Billy Kennedy knows a little something about low-major programs. Kennedy is Murray State's head coach, and he's been a staple of the southeastern low-major hoops scene since 1997. He earned a reputation as a strong leader after turning around programs at Centenary and Southeast Louisiana before heading to MSU after a year assisting at Miami (FL). Over the course of a 25 year coaching career, Kennedy has shown a trend of building teams up from mediocrity and into conference stalwarts. He's been named a NABO District Coach of the Year three times in the past seven years; his 2010 Racer squad will mark his second Automatic Bid since 2005.
This article was originally going to chronicle Murray State's best player, but after looking at the Racers' roster, it's clear that their biggest threat to the Commodores is their head coach. Kennedy has assembled one of the most well balanced teams in the country. Four of the team's starters were selected to the ten-man Ohio Valley Conference All-Conference team, and MSU also accounted for the league's Sixth Man of the Year. Just look at these stats:
That's impressive balance from a team that excelled at winning games in 2009-2010. With a lineup like that, the Racers have options across the court to pick up the scoring load against Vanderbilt - a potential reason why SI.com's Stewart Mandel considered them his top Cinderella candidate. He also called Vandy a Final Four sleeper, so we know he's legit.
This depth plays a huge role in Kennedy's system, as the Racers push the pace to create easy baskets and instant offense. Ten players average over 10 minutes a game for MSU, and no player averages more than 26 on the team. The team's overall shooting - 50.3% from the field - will give them a punchers chance, even though they haven't faced a team like Vanderbilt this year.
Kennedy's mark on Murray State can be seen in his recruiting as well. No one would suggest that it's easy to get recruits to play at Murray, Kentucky, but Kennedy has been slowly raising the team's recruiting profile. When he can't rely on a superstar player, he instead turns to depth - just take this year's Racers' team as an example. This system has translated to more wins on the basketball court and a more attractive option for potential recruits. In Kennedy's first year on the recruiting trail for Murray State (2007), he brought in four players - two were two-star recruits, and two were unranked. Since then, he's expanded the team's recruiting pipeline to states like Florida and Colorado while adding three-star recruits to his team's rotation.
Kennedy, however, needs a NCAA Tournament win to give him a crowning achievement. While his Racers will be given a respectable shot at the upset, one of his earliest decisions for the 2009-2010 season may end up sinking him - his lack of big out-of-conference games. Vanderbilt will be the toughest opponent this team has faced by far, with the only other comparable mark on the Racers' schedule being a season-opening loss to California. Without any big game experience this year, the team could be lost when it becomes time to put it all together on the game's biggest stage. Despite this, Coach Billy Kennedy will be working his tail off to get this team in shape - and that's what makes him the Commodores' biggest enemy come Thursday.