The Murray State Racers are your first March Madness darling of 2019. Murray State, a No. 12 seed in the West region, ran fifth-seeded Marquette off the floor in their opening round matchup of the NCAA tournament, advancing with a 83-64 win.
The Racers are led by Ja Morant, the superstar sophomore point guard projected to be a top-three pick in the June’s NBA draft. All Morant did against Marquette was record the eighth triple-double in tournament history, finishing with 17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds in the victory.
Morant’s draft stock was secure even before Murray State punched its ticket to March Madness. What’s wild to think about is that Racers likely would have been overlooked for an at-large bid had they not claimed the Ohio Valley tournament title with a tight win over Belmont in the championship game.
Now Murray State faces Florida State in round two on Saturday after the Seminoles outlasted Vermont in round one. FSU shouldn’t take the Racers lightly. This is a team with all the makings of a Cinderella.
Ja Morant is a top-3 NBA draft pick for a reason
It’s possible that only Duke superhuman Zion Williamson gets taken ahead of Morant in the NBA draft. He didn’t just live up to the hype against Marquette — he exceeded it.
Morant dominated a game in which he only took nine shots. While his high-flying dunks get all the attention ….
… Morant’s best skill is his passing ability. He plays with an impressive mixture of patience and awareness as a lead ball handler, knowing where his teammates are going to be before they even get there.
Some of the dimes he had to open the game were just absurd:
Morant led the country in assist rate and finished top-10 in scoring at nearly 24 points per game. There isn’t a point guard in this tournament as dynamic as him. Knocking out Markus Howard — a top five player in the field — just proved it.
With Morant in charge, Murray State already has a talent advantage against any power conference team at arguably the most important position on the court.
Murray State also has size inside
Williams finished with 16 points and four rebounds on 8-of-10 shooting, mostly off dimes from Morant. Cowart had nine points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block. Despite being Murray State’s lowest-scoring starter, there were times when Cowart felt like the second best player on the team because of his all-around game.
Williams, a freshman, is 6’9, 240 pounds. Cowart, a junior, is 6’8 and close to 300 pounds. That type of size is a rarity for mid-major teams. With big bodies up front, the Racers won’t be overmatched against anyone.
The Racers challenge every shot
The Racers only rank No. 80 in the country in defensive efficiency, but they do a few things well. Mostly, Murray State excels at contesting shots. They held opponents to a 46.4 effective field goal percentage this season, which ranked No. 20 in the country. Teams only shot 28.5 percent from three against them, which was No. 4 in America.
Murray State gives up too many offensive rebounds typically, which is their downfall defensively. Well, Marquette won the offensive rebound battle 18-8 and still got smoked. The Racers are always looking for the runout in transition, which helps pace their electric offense.
Morant is one of the great mid-major stars of the decade, right up there with Jimmer Fredette, only with so much more athleticism. His supporting cast has size and doesn’t give up open looks. The Racers are very much a threat to break into the second weekend.
March Madness is all about teams like Murray State and stars like Morant. Get on the bandwagon while there’s still room.