Sophomore stud Ja Morant may be a top dog in college basketball, but he and the Murray State Racers are a surefire underdog heading into the NCAA tournament.
The mid-major squad was the first to earn a bid in the Big Dance after defeating Belmont 77-65 in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship. Morant, the eighth-leading scorer in college basketball (24.6 ppg) and projected No. 2 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, tallied a team-high 36 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in the victory.
The 6’3” guard, whose best offer out of high school was a scholarship to Power Five school South Carolina, has made Murray State a potential Cinderella story worth watching.
Morant confidently stepped into the national spotlight as the season came to a close, drawing top NBA executives, including Magic Jonson, to Murray State’s conference tournament games. Basketball analysts began comparing Morant to the likes of Russell Westbrook and De’Aaron Fox. ESPN’s Jay Bilas also likened Morant’s rise to that of NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who led a 10th-seeded Davidson on a notable run in the 2008 NCAA tournament.
But is Morant capable of carrying a mid-major like Murray State as far as a 2011 version of VCU, George Mason’s 2006 squad, or Curry’s Davidson?
The Racers are 3-16 all-time in the NCAA tournament. In 2012, the school accomplished its best tournament run, losing in the third round to Marquette 62-53. That Murray State team was led by Isaiah Canaan, who went on to play for the Houston Rockets as the 34th overall NBA draft pick.
Last year’s Racers team, featuring a freshman Morant, was one-and-done, losing to West Virginia 85-68 in its only NCAA tournament game. But Morant is twice the player he was last year. He’s doubled his scoring average from his freshman season and can seemingly score at will.
Morant also leads the NCAA in assists this season with 10.0 per game and is on pace to become the first NCAA Division I player to average 20 points and 10 assists since assists were first tracked by the NCAA in 1983-84.
Over two seasons, he’s notched 512 assists, just shy of Don Mann’s 531, a Murray State record he set from 1985-89. Morant also set the school’s single-season record for assists in February in a win over Tennessee Tech.
The point guard is an active rebounder, as well, ranking second on his team with 5.5 rebounds per game.
However, Morant does struggle at times with long-range shooting (33.6 percent). The team as a whole is shooting a 153rd-best 34.8 percent from three-point range, according to NCAA.com. With the Racers set to face much stronger teams in the tournament, three-point shooting will certainly come into play, especially if the Racers fall behind late in the game. Morant will need to step it up, or dish it out to Tevin Brown or Shaq Buchanan in the hopes they can hit a few clutch threes when necessary.
According to the latest bracketology, both CBS and ESPN have the Racers seeded 12th and facing a No. 5 seed Maryland or Marquette. The toughest competition Murray’s faced in its conference this season is a Belmont team with a NET ranking of 46 (the Racers are ranked 44th). Within the Ohio Valley Conference, Austin Peay and Jacksonville State rank inside the top 150. You’ll have to scroll down to No. 261 to find the next-highest ranked opponent in Eastern Kentucky, though.
While it’s not likely Murray State will make much more of a run than the second or third round, anyone who’s had their March Madness bracket predictions destroyed by a Cinderella knows anything is possible. With the nation eager to watch Morant’s lightning-quick speed, creative passing and highlight-reel-worthy dunks on college basketball’s biggest stage, he’s sure to find the motivation to lift his team to a victory or two.
Opposing defenses will know to focus their attention on Murray State’s star, but so did the ones who faced Curry back in 2008. That didn’t stop the eventual NBA MVP from scoring 40 points against Gonzaga, 30 against second-seeded Georgetown and 33 against Wisconsin.
Morant is capable of doing the same. He’ll need the rest of his teammates to step up as well. Against Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship, no other teammate scored more than 12 points, compared to Morant’s 36. The supporting cast will need to help create a lot more offense going forward.
The Racers currently stand at +50000 odds to win the whole tournament. And, no double-digit seed has ever claimed a national championship. A No. 8 Villanova is the lowest seed to go the distance, and that was back in 1985. Still, last year’s national semifinal featured an 11th seed Loyola-Chicago. If recent history is any indication, a double-digit seed like Murray State could be the next in line to surprise the field and step on the court in the Final Four.
If the Racers can stay composed on offense, play solid defense and let Morant shine, as he does best, Matt McMahon’s squad could very well make Murray State history and go farther than any Racers team has before in the NCAA tournament. But no matter what, they’ll be an exciting school to watch, and one you’ll find yourself pulling for, especially once you witness the greatness that is Ja Morant.