Ja Morant

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Murray State’s Ja Morant declares for NBA draft

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Murray State sophomore guard Ja Morant officially declared for the NBA Draft on Wednesday night.

The electric 6-foot-3 lead guard made national waves with his performance this season as Morant is projected to be a top-three pick in June’s draft.

Putting up a triple-double in an NCAA tournament win over Marquette in the first round, Morant became a huge early tournament storyline until the Racers were eliminated in the next round by Florida State. During his sophomore season, Morant averaged 24.5 points, 10.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range.

A high-flying guard who also led the nation in assists this season, Morant will be the top point guard prospect in the draft if he stays in as his unique combination of size, skill and athleticism makes him an enticing prospect.

Florida State ends Murray State, Ja Morant’s season to advance back to Sweet 16

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Florida State ended the potential Cinderella run of No. 12 seed Murray State and star point guard Ja Morant on Saturday as the No. 4 seed Seminoles ran away with a 90-62 victory in a second-round NCAA tournament matchup in the West Region.

Although Morant had the nation buzzing, again, thanks to a 5-for-5 start from three-point range to put the Racers ahead early in the first half, the depth, length and athleticism of Florida State quickly proved to be problematic for the Ohio Valley Conference champions. Settling in after Morant’s hot start, the Seminoles opened the game with a blistering 50-point first-half thanks to balanced scoring and 8-for-14 (61 percent) three-point shooting.

Florida State (29-7) advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season thanks to a 10-deep effort with contributions from numerous guys. Even without seniors Phil Cofer and David Nichols, the Seminoles were incredibly impressive as they threw five or six different defenders at Morant to slow him down while most of the roster hunted dunks and lobs on the offensive end.

Sophomore forward Mfiondu Kabengele (22 points, seven rebounds, three blocks) was a menace on both ends of the floor for the Seminoles, giving the team an early boost off the bench offensively and providing rebounding and rim protection at the other end.  Senior wing Terance Mann helped the Florida State attack with an efficient 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists as he got pretty much any look he wanted attacking the rack. Making only his third college start in place of the injured Cofer, freshman forward Raiquan Gray had a career-high 11 points and five steals as he gave Florida State a solid boost with his first-half perimeter shooting and unique playmaking. And Florida State had 47 bench points on Saturday as they never stopped coming at Murray State.

The Seminoles don’t feature eye-popping NBA Draft prospects or a household name. Yet they continue to show well in the NCAA tournament the past few years thanks to their unique collection of athletes. With its deep-and-athletic positionless rotation, Florida State has only lost twice since Jan. 5  — to No. 1 seeds Duke and North Carolina. The Seminoles look like one of the most dangerous teams heading into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament because they can win in a lot of different ways.

The Seminoles survived the hot shooting of Vermont in the first half while closing the game out with great free-throw shooting. On Saturday, Florida State stopped a supernova talent at lead guard from carving them up by throwing body-after-body at Morant. If Florida State is shooting well from the perimeter (a credible future concern given their 33.4 percent three-point shooting entering Saturday) then they can compete with any team in the country.

Murray State (28-5) looked like they could be up for another potential upset following Thursday’s win over No. 5 seed Marquette. But after the hot-shooting start from Morant, the Racers didn’t have enough help from his overwhelmed teammates. After the memorable triple-double against the Golden Eagles, Morant finished with 28 points, five rebounds and four assists as the sophomore had to do much more as a scorer against Florida State. While Morant had the hot start from deep, Florida State’s defense gave Morant some problems inside the arc as he was 8-for-21 from the field — 3-for-15 from two-point range.

Limiting looks for the rest of Murray State’s roster, only guard Shaq Buchanan (12 points) and big man Darnell Cowart (10 points) finished in double-figures as the Racers struggled to get clean looks outside of Morant.

The NCAA tournament run for Murray State ends in disappointing fashion thanks to Florida State’s onslaught. But we were also fortunate to see a superstar like Morant get to play two games against high-major competition on the national stage. Entering the NCAA tournament, many casual basketball fans had seen Morant’s name in the top three of NBA mock drafts and seemed skeptical about Morant’s lofty status given his mid-major pedigree. With the tournament’s first triple-double in years, the tournament’s best first-round dunk and a hot three-point shooting game, Morant captivated the nation for two rounds before his exit.

