They have been unexpected guests at the dinner table for most of the season. They also know that even the slightest stumble will result in their exit.
Say hello to Murray State, which this week climbed to No. 10 in the Associated Press rankings, heady stuff for any team from the Ohio Valley Conference, even a program that has already clinched its 25th consecutive winning season.
After last night’s victory over Southeast Missouri State, the Racers are a pristine 22-0 - the only team in Division 1 with an unblemished record.
If you look at the other top 10 teams (Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State, Missouri, North Carolina, Baylor, Duke, Kansas, and Michigan State), you see a collection of basketball bluebloods from which the majority of the Final Four should come - although in this wacky season, anything is possible, especially since a year ago Butler and Virginia Commonwealth made it to the Final Four.
We haven’t had such an interloper since 2004, when Saint Joseph’s ran through the regular season with a 27-0 record that brought the Hawks a No. 1 ranking and an almost mystical “Hoosiers’’-type feeling to their season.
Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said at the time that the Hawks enjoyed their moment in the spotlight as much as they could.
“The word we’ve been using around here is ‘surreal,’ ’’ Martelli said then. “It’s a surreal experience to even think we’d be this good or enjoying this level of success.
“It chills you in a way to know that we’ll see in the newspapers that we’re the No. 1 team. Whether we are or not, that’s what it will say, and that’s a remarkable statement for our players, our program, and our fans.’’
A week after Martelli’s comments, Saint Joseph’s was spanked by Xavier, 87-67, in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament and reality kicked in. The Hawks still were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and made a run before losing by a basket to Oklahoma State in the East Regional final.
It could be argued that Saint Joseph’s played in a better conference than Murray State and was a better team with a better chance of running the table - something that hasn’t been done in Division 1 since Bobby Knight’s 1975-76 Indiana team went 32-0.
Murray State’s road is filled with potential potholes. The Racers, who weren’t even favored to win their conference, have games left at Southeast Missouri State, Tennessee State, and Tennessee Tech, all of whom are above. 500.
And with a BracketBuster game against No. 18 Saint Mary’s Feb. 18 and the conference tournament to be played in Nashville (home of Tennessee State), the odds are long of Murray State going into the NCAA Tournament unbeaten.
Bust and boon
The BracketBuster Weekend concept was created by ESPN several years ago as a showcase event for mid-major schools attempting to get NCAA Tournament-type exposure. This year’s version (Feb. 17-19) is intriguing, to say the least. In addition to Saint Mary’s-Murray State, we have Long Beach State vs. Creighton, Nevada vs. Iona, Wichita State vs. Davidson, and Drexel vs. Cleveland State as some of the marquee matchups. Locally, we get America East front-runner Stony Brook at former conference member Northeastern.
If you want a sleeper, Long Beach State has very quietly established itself as the power in the Big West. Beating Pittsburgh isn’t a big deal anymore (Wagner did it as well), but the 49ers also gave North Carolina and San Diego State problems . . . Showdown Saturdays will be part of the conference races for the remainder of the season. Tomorrow, key clashes include Vanderbilt-Arkansas (SEC), Ohio State-Wisconsin (Big Ten), and Kansas-Missouri (Big 12).
Don’t look now, but the University of Massachusetts, under the guidance of Derek Kellogg, has become a force in the wide-open Atlantic 10. Temple still looks like the class of the conference, but the Minutemen can bite anyone on any given night . . . Notre Dame has become a road warrior, with victories at Louisville, at Seton Hall, and at Connecticut . . . People are getting nervous in Storrs, with UConn’s losing streak up to four with the loss to Georgetown Wednesday night. Maybe this is a down year for the Huskies, but Jim Calhoun’s teams almost always take a dip this time of year, then are ready to play by March. All you need to look at is last year, when the Huskies came from near the bottom of the Big East pack of 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship. Concerned? Yes, but odds are Calhoun will fix it . . . Northeastern, UMass, and Boston University all took hits with losses Wednesday. Losing at home, as Northeastern (against Drexel) and BU (against Vermont) did, really hurts. If there is one trend in college basketball this season, it is that playing at home is a huge advantage.