CARBONDALE — Murray State University was one of the six founding members of the Ohio Valley Conference in 1948, but is officially exploring its options.
After passing a five percent tuition increase for the 2017-18 school year, the Murray State Board of Regents heard Racers athletic director Allen Ward and president Dr. Bob Davies say the school is open to joining another league if it's the right fit. Murray State, located in Murray, Kentucky, about an hour and a half south of Carbondale, competes in 16 sports.
"We do find ourselves to potentially have an amazing opportunity," Davies said, according to a report from WPSD-TV in Paducah.
Neither Ward nor Davies mentioned the Missouri Valley Conference, which is in search of a 10th team to replace Wichita State after the Shockers left April 7 for the American Athletic Conference. The Valley could be in search of more than one team for the 2017-18 season and beyond. League officials released a statement after the Shockers announced their move to the AAC that it would not comment publicly about the search for a new team, its intentions or criteria until after the search concluded.
The Murray State Board of Regents unanimously approved a motion to authorize Murray State officials to present any conference invitations to the board "as needed, and to respond in a timely way," according to the Paducah Sun.
Murray State could be very attractive for the Valley as a new member, but also has significant drawbacks. The Racers have a long, successful history in men's basketball, the Valley's marquee sport, reaching the NCAA Tournament 15 times, including five times since 2000. Murray State won the 2014 Collegeinsider.com tournament (CIT) and played in the NIT in 2011 and 2015.
The Racers thrived under former coach Steve Prohm, who is now at Iowa State, but are barely above .500 in coach Matt McMahon's two seasons (33-31 overall and 18-14 in the OVC). Murray State returned three starters in 2016-17 and went 16-17 overall.
The Racers beat Illinois State, which finished second in the Valley, on a last-second shot in the season opener, but lost at SIU in overtime and by 32 at Evansville. The Salukis tied for third place in a down Valley at 9-9, while Evansville finished eighth in the MVC with a 6-12 record.
Murray State, which was picked to win the West Division in the OVC preseason poll, finished 8-8 in league play (third in the West). The Racers' 16-17 mark ended a streak of 29 straight winning seasons.
Murray State competes at the CFSB Center (8,600), which was built in 1998, and had an enrollment of 10,998 last fall. It competes in all the Valley's major sports, baseball, men's and women's basketball, softball and volleyball, as well as golf. The Racers only compete in women's track and field, women's soccer, and men's and women's rifle, which is not an MVC sport.
Their football team, an FCS program, competes in the OVC and is scheduled to play SIU in 2018.
The Racers would be the Valley's sixth public school if it joins — Wichita State was also public — but would stretch the league's geographic footprint south. SIU would be Murray State's closest Valley opponent if it joined the league, at 114 miles. Murray, located 118 miles from Nashville, sits 141 miles from Evansville, 322 miles from Springfield, Missouri, and 585 miles from Des Moines.
The Horizon League and Summit Leagues could, conceivably, also pursue Murray State. The Horizon League currently has 10 teams, including Valparaiso, which the Valley is expected to pursue as a potential 10th member, while the Summit League will have 10 teams beginning in 2018-19 with the addition of North Dakota. Both leagues could look to add more teams, and/or be affected by the Valley's pursuit of another member. The MVC added Loyola, which left the Horizon League, in 2013 after Creighton bolted for the Big East Conference.