If this is the final send-off for Morant at the college level before June’s NBA Draft (and it probably is given his top-three status), then what a way to go out. Considering that Murray State would have likely missed the NCAA tournament had they lost to Belmont in the OVC tournament title game, we’re fortunate that the Racers (and also Belmont) got into the Field of 68 and gave us some great games. When critics ask for more quality mid-major teams to earn at-large bids over near-.500 power-conference teams this OVC stretch in 2019 is precisely the reason why.

Florida State advances to face either No. 1 seed Gonzaga in next Thursday’s Sweet 16 in Anaheim. The Seminoles facing Bulldogs will be a rematch of last season’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 matchup that saw No. 9 seed Florida State upset the No. 4 seed ‘Zags. Since both teams bring back similar rosters from last season, that rematch will be one of the most highly-anticipated games in the Round of 16.

Saturday’s Things to Know: Conference titles get decided; Murray State and Ja Morant earn an autobid

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Ja Morant, Murray State

Many consider the sophomore point guard to be among the nation’s best players, but Morant hasn’t received the type of national attention that he got on Saturday night. And the future lottery pick delivered in a big way.

Helping Murray State to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, Morant pick put up 36 points to go with seven rebounds and three assists as the Racers took down Belmont to earn the autobid in the Ohio Valley Conference.

With some fans tuning in to see Morant play for the first time, he didn’t disappoint, as he displayed the breathtaking playmaking ability and jaw-dropping athleticism that scouts have been raving about. One night after producing the go-ahead three-point play in the OVC semifinals, Morant again put his team on his back and got them back into the Big Dance.

March Madness just got soooo much better knowing that we get at least one more national showcase for Morant.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Michigan State Spartans

On Senior Day at the Breslin Center, if you’re going to kiss the Spartan logo at center court, then you better have the win in-hand before checking out for the final time. Especially when the Big Ten title is on the line and it’s a battle against bitter in-state rival Michigan when both teams are ranked in the top 10.

Michigan State rallied in impressive fashion in the second half to claim a share of the Big Ten title while also preventing the Wolverines from achieving the same with a 75-63 win. Trailing by eight points in the second half after a sluggish first 20 minutes, Michigan State started firing on all cylinders as junior point guard Cassius Winston’s hot stretch ignited a 25-4 Spartans run. After an ice-cold 1-for-8 start to the evening, Winston buried five straight shots to end the game with a team-high 23 points and seven assists.

This Big Ten title is especially impressive for Michigan State because the Spartans did it without Joshua Langford and Nick Ward playing for large stretches of time during the season. Missing two of their top players, and still earning a Big Ten title, speaks to the depth of the Spartans while Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo accomplished one of his most impressive feats.

Now the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, Michigan State is hoping to ease Ward back into the lineup so he can contribute during the NCAA tournament. The phrase “Izzo in March” is usually reserved for the NCAA tournament. But it feels okay to use it here given the extraordinary late-season circumstances.

SATURDAY’S WINNERS

Co-ACC Champions North Carolina and Virginia: The Tar Heels swept the regular-season series with the Blue Devils to claim their share ACC glory as Roy Williams continues to own Coach K in the regular-season ACC title department since taking over the Tar Heels in 2004. Even though North Carolina had some question marks entering this season, most notably at lead guard, they’ve put themselves in position to potentially earn a No. 1 seed with their play this season.

Virginia shook off the historic NCAA tournament loss to No. 16 seed UMBC to earn another ACC title with a win over Louisville as Tony Bennett continue to have the league’s number. Looking stronger, deeper and more dangerous than last season, Virginia is the rare No. 1 seed with a legitimate chip on their shoulder entering the postseason.

