In Ohio Valley, Murray State rising mountain 29-3 Racers hide, wait, after falling just 3 shy of Duke in '97 tourney

March Madness

March 02, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Murray State president Kern Alexander fancies the small Kentucky school as potentially a Princeton of the South. Not in basketball, but in books. The Racers might be similar to the Tigers in another regard -- the little-known team most feared going into this year's NCAA tournament.

There was still some doubt before yesterday's Ohio Valley Conference tournament final at the Nashville Arena about Murray State's viability as one of the 34 at-large teams had it lost to Tennessee State. Even a gaudy 28-3 record that included wins over Arkansas and Iowa State didn't make OVC commissioner Dan Beebe feel secure.

"I might have to use some of my talents as a lawyer to argue their case," Beebe, a former enforcement director for the NCAA, said an hour before tip-off.

Beebe will not have to make any, because the top-seeded Racers will go in with an automatic bid after a convincing, 92-69 victory over the first seventh seed to make the league's tournament final. Now a team that one of its vocal fans proclaimed as "No. 32 in the rankings but No. 1 in our hearts" is ready to do what it hasn't done in the past: beat a big-name opponent in March.

The Racers came close a year ago, losing by three to Duke as a 15th seed in the first round. Three years ago, also as a No. 15 seed, they played North Carolina tough in the opening round before losing by 10. Now with an inside game to balance one of college basketball's best backcourts, Murray State seemingly has a legitimate chance to win its first NCAA tournament game since a victory over North Carolina State 10 years ago.

"They see a bigger picture," said third-year coach Mark Gottfried, a former UCLA assistant under Jim Harrick who is expected to be the front-runner for the job at his alma mater, Alabama. "They've been a participant in the greatest show on Earth. Now, they want to move through the greatest show on Earth."

Or as senior guard De'Teri Mayes said: "Last year, it was a sightseeing trip. This year, it's a business trip."

Mostly because of Mayes and fellow senior guard Chad Townsend, Murray State has the kind of talent and experience to make more than a cameo in a couple of weeks. NCAA tournament games, even championships, are often won with dominating guards these days.

Mayes and Townsend are sort of a poor man's answer to Arizona's backcourt of Mike Bibby and Miles Simon. Mayes was the OVC's Player of the Year. Townsend was named the Most Outstanding Player of the OVC tournament for the second straight year.

"D.T. and I have talked all the time about coming from nowhere," Townsend said. "We were unknown, unheard of before we came to Murray. You're not going to get the kind of attention at a low major or mid major as you are at one of the big schools."

They still are playing in the shadows. Despite torching Arkansas for 42 points, averaging nearly 22 points and hitting almost 45 percent of his three-point shots, Mayes is not mentioned in the same breath as Duke's Trajan Langdon or any of the country's best shooters. And Townsend, with a nearly 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, never hears comparisons with Bibby. Or even Duke's Steve Wojciechowski.

Mayes didn't play high school ball back home in Birmingham, Ala., and came to Murray State after shooting better than 42 percent on three-point shots during his sophomore year at a local junior college. Townsend came to Murray State after

spending three years in the Air Force and another two at an NAIA school in Austin, Texas.

"It doesn't bother us, because we can't do anything about it," Mayes said about the lack of publicity. "But the NCAA tournament will give us the opportunity to show what we can do."

Backcourts alone do not win NCAA tournament games, especially for double-digit-seeded teams. It wasn't Murray State's backcourt that tore apart Tennessee State -- a team without a true point guard or much conscience when it came to taking threes -- as much as it was the frontcourt.

The starting frontcourt combined for 39 points and 20 rebounds yesterday, the kind of performance it will need against another big-name, big-bodied team. "In my seven years, they're the best team top to bottom to represent our conference," said Tennessee State coach Frankie Allen, who has taken his Tigers to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances.

Said Gottfried: "We're a lot more balanced than we were a year ago. Along with our guards, we have any number of guys who can step up on a given night."

Figuring to be no higher than a 11th seed, and more likely a 13th, the Racers will likely get their chance to revise recent history. They also would like to become the first OVC team to win an NCAA game since the league began playing its tournament a week ahead of the big conferences.

At this stage, Mayes wouldn't even mind being a 16th seed and getting another shot at Duke.

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