Murray State Off to The Races
Junior point guard, new coach guiding undefeated mid-major.
by Scott Gleeson / @ScottMGleeson
Murray State junior point guard Isaiah Canaan was a freshman in high school when Hurricane Katrina demolished his home in Biloxi, MS.
He took refuge with his grandmother in the attic of a church, a decision that likely saved his life with floodwaters covering rooftops.
Scared? Damn right.
“I was scared for my life,” Canaan said.
Canaan’s possessions from his house could not be salvaged from the storm’s damage and he was left with few clothes and thankfully, his PlayStation.
The experience and aftermath instilled a grateful yet motivated demeanor within Canaan, a “fire” as he describes it.
“To be at your lowest point, to watch your life flash before your eyes, it changed me. I lost everything I owned,” he said. “Once I got back on my feet, I realized that God let me survive that for a reason. And I wasn’t going to waste a talent he gave me. At each level of basketball, that’s my drive, my fire.”
Canaan took his drive and determination to Murray State, a mid-major program dedicated to winning. His freshman campaign was a storybook season with the Racers (31-5 in ‘09-10). He was the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year and the MVP of the league tournament. He even notched a SportsCenter Top 10 play with a half-court shot he nailed from one knee.
But it was the last play of that season that haunted the 6-foot guard. Before Butler was a mid-major goliath following back-to-back NCAA Tournament title games, Murray State went neck and neck with the NCAA darling before losing in the closing seconds of the 2010 Dance. Gordon Hayward deflected Canaan’s pass attempt, leading to a scramble for the ball as the final horn sounded with Butler escaping 54-52.
“That hurt a lot, to be right there, seconds away from the Sweet Sixteen,” Canaan said. “That moment motivated me, it’s helped me to be the player I am today.”
Fast forward two years and the player Canaan is today averages 18.6 points and 3.8 assists a game for a 13-0 Murray State squad that remains one of six undefeated teams in the country.
Of the teams without a loss—which includes Syracuse, Louisville, Baylor, Missouri and Indiana—Murray State (No. 20 AP, No. 21 USA Today polls) poses possibly the best chance of remaining flawless.
Just don’t tell first-year coach Steve Prohm, who believes the Racers’ Ohio Valley Conference schedule is no cakewalk.
“It’s tough to win on the road at places like Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State, Prohm said. “The conference season isn’t easy, although that might be the perception.”
After a season with high expectations last year ended with a 23-win, NIT-driven season, Murray State saw a bulk of talent graduate and its head coach, Billy Kennedy, leave for Texas A&M. Before Kennedy left, he made sure to campaign for Prohm to succeed him.
Prohm, who at 37 took over as head coach after being a Murray State assistant for five years, has proven to be a good hire with the program off to its best start in 75 years. But the rookie coach concedes the cupboard was far from bare when he took over for a team that won the last two OVC regular-season titles.
“This is a tremendous university first of all. Murray State is a mid-major because of how we classify mid-majors, but this is a program with 24 consecutive winning seasons, 14 NCAA appearances and a great community with passion for basketball that we’re talking about,” said Prohm, whose rags-to-riches story had him work his way up from a student manager at Alabama to the head coaching sidelines.
“There are a lot of new players this year but it’s the same system and we have five upperclassmen helping the younger players,” Prohm added. “Guys’ roles are expanding and they’re embracing that. Everyone has been playing unselfish and bought into what we’re trying to do.”
According to Canaan, it’s been an easy transition thanks to the camaraderie Prohm fosters.
“Coach [Prohm] has a winning personality and he puts the team first. We’re a family,” Cannan said. “He helped recruit me, he knows we have his back no matter what.”
Canaan is complemented in the backcourt this season by seniors Juwuan Long (8 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Donte Poole (13.1 ppg, 3.4 apg), who has emerged as a 30-minutes-a-game guy after playing as a role player in his first three seasons. Big man Ivan Aska (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) returns as the Racers’ leading frontcourt presence, while junior Ed Daniel (6.7 ppg) has stepped into a bigger role.
After playing in a crowded backcourt with now-graduated Isaac Miles and BJ Jenkins for the last two years, Canaan now has heavier duties as point guard.
“The biggest adjustment I’ve had is being more of a leader this year, being more vocal,” Canaan said.
His coach was in full agreement.
“This year, Isaiah is the guy,” Prohm said. “Last year he was playing with two all-league guards and it was letting them be the leaders. Now, it’s his team. Expectations were high for him last year after his freshman year and to many people, he didn’t live up to the hype. I think this year he’s exceeding expectations. He’s been very efficient for us with his numbers but more than that, it’s his toughness. He’s a great kid, 3.0 student, everything we could ask for and more.”
Murray State cracked into the top 25 this year for the first time in 40 years thanks to a notable win over then No. 20 Memphis and a double-overtime victory over Southern Mississippi.
Now, after a dominating 17-point clobbering over Tennessee-Martin in the conference opener, the challenge for the Racers is to take a game-by-game approach, stick to their specialty—defense, and not let up.
“Nobody wants to lose. If it happens, it happens. Our main focus is getting better each game,” Canaan said of his team’s undefeated record. “We’ve shocked a lot of people, but for us, we expect this. We’re a mid-major but we feel like we can beat any team in the country and we have that chip on our shoulder. We can take punches and get right back up and go right back at [teams]. We go until the final buzzer, we won’t quit.”
Prohm knows that his team can’t falter in the conference season in order to punch its automatic NCAA ticket should Murray State lose in the conference tournament. But he also knows that if the Racers are wearing their dancing shoes, teams better watch out.
“I think some of the recent mid-major success, Butler the last two years and VCU last year, it helps guys buy in at the mid-major level,” said Prohm, who recalls glancing at the scoreboard with his team leading Butler late in the game the year the Bulldogs lost to Duke in the final. “If we’re on a neutral site, we know we have a chance to win. We’re ready to take that next step like Butler and Gonzaga have done. We’re ready to go far.”