MURRAY STATE'S players are on a mission: Prove that hiring Steve Prohm as head coach was the right move.
So far, so good.
No. 20 Murray State is one of six undefeated Division I men's basketball teams, along with Syracuse, Louisville, Baylor, Missouri and Indiana. The Racers, out of the Ohio Valley Conference, are off to their best start in 75 years at 13-0.
When Billy Kennedy left for Texas A & M, senior forward Ivan Aska stated his case for the next coach with athletic director Allen Ward - 37-year-old Prohm, an assistant on Kennedy's staff.
"I wanted to be with a coaching staff that knows the players and knows what we're capable of," Aska said. "With a new coach coming in there would be a lot of drama and confusion because the coaches have to know the players and the players have to know the coaches, but coach Prohm has been there since my freshman year and it means he can relate to us."
Junior Isaiah Canaan, the team's leading scorer at 19.3 points per game, said the difference in team production comes down to Prohm's family approach.
"He loves his players like we were all his sons," Canaan said. "He probably cares about us more than he cares about himself and that makes us want to play even harder so we won't let him down and show that we always have his back."
Prohm has been known to dive for loose balls in practice, saying he's more interested in developing the character of his players as people than someone who can simply fill up a box score.
"If you're going to win big you've got to have great ability and great players," Prohm said, "But, if you have players with great character and great toughness then you have a chance to go beyond the norm and do special things.
"Our biggest thing is having a great season, having great success and winning a championship but to get these guys ready to compete. Whether it's in the professional world athletically after this or if it's the professional world from a business standpoint, you do that by talking to them. Whether it's about their Christian walk, or helping them make the right decisions with integrity or representing the program the right way, because at the end of the day, everything is bigger than just the game of basketball."
Murray State was tabbed to finish third in the OVC after being picked to win each of the past two seasons, earning at least a share of the regular-season title each time. More than half of the 13 players on the roster were recruited by Prohm.
"I don't know if that makes a difference because Ivan Aska, I didn't recruit him and he is a great leader and works his tail off every day and his leadership has been tremendous," the coach said. "I think they play hard because they're great kids and know what it takes to win and I think we have a good relationship with one another. I think we have a good trust and that helps them compete and play hard, not for me but for Murray State.
"We're only halfway through the season. This isn't time to have an ego, this is time to continue to come together as a team and try to get better on both ends of the floor and play for one another because you have your sights on something special, a chance to continue to do special things so you can't be apart, we have to be closer than ever right now."