The first autobid of the 2019 NCAA tournament has been earned as Murray State knocked off Belmont for a 77-65 win.
Receiving national attention all season thanks to sophomore point guard Ja Morant, the Racers don’t have to sweat on Selection Sunday thanks to another stellar performance from their superstar. Considered by some to be the best NBA Draft prospect in the country behind Duke’s Zion Williamson, Morant made the game-winning three-point play in the OVC semifinals on Friday before a 36-point performance against Belmont on Saturday. Morant’s heroics in Nashville during the week helped lift Murray State back into the Field of 68.
But Murray State is more than just Morant. The Racers were good enough to force their way into the bubble conversation before earning the autobid as they’ll be a very dangerous team in a few weeks.
CONFERENCE: Ohio Valley Conference
COACH: Matt McMahon
RECORD: 27-4, 16-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference
- KENPOM: 55
- NET: 52
PROJECTED SEED: Murray State was strong enough to earn at-large consideration before earning the autobid as they’ll likely slot at a No. 12 or No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament.
NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Besides for Morant (24.2 ppg, 10.3 apg, 5.5 rpg) and his electrifying athleticism and above-the-rim play, Murray State has three other double-figure scorers to contend with. It’s part of the reason Morant accumulated so many assists despite being a gigantic target all season. Senior guard Shaq Buchanan (13.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) is the team’s second-leading scorer while freshman guard Tevin Brown (11.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) has emerged as the team’s third playmaker on the perimeter. And junior big man Darnell Cowart (10.3 ppg and 6.7 rpg) is a wide-bodied big man who is a load to handle at 295 pounds.
BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: The Racers actually just earned their best win of the season by beating Belmont in the OVC title game as it gave them their first Q1 victory. Murray State also lost to Alabama and Auburn by single digits earlier this season. The only loss Murray State suffered that wasn’t a top-60 team in NET was a respectable Q2 loss to 20-win Jacksonville State. Even though Murray State didn’t play a lot of marquee competition, they didn’t really lose to anybody bad.
STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Morant led the country in assists per game by nearly 2.5 per contest over his leading competitor. But the key for Murray State making a run could be its stellar three-point defense. Allowing opponents to shoot only 28.7 percent from three-point range on the season, good for fourth in the nation, the Racers do an excellent job of playing opponents off the line and making them settle for twos.
HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: Murray State has consistently been one of the nation’s great mid-major programs. Making the NCAA tournament last season, the Racers have made 17 total NCAA tournament appearances. And besides for Morant, the program has a tremendous history of producing NBA guards — particularly for a mid-major program. Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne are both recent Murray State products who went on to play in the League.
FINAL THOUGHT: America needed this. During a season in which the bubble has been incredibly mediocre and filled with near-.500 teams from power conferences, getting an exciting player like Morant into the field is a breath of fresh air for college basketball diehards. Hopefully, the committee also takes a serious look at Belmont’s at-large profile as well. Because the Bruins have a star of their own in Dylan Windler and they’re a great team in their own right. It would be a lot of fun to see two OVC teams make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987.