Marquette-Murray State Preview
March 17, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - One thing kept Murray State from making a Butler-like run through the NCAA tournament two years ago.
The Racers got sent packing by the original in 2010, their inexperience exposed when freshman guard Isaiah Canaan's desperation pass in the closing seconds was poked away. Time expired as Canaan chased the ball into the backcourt, and the two-point loss carries a sting that lingers to this day.
"An NCAA tournament game to go to the Sweet 16, you turn the ball over and you're only a freshman? That can hurt you, that can devastate you, can take you away from the game," Donte Poole said Friday. "He took it as motivation. Whether it's him making a shot or him making a play for someone else, he just got smarter."
Now Canaan and the sixth-seeded Racers have the chance to prove it. Murray State (31-1) plays third-seeded Marquette (26-7) on Saturday, a spot in the regional semifinals on the line once again.
"We've come a long way as a team," Canaan said. "We try to stay level and remember the things that got us to this point, try to remember to continue to do those things. If we do that, everything else will take care of itself."
Murray State had all the makings of a tournament darling in 2010. Back in the NCAAs for the first time in four years, the Racers had won only one game in their previous 13 appearances. They were young and eager, no expectations to burden them as they stunned third-seeded Vanderbilt in the opening round.
This team is not nearly so wide-eyed.
Though Murray State is a so-called "mid-major," playing in the Ohio Valley Conference, the Racers have more than proven their worth this year. They opened the season with 23 straight wins, and are the only one-loss team in the country. They went undefeated on the road, including an upset of then-No. 21 Memphis, and were ranked as high as No. 9.
They're quick, they're aggressive, and while they're particularly effective from 3-point range, they can hurt opponents from pretty much anywhere on the court. Three players score in double figures, they average eight steals a game and they've got a roster so deep you can't see the end of the bench.
"I don't know that they're a Cinderella. I think that's somewhat disrespectful," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said, noting that the Racers were ranked ahead of the Golden Eagles almost the entire season, have a better record and won more conference games - despite the OVC schedule being shorter.
"I think that they're a really good team," Williams said. "They're deserving of being here. Their personnel and their staff are evidence of that."
As for Canaan, he's developed an unflappable poise. He leads the Racers with 19 points a game, is shooting 46 percent from 3-point range and has come up big whenever Murray State needed it most.
When the Racers beat Southern Mississippi in double overtime to win the Great Alaska Shootout, Canaan scored seven of his career-high 36 points in the second overtime, and also had a career-high eight rebounds. In the win over Memphis, he dished out seven assists to go with 15 points and had only three turnovers.
"My reads in a game, my decision-making," Canaan said of where he's improved most. "Just knowing what to expect in certain situations."
As impressive as the Racers have been, however, they haven't come up against a team quite like Marquette.
The Golden Eagles are knocked all the time as being "undersized," but that may be because folks are mistaking them for members of Marquette's football team.
Never mind that Marquette doesn't have a football team.
It's easy to envision the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Jae Crowder playing tight end in the NFL, and Williams said Friday he knows of a few teams who are interested. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, with a glare that can make your stomach drop, Darius Johnson-Odom would fit right in with any linebacking corps. Davante Gardner, at 6-8 and 290 pounds, could play in front of him.
"They are some physical, physical guys," Murray State coach Steve Prohm said. "Their style of play is about being physical and tough, and we need to be ready to meet that. But our guys have been tough and resilient all year long, so they're looking forward to the challenge."
Crowder, the BIG EAST Player of the Year, and Johnson-Odom get most of the attention. They're scoring a combined 36 points per game, and one or the other has led the Golden Eagles in scoring in all but five games.
But as BYU discovered Thursday, opponents would do well not to forget about the rest of the Golden Eagles.
Gardner, who missed eight games at the end of the regular season with a strained left knee, scored 15 points against the Cougars, the most since before his injury. Todd Mayo added 10, the first time he's cracked double figures in six games.
"I just feel like we have a complete team," Vander Blue said. "I feel like we're a tough scout because ... once we start playing the game, it's more than just those two. As you saw yesterday, there's no telling where the firepower is going to come from."