lineup that also should include forward Ed Daniel and guard Zay Jackson.
A year ago, Murray State defeated Memphis, Southern Mississippi and Dayton out of conference and won its first 23 games en route to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Another undefeated start next winter is probably unrealistic, but Prohm wants to make sure his team has a chance to get back to March Madness.
"We would like to be able to play in a tournament like the Charleston tournament every year and have good series with good mid-major programs," Prohm said. "Then we'll have to play a buy game or two at some point, so we'll have to play some high-majors. But we want to get our team better and continue to get our program in the national spotlight."