EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. Long after he left the court as part of the nation's last unbeaten team, Murray State junior guard Isaiah Canaan emerged from a locker room, ready for the praise to come. One woman wearing a gold sweater greeted him as he approached and said, "Great game." Not long after, another woman nearby said, "Awesome, awesome."
"Thank you," Canaan said, moving toward teammates gathered behind Murray State's bench.
Canaan continued his walk inside the Vadalabene Center after the Racers' 17-point rout of SIU-Edwardsville on Saturday night. He became aware of his team's opportunity about 50 minutes before tipoff: A cameraman told him Syracuse had lost to Notre Dame, leaving Murray State as the country's final undefeated squad in a season that is becoming more of a surprise than anyone involved with the Ohio Valley Conference leader could have imagined.
The Racers, playing under first-year coach Steve Prohm, became the first team in school history to open the season with 20 straight victories. As a result, some within the Ohio Valley like SIU-Edwardsville coach Lennox Forrester envision them continuing their run through the next two months with a chance to become the sport's next Butler.
And what is Prohm's reaction to the Racers' new fame?
"It's just really humbling," he said, preparing to board the team bus. "It's almost a little surreal."
Still an unknown to many, No. 11 Murray State has a chance to make more surreal memories the rest of the season. Led by Canaan's 18.7 points per game, the Racers say they are prepared for the scrutiny that will accompany their increased visibility if they continue their unbeaten streak. Yet, as they try to reach their second NCAA tournament in three seasons, the Racers have more to prove to critics who are skeptical of their ability to remain among the nation's best.
So who, exactly, are the Racers this season? Most of their production comes from three players: Canaan, senior guard Donte Poole (14.6 points per game) and senior forward Ivan Aska (12.6). They lead the Ohio Valley in scoring offense (75.6 points per game), scoring defense (61) and scoring margin (plus 14.5), among other categories. They were underestimated in the preseason, because they were picked to finish third in their conference behind Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech.
But early, Canaan and others knew they were part of a group that could exceed those expectations. Their confidence grew with victories over Alaska-Anchorage, San Francisco and Southern Mississippi to win the Great Alaska Shootout in November. Two weeks later, they beat then-No. 21 Memphis to become ranked for the first time since 1998.
Their current ranking is the highest in program history.
"We're all taking it in very well," Canaan said. "But our motto is we just have to keep doing the things that got us to this point. We can't really focus too much on the ranking or how many games we won. We're resilient. We're going to go out and compete until the last second of each game. We're going to go out and compete against whoever is put in front of us. We're a great team to watch."
And that team is built mostly of players outside Kentucky. Of the 12 athletes on Murray State's roster, only junior guard Jordan Burge from Mayfield, Ky. is a native of the Blue Grass State. Additional states represented include Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
In addition to being diverse, the Racers' roster has depth: Four players stand at least 6-foot-7. And two freshman center Harley Nussman and junior forward Brandon Garrett are 6-9.
Aska leads the team in rebounding by averaging six per game, and junior forward Edward Daniel follows with an average of five. In addition to leading his team in scoring, Canaan paces the Racers with an average of four assists.
"It has been amazing, because we didn't see it coming," said Neal Bradley, who is in his 21st season as a radio analyst for Murray State. "Had this happened last year, it wouldn't have surprised us We lost three starters from that team (to graduation). We had a brand-new coach who had never head-coached a college game in his life. After 19 games I'll be brutally honest I would have been really happy to be 12-7 and hovering around first place in the OVC. To have this happen, it has really been amazing."
Part of that surprise comes from how well Prohm has managed his first season as a head coach after Billy Kennedy left for Texas A&M last May. However, the man who began his career as a student manager at Alabama for five years is no stranger to the small, southwest Kentucky campus located a little more than a two-hour drive from Nashville, Tenn.
He served as an assistant at the school under Kennedy from 2006 to 2011. The stretch included two Ohio Valley regular-season titles and a 2010 NCAA tournament appearance that ended with a loss to Butler in the second round.
Prior to joining Kennedy with the Racers, Prohm's career included stops as an assistant coach at Centenary, Southeastern Louisiana and Tulane. When Prohm received the promotion last May, Murray State athletic director Allen Ward introduced him as someone who "will bring an immediate sense of stability and familiarity that will be beneficial to this team, at this time in our program's history."
Ward's choice of Prohm appears sound to this point, though there are questions about how well Murray State will perform against stronger competition if the Racers have visions of making a deep NCAA tournament run. Their schedule strength ranks 220th well behind teams such as Duke, West Virginia, Florida State, Syracuse and Villanova that top the category. In addition, they have only played three schools that rank within the top 50 of the RPI.
"A lot of people think we've got a weak conference, and we've got a weak schedule," said senior guard Jewuan Long, who is averaging 8.7 points per game. "But if you put another big school on our chest, we wouldn't be questioned about our wins. We're just having a special year this year. I don't think anybody can take that away from us."
As Long and others mingled inside the Vadalabene Center after their latest victory, a feeling of pride was shared among the group. No matter their perception, they know there will be tests to come. Their journey to capture a third straight Ohio Valley regular-season title will not come without challenge especially if their national profile continues to grow.
But, for the moment Saturday, they enjoyed their status as the nation's final unbeaten team. Poole walked from the locker room, and the same woman in a gold sweater greeted him with a smile.
"Twenty in a row!" she said. "Twenty in a row! How does that feel?"
"It feels great," Poole said, grinning, before joining his teammates on the court.
"Soak it up, darling," the woman said.
The Racers are doing so as much as they can. And, come March, they hope the nation knows their story all too well.