Six days before his team attempts to add to its national reputation by toppling 21st-ranked Memphis, Murray State coach Steve Prohm isn't shying away from the significance of this game for the Racers.
Prohm believes a victory over the Tigers on Sunday could be enough to vault undefeated Murray State into contention for an at-large NCAA tournament bid if the Racers follow up their strong non-league campaign by winning the Ohio Valley Conference.
"A win would be huge for us," Prohm said. "It puts you in position where you'd be in the at-large discussion. If you beat Memphis, it gives you a very good road win against a very, very talented basketball team that was picked to win Conference USA and maybe make a push to a Final Four or an Elite Eight. They're a very good team."
History suggests it's an extreme long shot for even the best Ohio Valley Conference teams to contend for an at-large bid since the league hasn't put two or more teams into the NCAA tournament since 1987. Nonetheless, the Racers would be in better position than many of their predecessors entering league play if they're able to upset Memphis on Sunday.
First of all, Murray State is one of 15 remaining undefeated teams in the nation and its 9-0 start already includes four true road victories and solid wins over Southern Mississippi, San Francisco and Dayton. Secondly the OVC's reputation has improved considerably with three NCAA tournament victories the past three years including Murray State's upset of Vanderbilt in 2010 and Morehead State's memorable win over in-state foe Louisville last March.
Prohm has yet to address the significance of a win at Memphis with his players, but he believes they understand what is at stake. The Tigers fell out of the top 10 after a pair of losses in the Maui Invitational, but they're favored to win Conference USA and talented enough to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
"Our guys know the implications of what a win could do for this program," Prohm said. "They're smart. They follow it enough. They watch all the games and they know all the players, so it's not something we'll harp on. I've learned it's not about the hype. It's the substances that's going to win the game."
It's a testament to the coaching job Prohm has done in his first season at Murray State that the Racers are off to such a strong start. The OVC's preseason poll pegged the Racers third as a result of the graduation of three starters and the departure of Coach Billy Kennedy for Texas A&M.
There are three main factors Prohm cites for the transition between him and his former boss Kennedy going so smoothly.
Murray State's pressure defense is generating stops and turnovers at a rate comparable to its 31-win 2009-10 team. Bench players Latreze Mushatt and Zay Jackson are playing well enough to give the Racers the quality depth they appeared to lack. And guard Isaiah Canaan has made the transition from complimentary player to star, nearly doubling his scoring average to 20.3 points per game while still shooting 52.3 percent from the field.
"Isaiah has done a great job running our basketball team, making timely shots and putting pressure on the basket and getting to the free throw line when we're in a scoring drought," Prohm said. "He's very efficient, he's making tougher plays. His ability to want to lead, to want to be the guy, that has been a huge step for him. I think he's more comfortable in that role."
The duo of Canaan and forward Ivan Aska will have to be productive against Memphis because the Tigers can score in bushels against even the toughest defenses. Memphis overmatched a formidable Belmont team earlier this season with its superior length, depth and athleticism.
"This will be by far and away the toughest environment we've played in," Prohm said. "We'll have to be very disciplined offensively because of their athleticism and pressure. We've got make sure we don't turn the ball over and give them any easy baskets. And then we've got to do a good job keeping them in front of us. They're very balanced and they're very good, so it's a great challenge for us."