All season Murray State Head Coach Steve Prohm has encouraged his team to do two important things:
Keep their eyes up and stay on their wall.
Both mottos come from biblical passages but the latter hails from Nehemiah 6:3 when Nehemiah and a group of men were rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem and when people tried to distract Nehemiah from completing his wall, he simply replied, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”
The Murray State Racers have been doing a great work all year including setting record after record and building every segment of the wall placed in front of them but now look to begin a new phase of wall construction as they enter the NCAA Tournament with the best record in the nation.
“There is nothing new, we just have to turn it up a notch,” senior forward Ivan Aska said about preparation for the tournament. “We have to keep putting bricks on the wall – we’re not done. The construction that has been on the wall, we’ve got to keep making it stronger, and people who are trying to knock down our wall, we’ve got to keep them out of our way.”
Junior guard Isaiah Canaan said wall building and planning for Colorado State and any other teams the Racers might face in the Big Dance would be the same as each of the 31 games the team has played this season.
“Nothing is going to change, we’re going to still prepare like it’s another regular season game,” Canaan said. “It might be a bigger stage but it’s just another game and everybody realizes that and we’re going to keep doing the things we’ve been doing and everything else will work out on its own.”
Senior guard Jewuan Long said staying on the wall they’ve worked on all season won’t be difficult for the champions of the Ohio Valley Conference, as the Racers will not overlook any opponent – no matter how big or small.
“We realize that even in the championship game, and even the OVC, though we’re a ranked team in the nation, we didn’t beat teams bad in the OVC so it’s humbling to know we’ve got to come out and play every night no matter who we’re playing,” Long said. “There are still things we’ve got to get better at like rebounding and turnovers, we realize that and we realize we’re not the biggest team or the greatest individuals in the nation so we have to play as a team. And when we defend as a team and play as a team we have confidence that we can do whatever we want to do.”
After watching five games of Colorado State on tape in preparation for Thursday’s encounter, Prohm has a feel for how the Rams operate and believes the Racers will have a good matchup against a tough team.
“We’re going to have to play extremely well to beat them,” Prohm said via teleconference Monday afternoon. “They shoot the basketball extremely well, we’ve defended the three-point line extremely well all season long and we’re going to have to do that Thursday to guard Colorado State. All four of their guards shoot the basketball extremely well, they don’t put a guard out there that doesn’t make threes at a high percentage. They rebounded well on the defensive end, they have one guy who averages almost three or four offensive rebounds every game so we’re going to have to defensively rebound well, we’re going to have to contain them from the three-point line, we’re going to have to be great in transition, we’re going to have to play very well.”
To play well and continue the Racers’ wall assembly, Prohm hopes the state of Kentucky will rally around each team representing the Commonwealth in the Big Dance.
“I’m going to call Coach Calipari and ask him to tell and tweet all his fans to root for us, so we’ll see if that helps,” Prohm said with a laugh. “This state loves basketball and there is a lot of people over here on this side of the state who love Murray State tremendously but also have an immense amount of respect for Kentucky and their program over there. So as much as they pull for Murray they pull for Kentucky as well so hopefully on that side of the state they feel the same way and will show the same amount of respect back and pull for us in the early session before they play because we could really use their support and help that afternoon.”
While focus is now on Thursday’s game, last week senior guard Donte Poole’s mind drifted back to the last time Murray State played in the NCAA Tournament and lost by two points to Butler in the second game two years ago. Despite those lingering thoughts, Poole said nothing about preparation for Thursday will change from what the team has done the rest of the season.
“I don’t think we can change it, if anything you have to be that much more focused,” Poole said. “It’s (no longer) ‘If we lose we’ve got to build, if we lose we have to do better,’ from here on out it’s once you lose you’re done. No one ever goes perfect but we want to carry this thing out as long as we can, do everything we need to do. If we lose we don’t want it to be because we beat ourselves and that’s what I felt like happened in the loss to Butler – we lost it ourselves with turnovers and missed free throws so we’ve got to be that much more focused and pay close attention to detail and the scouting reports and stuff like that.”
In addition to the seniors, the freshmen student-athletes are taking on their own roles whether it is on the court or on the bench cheering on the players on the hardwood.
“This is my first year in college period so it’s really exciting as a freshman to get a ring your first year and then to be able to go to NCAAs,” freshman Jaylen Bland said. “There are people who are seniors who haven’t gone to the NCAA Tournament so I’m blessed and my team is blessed so we’re excited. (But) nothing changes. We’ve always played hard and we’re going to play hard, we always play together and we’re going to remain playing together. All the preparation will be the same. A new scouting report, new team, same preparation.”
Freshman guard Zay Jackson has become a visible representative for the new players having been seen in every game this season and the Hammond, La., native is excited to be in the tournament as a first-year player.
“We just take it step by step, one game at a time,” Jackson said. “The preparation is going to be the same, we might have to be a little more meaningful like ready because it’s win or go home even though you’re already ready but we’ve got to put that in our head: if you lose you go home, so go hard or go home.”