'Reel' life has Tennessee State thriving on the road

Wednesday, February 8, 2012 at 10:01pm

John Cooper isn’t the superstitious type. So he doesn’t believe a pre-game movie is the reason for Tennessee State’s recent road winning streak.

Even so, the TSU men’s basketball coach can’t argue with the results.

Three weeks ago, the night before their game at Eastern Illinois, the team decided to see the latest Mark Wahlberg flick, 'Contraband.' The next night, the Tigers escaped Charleston, Ill., with a win.

They stuck with the routine and also picked up wins at UT-Martin and Southeast Missouri State on the heels of watching 'Red Tails' and 'Man on a Ledge.'

The movie is also a reward at the end of a long day. The day TSU hits the road it practices at 5:30 a.m.

“Oh, man. It takes a little while to get guys going but eventually it turns into a good practice,” TSU forward Kellen Thornton said. “It gives us the rest of the day to be off our legs and just chill at the hotel and go see movies.”

Prior to the EIU trip, TSU won just two of its 10 road games. Since the movie marathon began, the Tigers have won three in a row on the road.

Coincidence? Maybe. But they can’t stop movie night now, especially with a visit to No. 9 Murray State, the nation’s last undefeated team, on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN3.com).

“The problem is you do that the whole season you’ll run out of movies,” Cooper joked. “If we don’t go to a movie ... trust me, I just don’t believe that is the reason why we win or lose. I think more than anything it has gotten us into a routine. We’ll see if maybe we can continue the streak.”

The Tigers might need more than cinematic magic to knock off the Racers (23-0, 11-0 OVC).

While no one has solved Murray State this season, TSU’s woes extend further. The Tigers (15-10, 8-4) are riding a five-game winning streak but have dropped eight straight to the Racers dating back to the end of the 2007-08 season. None of the current players or coaches have been involved in a win against Murray.

“It would be nice to knock them off,” Thornton said. “But we’re going to take it just like every other game. It is another road game. ... We are going to give them our best shot. They’re going to have to give us theirs. It is going to be a good game.”

The Racers are led by junior point guard Isaiah Canaan, who ranks second in the league in scoring (18.9 ppg) and 3-point shooting percentage (46.3). He is complemented by senior guard Donte Poole (14.2 ppg) and big man Ivan Aska (11.9 ppg).

Murray has won 18 straight at home and leads the Ohio Valley Conference in 10 statistical categories, including scoring offense (75.2 ppg) and scoring defense (61.3 ppg).

The Racers have shown some vulnerability inside, though. In an 81-73 win against Southeast Missouri last week, they were outscored 44-24 in the paint. That could bode well for post players like Thornton (6-foot-7), Kenny Moore (6-7) and Robert Covington (6-9).

“They do a good job of controlling the inside but SEMO went right at the rim,” said Thornton, who is averaging 9.1 points but is coming off back-to-back 15-point games. “We can’t shoot a lot of jump shots. We’re just going to have to attack the rim and be physical just like they are.”

A win against Murray State would ensure the Tigers of their first winning season in 16 years and would be their first win over a Top 10 opponent in 11 tries. They also would grab sole possession of second place in the OVC with just two weeks remaining in the regular season.

They are currently tied with Tennessee Tech, which TSU hosts Saturday.

But, obviously, knocking off the Racers would allow TSU to be an answer to trivia question. It would almost certainly thrust the Tigers, if only for 15 minutes, into the national spotlight, providing them with their very own Hollywood moment.

“This is why you go to school. This is why you come to this level — for these kinds of opportunities,” Cooper said. “We are going to have to play one of our best games. ... You are always looking for those things that they feel good about themselves [as players] and they feel confident in what we are doing. Things that solidify what we have done as a staff, what we’ve done as a team and that we are headed in the right direction. When you are able to get those big victories, it confirms those things.”