No team has more wins this season than No. 1 Auburn (21). But the Tigers have been in a stride-for-stride race for weeks with a proud mid-major that knows a thing about piling up wins: Murray State. By Thursday night, the mid-major powerhouse — which played Auburn earlier this season, by the way, and has been too far off the national radar to this point — could once again tie Auburn for winningest team in 2022.
Murray State is 20-2 and not only is this the best team in the Ohio Valley Conference, the Racers are a viable at-large candidate. Matt McMahon's program was snugly a No. 10 seed in CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm's most recent bracket. Murray State ranks 26th in the NET rankings and 21st in Strength of Record. There is an outside chance these guys can set the school record for most wins in a season, 31, done in 2010 and 2012.
They are good and they are fun.
There are many reasons why McMahon has once again built up one of the best mid-majors. A not-so-insignificant factor is what McMahon calls the Ja Morant "carryover" effect. The last time Murray State made the NCAA Tournament was 2019, when Morant, now starring for the Memphis Grizzlies, recorded a triple-double in a first round victory vs. Marquette. Members of that team and Murray State coaches have a group text that pings daily with all kinds of chatter: hoop talk, inside jokes, earnest encouragement, meme sharing, you name it.
Can't help but wonder if Ja Morant never became Ja, well, how amazing could Murray State be this season if he was there?
"This would be Ja's super-senior year," McMahon told CBS Sports. "He should be our starting point guard. Instead, you know, he's one of the."
Morant, the NBA's 2019-20 Rookie of the Year, remains close to the Murray State program both physically and spiritually, and it's had a tangible impact on the Racers' major bounce-back season after a COVID-wrecked 2020-21 led to the worst campaign of McMahon's career.
"You see it with the Grizzlies," McMahon said. "Ja is a culture-building player. People want to play with him. He makes everybody in the organization better and because of his competitiveness, his unselfishness and the joy he plays with, I think it becomes contagious. You definitely see the imprint with our team. He comes up here and works out with the guys in the summer and fall and you see that toughness impressed upon our team."
Morant's made around 20 trips back to Murray, Kentucky, since leaving after his sophomore season. There have been epic pickup games with former and current Murray State players. Those games are high-level and keep a place like Murray State special. It's one of the proudest mid-major programs in the sport, and that was a significant factor in the school recently accepting anlater this year.
Morant loves Murray State, takes great pride in it; it's still the header photo on his Twitter profile, which has north of 1.5 million followers. Murray State now has a "Ja Morant Recovery Room" in its practice facility, which he donated back to the program. It's one of the few mid-majors with NBA-level treatments for players getting work from team trainers.
"All because of him," McMahon said.
The Grizzlies had a 5% chance of landing the No. 2 pick in 2019. Getting Morant changed the direction of that franchise, but it also kept him close to Murray. It's a shade under a three-hour drive between Murray and Memphis. Having Ja be able to stay so close — as opposed to if he'd gone to a place that wasn't in a different time zone or a long flight away — has kept a certain energy that's only boosted this team this season. As Morant has ascended to an MVP candidate for the Grizzlies this season, it's created a tangible and infectious energy for Murray State — and Morant feeds off what his alma mater's been able to do as well.
"It couldn't have worked out any better," McMahon said. "A lot of people from Murray are Memphis season ticket holders now and don't miss games."
The thread that connects the Ja era to now are the two holdovers from the 2019 tournament team: shooting guard Tevin Brown and stretch big KJ Williams. Brown was in the same recruiting class with Morant and hears from his basketball brother weekly. On Jan. 30, Brown became the all-time leading 3-point shooter in Ohio Valley history. Morant was one of the first ones to congratulate him. In fact, it was Morant who delivered the pass to Brown for his first career 3-pointer. Last Saturday, his record-breaking shot came in the same spot on the court as his first one.
Brown is the only D-I player in the past three decades to sink at least 320 3-pointers, grab 570 rebounds, dish 380 assists and have 60 blocks. In the meantime, big man Williams averaged 20.7 points and 11.0 rebounds in Murray State's last three games. He's second in the OVC in rebounding (8.9 per game) and third in scoring (17.1 points). Point guard Justice Hill is averaging 13.7 points and 4.8 assists. Trae Hannibal, a transfer from South Carolina, is "like a middle linebacker playing guard who does a little bit of everything for us," McMahon said, adding, "our return to having elite point guard play has been key."
Murray State is fourth nationally in scoring margin (+18.5), ninth in scoring (82.1 points per game) and 13th in field-goal percentage (48.8%).