Buckle up for a fun ACC tournament next week, as Duke, North Carolina and Virginia all have solid cases to potentially earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

LSU: Playing without head coach Will Wade and freshman starting guard Javonte Smart, the Tigers still took care of business in a big home win over Vanderbilt. The victory gave the Tigers the outright title in the SEC — something few could have predicted entering the 2018-19 season given the strength of Kentucky and Tennessee. The recent Wade/Smart scandal has dominated the headlines and cast a black cloud over young LSU’s surprising season. It’s also easy to forget that the Tigers had to deal with the loss of teammate Wayde Sims in late September as he was tragically killed in a shooting. There’s a very real potential that this SEC championship will eventually get erased from the record books. But for now, LSU deserves to celebrate a special season in which they’ve overcome some incredibly difficult circumstances to become one of the best teams in the country.

Purdue: Splitting the Big Ten regular-season title with Michigan State after a road win at Northwestern, nobody expected head coach Matt Painter and his Boilermakers to have this type of season. With only one returning starter in Carsen Edwards, and with a mostly-new supporting cast, Purdue has been one of the nation’s pleasant surprises this season as Painter deserves National Coach of the Year chatter. In a brutally-tough Big Ten, Purdue seemed to only get better as the season wore along as they proved to be more than just Edwards and his scoring punch.

Co-Big 12 Champions Texas Tech and Kansas State: Who could have predicted these two winning the Big 12 championship? While Kansas State was a preseason top-10 team in the eyes of some following last season’s Elite Eight appearance, Texas Tech is another included on the list of most surprising teams in the country. The Red Raiders overcame the loss of six of their top eight scorers as head coach Chris Beard basically put an entirely new rotation on the floor from his own Elite Eight appearance last season. The national focus has drifted mostly towards Kansas losing its 14-year Big 12 regular-season title streak. Not enough credit has been given to Kansas State and Texas Tech both overcoming slow conference starts to bring home a league title.

Seton Hall: The Pirates had the best week of any bubble team in the country, and frankly, there doesn’t feel like a close second place. Earning back-to-back Q1 wins over Marquette and Villanova, the top two teams in the Big East, Seton Hall essentially punched its ticket into the NCAA tournament by grabbing two more monster wins during the final week of the regular season. Myles Powell is playing with a ton of confidence right now and the Pirates will be a fascinating team to follow at Madison Square Garden during the Big East tournament.

Temple: A home win over UCF could be the final ingredient in getting the Owls into the NCAA tournament. In head coach Fran Dunphy’s final season on the sidelines, Temple is hoping to be the fourth team from the American to make it into the Big Dance. During a season where many bubble teams are hovering near .500, while drawing the ire of college hoops diehards, it’s hard not to root for a story where a respected veteran coach leads his team into the field.

Villanova (even in a loss): Suffering a disappointing road loss at Seton Hall, the Wildcats still got lucky enough to win the Big East title, outright, thanks to Marquette’s shocking home loss to Georgetown. Even though Villanova struggled down the stretch this season — losing five of their last eight games — they still captured a conference title during an up-and-down season. Earning a No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament was an added bonus as Villanova tries to figure things out before the NCAA tournament.

SATURDAY’S LOSERS

Marquette: This recent stretch will haunt Marquette fans for years to come. Losing four straight games to close out the regular season, the Golden Eagles blew a shot at the Big East regular-season title on numerous occasions. As noted above, Villanova lost five of its final eight games. That allowed Marquette every opportunity to stay in the race. None of those chances were more apparent than Saturday. After the Wildcats fell to Seton Hall to begin the afternoon slate of games, Marquette took the floor at home against Georgetown knowing that they could win and earn a share of the Big East championship. And just like the previous three games, Marquette faltered in the final minutes to blow another winnable game. The Golden Eagles have been pitiful late in games over the last two weeks as they’re suddenly in a freefall heading into MSG for the Big East tournament. On the bright side, Marquette has single-handedly kept the Big East’s bubble teams afloat by gifting recent wins to Creighton, Seton Hall and now Georgetown.

Tennessee: Entering Saturday, the Vols were given a chance to be co-SEC champions with LSU. Tennessee squandered those circumstances with a road loss at Auburn to start the afternoon. Although it’s never easy to win at Auburn now that Bruce Pearl and the Tigers have that place rocking, Tennessee has to be kicking themselves knowing that they could have won the league in back-to-back seasons.

