Kentucky has always been a state shaped by its basketball. The wide fields serving as the outer boundaries to hardwood sandlots carved on God's ground, where games have been played dawn to dusk.
It's not just sport, recreation, an hour-or-two distraction from life, but rather a bonding ritual for the farmers and bankers, car salesmen and craftsman. A Kentucky resident once told me, "There is basketball. And then there is Kentucky basketball. It's not a part of our identity. It is our identity."
That identity has been shaped by Adolph Rupp and Jamal Mashburn; Denny Crum and Wes Unseld. Basketball is a religion with a line of demarcation separating the bluebloods from Lexington and the redbirds of Louisville. Rick Pitino has played both sides.
Both are still parading out All-Americans, battling for conference championships and even duking it out each December. Yet, this season, the dividing line has been erased and re-drawn to incorporate this season's biggest story.
The nation's last unbeaten team doesn't reside in basketball heaven, instead in hoops ambiguity in the southwestern part of the state. Murray State is located, in all of places, Murray, Kentucky, the county seat of Calloway County with a population inching closer to 18,000 by the day.
With each victory, undecided fans flock south and west to not just watch the Ohio Valley Conference's best team or a nice national story, but the only Division I team without a defeat this season. It's important to repeat because it's so hard to fathom.
Murray State stands alone.
The basketball program's Wikipedia page now finds the first page of Google search results for "Murray State." Yet, that isn't some SEO miracle. The Racers are in the middle of their 25th consecutive winning season and have been an OVC power for some time with 22 conference regular-season titles, including the last two seasons.
Obviously, this season is a little different, putting the mid-major stalwart, its first year head coach Steve Prohm and leading scorer, all 6-foot of Isaiah Cannon, under the microscope. What you initially find is the Ohio Valley Conference's lone representative in the RPI Top 150, bringing up the real possibility of the nation's first regular-season unbeaten since UNLV in 1991.
However, unlike other successful mid-major teams, and following Butler's historic blueprint, this is not a one-trick pony. There is no Jimmer Fredette or Harold Arceneaux. There is instead a team of veterans who trust in each other, which is the trait of a championship team, one with bigger dreams than just another conference crown. Many of the regulars remember the team's last NCAA Tournament victory, an upset of fourth-seeded Vanderbilt two years ago.
But its success has not just happened on the big stage. The Racers' core group is 74-14 in the last two-plus years, and the experience and success has made Prohm's job much easier. The 37-year-old was a 12-year assistant under former head coach Billy Kennedy, who left to take the Texas A&M job during the offseason.
Familiarity has bred success. Prohm recruited most of the mainstays and the transition has been seamless. More than anything, the mutual trust has pushed the Racers through some tough tests. They trailed by nine with less than 13 minutes left at Morehead State and stared up at a 12-point second-half deficit against UAB. They had Memphis dead to rights only to see the Tigers furiously rally late.
They have won from far down. They have withstood rallies and road games. They have taken down more accomplished foes and handled their conference business. It all adds up to 20-0 with a week to rest between its last victory, this past Saturday at SIU-Edwardsville, and its upcoming weekend showdown with an Eastern Illinois team they have already beaten by 33.
But no game is easy with a target on your back. And in a state defined by its basketball, Murray State is standing shoulder-to-shoulder, if not rising above the state's thoroughbreds for its time in the sun, an undefined amount of time that could extend far into March.
5 THOUGHTS FROM THE WEEK THAT WAS
1. The already thin North Carolina backcourt situation has become even more precarious after Dexter Strickland tore his ACL in last Thursday's victory over Virginia Tech. Strickland was not an offensive superstar by any stretch (even though he did lead the team in field goal percentage), but he was the best defender on an already suspect defensive team. The injury means more playing time for Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, but the domino effect doesn't stop there. In declaring point guard Kendall Marshall the nation's most important player in an early-season article, I stressed that the Tar Heels backcourt had to stay healthy to eliminate the need for Stillman White to log heavy minutes. He is now set to play at least five or six important minutes a game, especially since Marshall already is taking on the most minutes per game on the team.
2. Elsewhere in the ACC, could you ask for a better two-game stretch than the one Florida State has put together? The Seminoles waxed the Tar Heels by 33 and followed it up with a victory in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Michael Snaer's three-pointer at the buzzer. The Seminoles will go through nights of offensive ineptitude (see their losses to Harvard and Princeton), but their athleticism and attention to defensive detail make them a true threat in a wide open conference due to Duke's interior and point guard shortcomings and North Carolina's injury issues.