"He (Morant) texted us the other day after watching us and telling us that the team we have, he feels like we have that same kind of feeling and bond and communication and closeness as the championship team the year he was here," Brown told me. "That guy hasn't changed since I met him. None of that going to league — the way he acted toward any of us. The first night we got to campus we all went to the gym and his dad was in there and everyone was throwing lobs to him off the wall and stuff like that, we got a good workout in."
When things get tough it's Brown who's the most vocal for this Racers team. McMahon calls him one of the most under-appreciated players in college basketball. He'll move into the top 10 all time in scoring at Murray State later this month and is already eighth all time in assists. He'll also be top 10 in steals.
McMahon won't explicitly compare this year's team vs. the 2019 group, but he said, "I think, as good as that team was with Ja on the offensive end, it was a very good defensive team as well. This team is balanced in that we score in different ways than we did that year. I think the similarities are the culture of our program. Great toughness, unselfishness and competitive dudes who play for each other."
The Racers can improve to 21-2 in their Thursday test at Austin Peay. Win or lose, when Brown, Williams, McMahon and others are guaranteed at least one thing: messages from Ja will already be on their phones.
Four teams that flipped their seasons since November
Cheers to teams that stumbled and staggered early but eventually found their gait and are now confidently striding into February. Dreams of the NCAA Tournament are becoming clearer, closer. Here are four schools that looked rickety early but have righted the ship and are hot not just recently, but since well before the calendar flipped to 2022. I spoke with the coaches at each of these programs to get an encapsulation of how they reoriented the directions of their seasons. The conversations were condensed into a paragraph's worth of quotes and edited for clarity and conciseness. How do you reverse a rough start to a season? Each situation is different.
The Broncos were 3-4 on Dec. 2. The low point was a 46-39 home loss to Cal State Bakersfield on Nov. 26. Now Boise State ranks sixth in defensive efficiency and is atop the Mountain West standings, as it's on a 14-game winning streak that has brought the Broncos to 17-4 and on pace to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2015.
"We made drastic changes in our lineup and in our personnel. We dismissed a player (Devonaire Doutrive) and we changed the starting lineup. A guy that was barely in the rotation, Tyson Degenhart, I put him in the starting lineup. It was like calling up a minor league pitcher. I didn't want to do it before I felt he was ready, but losing makes you have to speed up the process a little bit. We went back to the drawing board and did a lot of things differently, but it's mostly about changing the chemistry to this team and have a bunch of guys who make each other better. We shortened our rotation. Guys were able to settle into their roles. I drew the line in the sand. You were either 100% bought in for the team or you weren't going to play. The people who stuck around, that's why we got good. We've won with our defense and that's been our biggest thing. We've been on this long winning streak, every game has been down to the last possession and these guys have found different ways to win." -- Coach Leon Rice
The Rams had underclassman Bones Hyland leave for the NBA Draft. In the fall, multiple players were injured, including star point guard Ace Baldwin. VCU hovered near 100th in predictive metrics to start the season, then found itself a 3-4 team on Dec. 3, including a 58-44 home loss to Wagner. In the past two months, the Rams have gone 10-2, the most recent two wins coming on the road against league-leading Davidson and blood rival Richmond.
"What I'd been saying from the start is, 'We're going to be going through some stuff.' I knew we were going to get better because I LOVED our approach. We took a couple on the chin early. I thought we did some things in the Bahamas against some great teams, but our inexperience showed. We got Ace Baldwin back (Dec. 8) and that made our offense more efficient, our defense even better than it was from the start. Ace and Vince Williams took charge. Ace is ultra-competitive, so he brings an edge to the team that gives other players confidence to compete. He's an old-school point guard. Can play a whole game without taking a shot and have such a great impact. He's going to get guys the ball where they need it, on time, and going to make plays that aren't just for himself, but for his teammates. Against Davidson (Jan. 18) we had a lead at home and blew it and lost. Going down there last week, ranked in the Top 25, sold out — our guys never stopped believing. We've got great competitive belief. We're not super-pretty but our defense is showing up all the time and that gives us a chance." -- Coach Mike Rhoades
SMU did not play for a month due to COVID shutdowns to end its regular season last year. In November, a blowout loss at Oregon combined with defeats against Missouri and Loyola Marymount put the Ponies at 3-3 heading into Thanksgiving. Since: 13-1. A program revitalized; SMU is the AAC's top contender to mighty Houston.
