The number one basketball team in the country plays its home games in front of 24,000 fans. On its off days, it hones its skills in a practice facility that cost a recession-proof $30 million dollars. LeBron James personally designed its trademark blue Nike sneakers. Jay-Z and Drake can often be found blue clad and courtside during nationally televised games. Über-alumnus Ashley Judd frequents the student section regularly, no matter who the opponent or coverage provider may be.
The number 10 team plays its home games in an arena that seats 8,000 fans. It practices in that same second-rate arena. The team wears Nike sneakers as well, but the most personal attention paid to it comes from the minimum wage employees who pack the boxes. It has no celebrity fans. Its list of famous alumni is a veritable who’s who of people who test the definition of the word “famous.”
The number one basketball team in the country is coached by the most polarizing figure in college athletics. He is also the best recruiter and developer of talent that modern college basketball has ever seen. His larger-than-life celebrity persona is perfect for the flagship program he represents.
The number 10 team is coached by a career assistant in his first go-around as a head coach. No one knows his name. He too is the perfect representative for the program he figureheads.
The number one basketball team in the country is the winningest program in the history of college basketball. They have been to 14 Final Fours.
The number 10 team has appeared in the NCAA tournament a total of 14 times.
The number one basketball team in the country has won seven national championships.
The number 10 team has won two NCAA tournament games.
The number one basketball team in the country calls the Commonwealth of Kentucky its home. So does the number 10 team. However, as programs, they are worlds apart.
The number one college basketball team in the country is the John Calipari-led University of Kentucky Wildcats. Its hometown of Lexington, Ky. serves as what can only be described as the mecca of college basketball. In a part of the country where football is king, basketball somehow reigns supreme. As such, the spotlight shines brightly on the homegrown Cats, and the expectations are unfailingly high on a yearly basis. After an Elite Eight appearance in 2010, and a Final Four appearance last year, the line has been drawn in the sand for this season: fans and players alike expect yet another championship run.
The number 10 team is the Steve Prohm-coached Murray State University Racers. The 10,000-student state university is located four hours to the south of Lexington, in the otherwise insignificant town of Murray, Ky. Tucked away in the southwest corner of the state, just 10 miles from the Tennessee border, the Racers do not know the burn of the bright lights endured by their in-state rivals. However, as the last remaining undefeated team in the country, they are now getting a crash course in enhanced expectations.
While in years past an NCAA tournament birth would have been primary goal to accomplish for the Racers, this is no longer the case. As Prohm’s boys now find themselves sandwiched in the polls amongst traditional powers University of Kansas (No. 8), Michigan State University (No. 9), University of Nevada-Las Vegas (No. 11) and University of Florida (No. 12) the status quo has been disrupted in Murray. Like its Big Blue brothers to the north, the Murray State faithful now have visions of a long jaunt into March.
However, given the long history of the NCAA tournament’s winners and losers, these visions are not delusions of grandeur for the Racers. They are tangible. One only needs to be vaguely familiar with the recent history of programs such as Butler University, George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University to acknowledge the truth of this.
This is what is truly great about college basketball. Unlike the reality that exists at an almost shameful level in college football, basketball is not defined by the traditional, tired tale of the haves lording over the have-nots. As a result of the format provided by the beautiful gift to sports fans that is March Madness, teams like Murray State have an equal shot at the title. Come March, the multi-million dollar practice facilities, celebrity fans and ESPN coverage enjoyed by programs such as Kentucky are rendered moot.
It is impossible to say if this year’s Cinderella story will be Murray State. Just as there is no guarantee that the five-star luxuries enjoyed by Kentucky will secure it a pass to the Final Four, there is no certainty in the sustained success of the surprising Racers.
There is still plenty of time for the Racers to turn back into the pumpkin that they were before.
That being said, history tells us someone will beat the odds and have a chance to cut down the nets. This being the case, as of right now, the road to the championship goes through Kentucky. It just remains to be seen which character in the fairy tale will be left standing.
Thus is the beautiful madness of March basketball.