What were you doing 30 years ago? Were you graduating high school? Getting married? Listening to Joshua Tree? Mourning the closing of Orbach’s department store? Or, were you like me: not yet born?
Okay. Now that I’ve closed my tab and diatribe on the events of 1987, I can get to the main point. I may not know where you were in 1987, but I do know this: Murray State was winning.
But this year, after 30 straight years of winning seasons, Murray State did the one thing it hadn’t done in over a generation: finish with a losing record.
If you do not follow me on Twitter, then you likely have not heard about this streak. But if you do, then there’s a good chance you saw me tweet about it during this year’s OVC Tournament.
In fact, I’d like to note that I did some research before I wrote this, and I tweeted about Murray State’s streak at least thrice. Given that I probably missed about a baker’s dozen other tweets in there (I tweet a lot, okay?), this was probably my most-used stat during Championship Week.
Why shouldn’t it be? That Murray State, a mid-major, has gone without a losing season for 30 years years is beyond impressive. In this modern basketball world, that kind of consistency is only seen with the blue bloods.
It has been maddening to see the streak go unnoticed by college basketball personalities. Now, I understand that Murray State is in a small conference, and I get that there’s only so much airtime, but I find it difficult to believe that ESPN couldn’t devote a moiety of their time to discuss the streak that Murray State was in danger of ending.
After all, in the total epoch of college basketball’s existence, only 11 such streaks have been longer, with the longest active streak belonging to Syracuse with 47 (but that’s only if you count the seasons where its wins were recently vacated). If you’re curious, the longest streak belongs to UCLA, who had 54 straight winning seasons from 1949 to 2002. And funny enough, UConn also had a streak of the same length as the Racers, and the Huskies saw theirs end this year as well.
Since that 1986-87 season that saw Murray State go 13-15, the Racers have found their way into 13 NCAA Tournaments, pulling off three first-round wins. They even came close to pulling off the only win by a 16 seed ever, losing to Michigan State in overtime in 1990.
I would be remiss to go without noting that the program has been one of the best mid-major coaching pipelines in all of college basketball. Four of the Racers’ last five coaches have gone on to be successful at their next job. Those coaches? Oh, just Mick Cronin, Billy Kennedy, Steve Prohm, and Mark Gottfried. That’s a pretty solid track record that other programs simply cannot tout.
However, Matt McMahon, the Racers’ current head coach, has seen a bit of regression in his second season at the helm. After being picked to win the OVC’s West Division this season, Murray State finished in third, ending the regular season on a three-game losing streak. Senior guard Damarcus Croaker suffered a season-ending injury late in the year. It seemed as if everyone knew the 30-year streak would end with this season.
Although, the conference tournament provided some hope. If the Racers could have just won four games in four days, the streak would have endured. And, after pulling off upsets against 6 seed Tennessee Tech and 3 seed Morehead State, it looked as if the Racers might just do it. Ultimately, they fell to UT Martin, who had been a thorn in the Racers’ side all season. There was no extension of the streak. Defeat had found its way into the West Kentucky hamlet.
This season, the Racers just couldn’t seem to pull it together. Their offense was there, and it was easily among the best put forward by mid-majors, coming in at 122nd in KenPom. Their defense...well, it left a lot to be desired, allowing a 52.1 percent effective field goal percentage. When looking ahead at the beginning of this season, more was expected. Looking back, it’s plain to see why they weren’t able to get it done this season.
Thankfully, a 2017 recruiting class that’s led by 3-star (247Sports) forward Tevin Brown and the return of stars like Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller means that hopes are high for a new streak to begin.
Still, for at least a generation, success has been the only expectation in the town of Murray.
As you’re well aware, the state of Kentucky is basketball-crazy. In terms of population, it’s a small state — only about 4 million people call it home — but it lays claim to two of the game’s top programs. Beyond Kentucky and Louisville, some of the sport’s most storied mid-majors reside within the Bluegrass State’s borders.
When one talks mid-majors in Kentucky, they’re talking about Western Kentucky, a powerhouse built by E.A. Diddle before making a Final Four in 1971. They’re talking about Morehead State, a team that knocked off Louisville in 2011, led by NBA star Kenneth Faried. And they’re talking about Murray State, a team whose entire city is focused around one thing: Racers Basketball.
When it comes to cities embracing and loving the universities located within their boundaries, the town of Murray, Kentucky, is nearly unrivaled. The city shares a pulse with Murray State Basketball. When they’re winning, the town is joyous. And for the Racers, winning is all they’ve known for the past 30 years.
Let’s hope that 2016-17 was just an anomaly.