"We brought in nine new players, five transfers thanks to the new rules, and had four freshmen to go with three starters. Most of our transfers had been the bell cow at their schools. They were the leading scorers, the guys that were all-conference, the guys the offense ran through. We added them to [all-league point guard] Kendric Davis. That blend, I really felt like we had a great chance. At the same time, until you start playing games, to try and find the blend and the chemistry and the roles, it really doesn't happen in practice because it is practice and you play 10 guys and not five. We started out trying to find ourselves. I was optimistic the whole time, even as we went to Oregon and they're throwing in every shot and we're on our heels the whole time. We're not playing well at all. Their character, they were never wavering and there was no complaining. They believed in what they were doing, we believed in it and said we've gotta find our way. All the sudden the spark hit. The UNLV-Vanderbilt-Dayton stretch was going to define the season, and it did. The way we played in those three games gave us renewed confidence. I think that erased the uncertainty." -- Coach Tim Jankovich
The 15-5 Seahawks were nowhere near expected to be where they are today: undefeated atop the CAA standings. Picked ninth in the preseason, UNCW has peeled off a school-record 12 consecutive victories and holds the fourth-longest active winning streak in men's college basketball. Before that, this was a 3-5 team as late as Dec. 14 and riding a three-game losing streak to Southern Miss, Norfolk State and Jacksonville.
"We put a brand new team together. When we went to Jacksonville and got destroyed, I think it was us trying to figure things out. We had 10 days leading up to that game and had started changing the way we attack offensively. We were trying to figure it out in that game and they hit us right in the mouth. That was the lowest point in our season. I had to be the team psychiatrist, making sure the guys were good mentally. I was at the lowest at that I've probably been in my life, as crazy as it sounds. I was at a very low point. Spent the whole day alone, didn't really talk to anybody and reflected on everything. I knew as the leader of this program I knew that I had to pick myself back up and had to be there for my guys. I had to make sure I put things in perspective for them, being that the season is full of ups and downs and the way we handle both will determine our success. We had some long talks, team talks, individual talks and I knew that I had to flip the script and flip my mind a little bit and be there for them. They had no idea what was going on and how to handle it. We kept grinding it out and now on on this 12-game winning streak and I think it's because I have older guys who want to win, do things the right way, are great leaders and have a well-connected group, a tough group, a coachable group, that's why we're on an upward trend. Jaylen Sims is my leader. He's the guy that I'm going to and is making sure everybody's together and is an unbelievable kid and an ambassador for our university." -- Coach Takayo Siddle
Mountain West has hope for four tourney bids
There's been plenty of milk spilled about the Pac-12 and ACC struggling to get more than three teams into the 2022 NCAA Tournament. How about this: we could look up on Selection Sunday and see the Mountain West has just as many — if not more — than those leagues' tourney representation. The Court Report previously highlighted how the WCC might be in for a historic four-bid year with Gonzaga, BYU, Saint Mary's and San Francisco. Now it's time to shine a light on the Mountain West, which hasn't sent four teams dancing since 2013. The conference has four teams ranked 46th or better as of Wednesday's NET refresh. Teams are listed in order of NET ranking.
No. 31 Boise State
The Broncos are barely behind Auburn and Davidson for longest winning streak. It's now at 14, the previous three coming at San Diego State, vs. Wyoming and at Fresno State — three of the top five teams in the league. Boise State is the lone unbeaten in the Mountain West (8-0) and carries a 16-4 record vs. D-I opponents. What really matters: Boise State has a 9-2 road/neutral record and is a healthy 8-3 in Quad 1+2 games. It's No. 22 in KPI, No. 29 in KenPom.com and 38th in Sagarin.com. Barely missed the NCAAs last season, hasn't made it since 2015, but that drought should end this year.
No. 34 Wyoming
The Cowboys' 84-78 home OT win Monday against Colorado State could wind up meaning a lot for this league getting at least three teams into the Dance. Jeff Linder's group is 4-3 against the top end of the schedule, with no bad losses to account for yet. Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado could be a vintage 1-2 mid-major combo that leads to some March magic. Check these guys out. The Cowboys have a big home game vs. Boise State on Thursday. Wyoming's made one NCAA Tournament (2015) in the past two decades.
No. 38 Colorado State
Coach Niko Medved is trying to guide this school to its first NCAA Tournament since 2013. The Rams (16-3) have never won a Mountain West regular season title, and are now dealing with the team's first two-game losing streak in the regular season since December 2019. CSU is hovering between 35-50 in most metrics. The Rams are 3-2 in the top two quadrants. I still think this is the best team in the MW.
No. 46 San Diego State
The No. 3 per-possession defense in the country. The Aztecs have the worst Strength of Record rating of the four (63rd) but are still seen on the same level as Boise State and Colorado State in predictive metrics. No bad losses but just one Quad 1 victory (vs. Saint Mary's), so the work will need to be done on the back end of the schedule. SDSU plays at Colorado State on Friday.
