Murray State exposes painful flaw in NCAA tournament selection process

Murray State guard Justin Seymour (23) reacts after losing in the OVC tournament title game to Belmont.

Jim Brown/Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

What might go down as the most exciting game of all the 2015 conference tournaments – not to mention the result with the most unfair of consequences, and the reason I’m writing this column – happened this past weekend in Nashville in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

With 3.2 seconds left, Taylor Barnette of Belmont hoisted up a deep fadeaway three that caught nothing but net. It was awesome, and, if you’re a Murray State fan, crushing. Belmont stole an NCAA bid from the hands of Murray State, a team that made it through the Ohio Valley regular season undefeated and even made it into the AP Top 25 at the end of the season.

Here’s why I’m writing this column: If you listen to the bracketologists – the people who know way more than you or me or anyone about the thinking of the NCAA tournament selection committee and the precedents set over the committee’s decades of picking at-large teams – the Murray State Racers have little shot at making the NCAA tournament.

This, despite the fact that the Racers this season had a 25-game winning streak. That’s the eighth-longest winning streak in college hoops since 2002. Murray State didn’t lose a single basketball game between Nov. 29, two days after Thanksgiving, and Saturday, where their hearts were ripped out and displayed to anyone watching.

They might not make the tourney despite the fact that head coach Steve Prohm might have the single most intriguing human-interest story leading into the NCAA tournament. When I spoke with him Tuesday evening, he was about to head into the hospital with his wife, Katie, who was to be induced for labor. They had purposefully scheduled their first baby to be delivered between the Ohio Valley and NCAA tournaments.

Now that’s commitment.

I know we’re supposed to be unemotional and unbiased when we are picking which teams ought to make the NCAA tournament, but come on: How much of a made-for-TV moment would it be for the CBS cameras to focus in on Prohm holding his newborn, hearing his team’s name called, and breaking down in torrents of pent-up emotion?

I asked FOXSports.com’s own bracket guru, Stewart Mandel, what the Racers’ chance is at making the NCAA tournament field. He put it at one percent.

NCAA TOURNAMENT CENTRAL

And this, I believe, is because of a flaw in the system, a flaw that boils every single season in one-bid conferences like the Ohio Valley down to a few games in March.

To be blunt, it sucks, and it needs to change.

“That’s the first time I’ve walked through a handshake line and I had nothing to say,” Prohm told me. “I tried to be as gracious as I could, but everything was just knocked out of you. Our guys were just an emotional wreck.”

Look: I get the numbers. I get that Murray State has zero wins against teams in the top 50 in RPI, and only one win against a team in the top 100 (Illinois State at 68th.) And I get that the Racers have one bad loss to a sub-200 RPI team, a season-opening loss to Houston, a team that would go 12-18. I also get that going undefeated in the Ohio Valley, while it’s a good mid-major conference, only means so much.

But I also get context. In this case, context matters. A lot. I get that Murray State started the season 2-4 because one player had an academic issue, another was out with an injury, a third was severely limited with an injury and a fourth was a junior college transfer who was still learning to play at this level. I get that once Murray State started to gel, you’d be hard-pressed to find many mid-major teams in the nation playing better. I get that Murray State has a future NBA point guard in Cameron Payne, from a conference that’s produced several NBA players in recent years like Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan and Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried.

“The NCAA tournament is there to reward excellence, and (the winning streak) is not excellent – that’s an amazing achievement,” Prohm said. “Along with being only the 5th team in 67 years to go undefeated in our conference. We’ve got to change the whole ‘Hey, it’s do-or-die on a Saturday night in Nashville’ thing. When our one-seed doesn’t win, if they do have the merit to get in, they should get in.”

PLAY FOX BRACKET CHALLENGE

“I really hope we’re rewarded,” he continued. “The thing I think people have to look at is this is a team that didn’t lose a basketball game from November 29 until March 7.”

Prohm also joked that he wanted to get a hashtag trending to help Murray State’s tourney hopes: #havingababyandgettingabid.

Prohm has done his research. He thinks there’s precedent for his team. He points to Middle Tennessee State making the tournament in 2013 (28-5 record, 1-3 against RPI top 100 teams) or Iona in 2012 (25-7, 5-3 against RPI top 100 teams). He makes a comparison – an imperfect comparison, but an interesting one nonetheless – with Ohio State’s national title-winning football team this year. Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech early in the season, but then they got better – way better. If you only paid attention to numbers, Ohio State may not have made the College Football Playoff. But they did, and they won.

Sure, an imperfect comparison. But still: We should pay attention to the big picture, not just the RPI picture. Look at Murray State, and they might – might –– be a team that could make a run in the tourney. Truth is, because of their conference affiliation, we don’t know – but I’d like their chances better than those of the power conference teams sitting on the bubble.

On a podcast this week, Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com floated the best idea I’ve heard yet to solve this annual issue for mid-major schools that won their regular season but not their conference tournament. His proposal was this: Change the First Four in Dayton. Two of those games ought to be between the type of at-large teams that get in with our current system, bubble teams like Indiana or Texas A&M. The other two games ought to be between the best teams in one-bid leagues who didn’t get the automatic bid – teams like Murray State. They play each other to get their shot at proper NCAA tournament games.

Isn’t that what the NCAA tournament is all about anyway? Giving lesser-known teams a chance? Wouldn’t all of us rather see an exciting Murray State team that frankly hasn’t had the opportunities for big wins this season over teams like Texas or Texas A&M or Illinois – teams who’ve had all the opportunities in the world during their regular season, yet didn’t prove themselves as a no-doubt tournament team?

So here is my plea to the NCAA tournament selection committee: Find it in your RPI-focused hearts to put the Murray State Racers in the tournament. If you don’t, I understand: It would be a major shift in the precedents you’ve set over the past several decades. But if you don’t put Murray State in for this tournament, change the way you look at these type of teams for future tournaments. Change your thinking for teams like this. Because these are the type of teams that bring excitement to one of America’s best sporting events. And teams like Murray State deserve a place in your dance.

After all, just read Coach Prohm’s tweet from Wednesday, just before midnight. The baby was born. It was a boy. His name was Cass.

"Cass is already screaming that we deserve a bid!!! Like father like son!!!" Prohm’s message read.

If you’re going to make an exception to your precedents, selection committee, isn’t now the time?

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.