Let’s get it out of the way. Ja Morant and Markus Howard are the two most exciting players in college basketball not named Zion Williamson and it’s an absolute travesty that only one will advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
|Records||27-4 (16-2 Ohio Valley; Finished 1st); Won Ohio Valley Tournament|
|Leading Scorers||Ja Morant (24.6 PPG), Shaq Buchanan (13.0 PPG), Tevin Brown (11.7 PPG)|
|Leading Assist Man||Ja Morant (10.0 APG)|
|Leading Rebounder||Darnell Cowart (6.5 RPG)|
|Adj. Efficiencies||112.1 (Off.) | 98.7 (Def.)|
|Team eFG%||55.2% (Off.) | 46.4% (Def.)|
|Team 2PT%||57.2% (Off.) | 48.4% (Def.)|
|Team 3PT%||34.4% (Off.) | 28.5% (Def.)|
Four years after taking over for Steve Prohm, Murray State head coach Matt McMahon has the Racers back in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year and looking like the team they were prior to Prohm’s departure. Murray State went 27-4 this season and finished first in the Ohio Valley Conference, and won the conference tournament.
While the 27-4 record is impressive, it’s worth noting that the Racers went 0-2 against power conference teams this season, falling to Alabama and Auburn in nonconference play. However, the Racers do have a quadrant one win this year, as they defeated fellow NCAA Tournament team Belmont in the Ohio Valley Tournament final. As a whole, though, Murray State’s wins were rather unremarkable this year. Their 25 Division I victories had an average NET placement of #244, but that could also be attributed to the Ohio Valley Conference being one of the nation’s worst. Either way, Marquette has certainly faced better competition this year and has racked up better wins, as the Golden Eagles’ average NET victory was #117.
Regardless, let’s talk about Ja Morant. It’s hard to put into words just what the OVC Player of the Year and likely top 5 pick in the NBA Draft is capable of, but SB Nation’s Chris Schutte did a great job breaking Morant’s game down back in January. Simply put: He’s the next Russell Westbrook. Remember Murray State point guards Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne? Morant is more dynamic than both of them. In fact, one of his KenPom player comparisons is 2015 Kris Dunn, which is very accurate.
But Morant alone didn’t get the Racers to 27-4. Fellow guard Shaq Buchanan is Murray State’s second-leading scorer at 13.0 points per game, and was named the Ohio Valley’s Defensive Player of the Year. His perimeter defense is a large reason the Racers have been so successful this season. They boast the fourth-lowest three point percentage against in the nation at 28.5%, as they do a great job suppressing the three. Morant and Buchanan being Murray State’s two best defensive players could make for a long day on offense for the Golden Eagles — particularly Markus Howard. A team that is able to suppress threes and generate turnovers is a nightmare for Marquette.
Finally, it’s important to draw attention to Murray State’s leading rebounder, Darnell Cowart. In his first season at the Division I level, the Chicago native averaged 10 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, finishing fifth in the Ohio Valley in field goal percentage at .569.
As far as 5/12 matchups go in the NCAA Tournament, this one has no shortage of things to be captivated by. Marquette should focus on shutting down the players around Morant instead of trying to stop him, because he can’t beat them singlehandedly. It should be an intriguing game to watch.