Open Mouth, Insert Football: Tourney time

Ben Morrow
Sports Columnist

 

It’s that time again! Selection Sunday is only two days away, which means we can all get ready to fill out brackets that will hold up until two hours after the first tipoff. There’s nothing like March Madness to remind us just how little we really know about teams we have critiqued all season long.

So far this year I’ve offered predictions for two things. I said Pujols would stay in St. Louis (oops) and I had the Giants by four in the Super Bowl (dead on). This will probably be a disaster.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s get cracking.

Obviously, we’re going to focus on the team in blue and gold. ESPN’s Bracketology “expert” Joe Lunardi has Murray State, as of this writing, positioned as a sixth seed in the West (Albuquerque) bracket. The Racers would open the NCAAs in Columbus, Ohio.

This of course is a travesty. If Lunardi is right, this will mean the NCAA selection committee will have deemed the Racers to be the 24th most deserving team in the country.

Come on, man!

OK, deep breath. In order to objectively evaluate a team I’m so emotionally invested in, I’ve instituted the Montana State rule to keep myself in check. The rule is simple: Treat Murray State’s record as if you were talking about a team you aren’t emotionally attached to – like Montana State.

So, in the words of a certain JMC professor with a Clairol beard, “Let’s looky.”

“Montana State” (read Murray State) was picked to finish third in a conference that is mostly obscure to a nationwide audience. Instead, “Montana State” amassed a 30-1 record, including a perfect season away from home, to win its regular season and conference tournament championships.

With wins over tournament teams like Memphis, Southern Mississippi and St. Mary’s (all rated 31 or better in the RPI), “Montana State” has established itself in the RPI at number 20.

(P.S. This team also avenged its only loss twice this season, including a comeback thriller in its conference championship game.)

In other words, this team didn’t slide into the NCAAs on a weak schedule.

Next, the eye test. Pundits around college basketball are calling Murray State (oops, I mean “Montana State”) a not-so-poor-man’s Missouri in its style of play and tenacity. They have won in runaways and close games. They have won pretty and ugly. They won before anything was expected of them, and they won with the target on their backs.

Finally, look at leadership. The Racers (yeah, yeah, I mean the “Bobcats”) have a group of upperclassman that has been there before, led by sharpshooting playmaker Isaiah Canaan and a pair of clutch senior shooters Donte Poole and Jewuan Long. (No one is going to stop all three when they’re hitting.) Add a dash of Head Coach of the Year candidate Steve Prohm, and you have a recipe for success in the NCAA Tournament.

The overall body of work suggests this team deserves a fourth or fifth seed in the West bracket, which would have them opening in Nashville. This would allow Racer fans to show up in larger numbers to cheer on their team. A sixth seed placement in the East would also have Murray State opening in Nashville.

Some have suggested Louisville as a possible venue, but this wouldn’t be fair to what the team has accomplished this season. In order to play the opening round in Louisville, the Racers will have to get a seventh, eighth, ninth or 10th seed in the South – all of which are too low for this team.

In addition, an opening weekend in Louisville, according to Lunardi, would also match Murray State with a potential matchup with No. 1 Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen.

I think a fourth or fifth seed in the West is the fairest scenario.

With all that said, how far will this team go? Here are my scenarios before having the benefit of looking at an actual bracket.

Best case as I see it: The Racers get a fourth seed in the West bracket, allowing them to win through the first weekend. However, if Lunardi’s placement holds up, this would have Murray State playing teams like Mississippi State and Marquette, a team they particularly don’t want to see. Tennessee State proved this year that a big team that can (1) defend the pick and roll and (2) contain Canaan, has the best chance of beating the Racers. If Murray State does beat Marquette, another great game can get them past a similarly styled team like Missouri. In this scenario, the Racers lose in the Elite Eight to North Carolina.

Worst case as I see it: The Racers get stuck with a sixth seed in Albuquerque (South region) and lose in the second round to an underachieving but superbly talented Baylor team.

Shameless Prediction: Racers get a disrespectful sixth seed in the East, which allows them to experience another winning weekend in Nashville and add a shocking Sweet Sixteen victory over the Duke Blue Devils, before bowing out to a deep and immensely talented Syracuse team in the Elite Eight.

Prediction for Kentucky: I feel this paragraph is necessary for obvious reason. Kentucky has the most talented player in the country, and they are as hot as anyone going in. They have three things going against them, however. They’re young, they’re not deep at all and they have Coach Cal. He might finally win his first after a career of dipping out early. I’m not picking it. Kentucky gets upset by Wichita State in the Sweet Sixteen.

Tournament Prediction: A surprising amount of chalk at the Final Four, after a volatile first weekend. North Carolina beats Syracuse 84-72.