This is encouraging — and that doesn't account for 15-6 Fresno State, which sits at No. 57 in the NET. The Bulldogs have little wiggle room, but they're still conceivably a bubble team if they win five in a row or six of their next seven. Ultimately, I think this league is going see the logos of four of its members flash across the screen on CBS and get the Greg Gumbel treatment on Selection Sunday.
The Court Report's mailbag! Find me on Twitter, toss a question and I'll answer some each week.
Any team more disappointing in college basketball than VT?— Liam (@NewGenHokie) January 27, 2022
If you want to get technical with it, not even close. Virginia Tech was ranked 38th at KenPom in the preseason, and as of Thursday, the Hokies are all the way down to ... 39th. Here are the biggest drops in KenPom as of Feb. 2 vs. where teams were ranked in the preseason.
Among teams from power conferences, the biggest disappointments are:
Mack's Twitter bio currently reads "Retired Coach." I would be shocked if Mack chose to coach somewhere else in the next 2-3 months. A year from now seems plausible, and two years from now seems probable. I did exchange texts with Mack over the weekend, and how about this for a dose of perspective: He said this past Saturday was the first time since he was 14 that there was a January Saturday he didn't have a playing or coaching responsibility tied to basketball. That was 1983! Had to have felt a little odd for him.
Unreasonable? No. Unlikely? Yes. Louisville is a top-20 job even in its worst of times (and these are the worst of times, it seems), so I don't believe this is the way the university and interim athletic director Josh Heird will ultimately go. You are going to have men with a lot of experience coaching at the power-conference level who are angling behind the scenes to try and get this job. Louisville will make a noisy hire (in a good way).
• Emoni Bates' father, Elgin, told CBS Sports on Tuesday night that his son is going to his home state of Michigan to see a back specialist to further examine discomfort that Emoni has dealt with for three weeks. There was a report on Tuesday night that Bates' future "has suddenly come into question." Elgin told me Emoni plans to rejoin the team as soon as doctors say so, adding, "I have no clue what [that report is] about. He's been having pain and we're going to figure out what's going on."
• The America East announced Wednesday that Stony Brook, which is second in the conference standings in men's hoops and first in women's, is ineligible for the conference tournament effectively immediately. Why? Stony Brook is leaving for the CAA in July. A league rule was in place for this very thing, but how are we looking out for the interests of players in this? We're not. It's a horrible decision, just as the CAA's was with James Madison.
• Also official in CAA news: James Madison is leaving for the Sun Belt. The Dukes are also (unfairly) ineligible for the CAA postseason.
• Take note: Thursday's huge UCLA-Arizona game (the teams just met last week) is the 10th time the Bruins and Wildcats have played while both being ranked in the top 10. UCLA is 6-3 in those games.
• Credit to Jared Berson on unearthing this cool stat: Last year's Final Four teams became the first foursome in college hoops history to start the following season by winning at least 15 of their first 17 games. Big picture, I think that kind of season-to-season extension of high-end teams is a good thing for the sport. In this week's AP rankings, Gonzaga is No. 2, UCLA is No. 3, Houston is No. 6 and Baylor is No. 8.
• Evan Miyakawa is an up-and-coming basketball statistician whose site, EvanMiya.com, offers some more ways to learn and examine college hoops through an analytics lens. He recently posted something with data to back up an oft-used phrase every February and March: the glue guy. Who are the best ones? Based on his parameters, take a look.
• The Cousy Award finalists were announced on Monday. They are: James Akinjo, Tyger Campbell, Kennedy Chandler, Collin Gillespie, Wendell Green Jr., Andrew Nembhard, Jahvon Quinerly, Will Richardson, Isaiah Stevens and Sahvir Wheeler. Those are all good players, but it made me realize that this is one of the weakest years in the past 10-12 seasons for point guards. This will probably become a more prominent state of affairs in about six weeks.
• As of Thursday, there are 148 players in the transfer portal. Last year's cycle ended with a record 1,834 entries. The year before was 1,026. I'm setting the over/under at 1,500 this time around.
• The Big East has partnered with the Black Fives Foundation to pay tribute and bring awareness to an important part of basketball's history that has long been overlooked. "For 22 games, the Big East men's and women's basketball teams will be wearing the name and logo of a Black Fives Team to honor these pioneers," the league announced Tuesday. "This is the first time that basketball programs across an entire athletic conference (either collegiate or professional) have come together to honor the Black Fives and showcase the impact these pioneering teams had on the sport."