3. Maybe Syracuse's most important player is Fab Melo. That would be a complete 180 from his disappointing freshman season. Melo is a force in the middle, blocking 11 shots in a three-game stretch before missing Saturday's loss at Notre Dame. Without Melo plugging the middle, the Irish made 50 percent of its shots. They did make eight three-pointers, but it was more than that. Jack Cooley controlled the interior, scoring 17 points with 10 rebounds. Moreover, the Orange received an off night from Scoop Jardine, who finished without a made field goal.
4. Its identity may be as a jump-shooting, guard-swarming outfit, but at least Missouri is comfortable in its own skin. And you can't argue with the results. The Tigers' 89-88 victory over Baylor was a testament to their strength and balance. When Ricardo Ratliffe can complement the guard player (27 points, eight rebounds), Missouri is a national title contender. He may be the midseason Kendall Marshall, a necessary component to any championship aspirations. On the flip side, what happens to Perry Jones III when the lights shine brightest? The Bears' freshman took just seven shots and grabbed only four rebounds in 29 minutes. He played scared, soft and nothing like the ballyhooed player many think he is already or could become.
5. It was startling to sit down and watch UConn's loss at Tennessee on Saturday. The Huskies not only looked a step slow compared to the athletic Volunteers, but the offense consisted of Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb moving, dribbling and shooting while the other three players on the floor stood around. The loss of Ryan Boatright hurts, but where has Andre Drummond been, the same place as Baylor's Jones? He is 5-of-17 in his last two games and appears easily pushed out of his game by faster forwards.
THOUGHTS ON JOE PATERNO'S PASSING
I have my feelings on Joe Paterno's legacy. And you have yours. They may be similar in theme or grossly different in context, but truth be told, they are not identical.
That's what makes Paterno's place in your mind so personal. There is no absolute answer, even in the face of the holier-than-thou who insist they would have done more in Paterno's position when confronted with sexual molestation accusations against his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Or in the face of the coke-bottle-blinders who prescribe to Paterno's contention that history didn't adequately prepare the Greatest Generation for the tragedies associated with childhood rape.
Everyone has their agenda, including myself, when it comes to shaping Joe Pa's spot in the history books. Shouting from the mountaintop at a deaf congregation below just makes your voice, word-by-word, fade to black.
My advice to you: stop yelling, for no one is listening. Instead, read Virgil's Aeneid, which attempts to define life's simplistic realities against a nuanced understanding of its true purpose. It was a Paterno favorite, and a great dose of sensibility against the shouting voices of rage on both sides.
He was neither God nor the devil, but instead an imperfect man constantly striving towards a greater ideal he set forth for himself. In essence, Joe Paterno was human.
That doesn't deify him, but rather creates some perspective through which you can be your own judge of a man's character. None of us truly knew Joe Paterno, no more than any hero or villain we proclaim to understand better than most.
He was a football coach who built libraries and for some, like former Penn State defensive back Adam Taliaferro, moved the mental and emotional mountains of self-doubt that stood in the way of accomplishment.
He and I met once, talking for minutes that seemed like seconds, though I can't remember much. We were strangers, yet relatives, far apart, yet closer together than most outside my immediate family.
I loved the man, and still do. I thank him for everything he provided his university, MY university, the place responsible for shaping my most impressionable years. I thank him for teaching me the Penn State way, and I choose to remember the 99.99 percent of his life filled with philanthropy, kindness and heart, while understanding the .01 percent will never be written.
I respect those who feel otherwise, yet I don't hear your arguments. Just as you don't hear mine. We have all made up our minds about Joe Paterno. Our beliefs are based on personal stories, memories and Grand Jury reports.
There is no right and certainly no wrong. There is just gray. Realities are based on perception and facts are just crutches to support beliefs. In the end, there was undeniable good and one known insistence where Paterno, in his own words, "should have done more."
Whether that misjudgment is unforgivable is your call.
Look inside yourself. Make your own evaluations about whether virtuous men can be imperfect. And then I'll let you complain for the weeks, months and years to come.
As long as you let me grieve in peace for Joe Pa.