Loyola: We won’t be seeing Loyola and Sister Jean in the 2019 NCAA tournament following last season’s memorable Final Four run. The top-seeded Ramblers were upset by Bradley in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Saturday as Loyola’s two Conference Players of the Year, Clayton Custer and Marques Townes, were held to only 17 points combined on 7-for-27 shooting.

South Dakota State and Mike Daum: One of college basketball’s all-time greats will not be playing in the 2019 NCAA tournament as No. 1 seed South Dakota State shockingly fell to No. 8 seed Western Illinois in the Summit League tournament quarterfinals. Making an NCAA tournament appearance the past three seasons, it will feel bizarre not to have Daum and the Jackrabbits in the Big Dance during his final college season. Daum finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds in the loss as he only attempted 10 field goals on the night (making five).

FINAL THOUGHT

In looking over the power conference champions decided on Saturday, it’s crazy to think about how quickly things changed in college basketball throughout the course of this regular season. Let’s do a brief rundown in a bullet format to make things easier.

  • A few weeks into the season, Duke going undefeated was a legitimate storyline that people were discussing. Flash forward a few months later and North Carolina and Virginia split the ACC crown.
  • Listed as the preseason No. 1 team and national title favorite by many pundits, Kansas faltered and saw its dominant 14-year reign in the Big 12 come to an end. Kansas State started the Big 12 season 0-2 and Texas Tech was 4-3. Both of those teams pulled it together and shared the league title.
  • Within the last month, two top-10 tilts between Kentucky and Tennessee dominated the SEC headlines. LSU snuck in the back door to claim the SEC title over both of them. Outright.
  • Villanova was left for dead during nonconference play with losses to Furman and Penn. St. John’s and Marquette became trendy picks to win the Big East as conference play started. The Wildcats prevailed and still ended up gaining the Big East title.
  • And the Big Ten focused on Michigan’s early-season dominance only to see the Wolverines relinquish the league crown to rival Michigan State and Purdue. The Spartans lost arguably two of their top three players for most of conference season and still won while Purdue replaced four starters and became one of the nation’s biggest overachievers.

I guess the main point in all of this is that college basketball’s 2018-19 season has been absolutely insane — and that’s only touching on five major conferences to get to my point. That doesn’t even include the Pac-12’s historically awful season, Houston emerging as a legitimate top-10 team, and a point guard from Murray State being called the second best prospect in the upcoming NBA Draft only behind a dude who has been compared to LeBron.

Good luck predicting what’s going to happen over the final month of this zany season. All of the drama and surprises will be a ton of fun to watch.

Introducing Cinderella: Murray State and Ja Morant earn the first autobid

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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

RATINGS:

  • 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.

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Buffalo knocks off Syracuse, Duke wins big, Ja Morant’s big night

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Although the holidays are approaching and many schools are taking exams or already on winter break, there was a lot of college basketball happening on Tuesday night. Not many games went down between high-major opponents, but there was still some stuff to learn — including another big win for No. 14 Buffalo on the road.

Buffalo takes down Syracuse for big road win

One of college basketball’s surprise teams this season has been undefeated No. 14 Buffalo. Although I predicted this preseason that the Bulls would be a team to watch from the mid-major ranks, not even I envisioned that would be this good.

Buffalo picked up another quality win with a double-digit road win at Syracuse. After winning on the road at West Virginia and now against the Orange, the Bulls are now in position for a strong potential at-large bid even if they fall short in the MAC Tournament.

Syracuse, meanwhile, has dropped two straight to mid-major opponents at home after dropping one to Old Dominion on Saturday. The Orange need to fix a lot of things heading into ACC season.

No. 2 Duke cruises to victory against Princeton

Duke won its tune-up before a matchup against No. 12 Texas Tech later this week by dispatching Princeton for an easy home win.

R.J. Barrett played ultra-aggressive and finished with 27 points while Zion Williamson had 17 points and 10 rebounds and almost knocked himself out with a vicious block against the backboard.

Williamson remains No. 1 in the latest NBC Sports Player of the Year Power Rankings while Barrett checks in at No. 3 on that same list.

Murray State’s Ja Morant just misses triple-double in win over Evansville

Speaking of the Player of the Year Power Rankings, Murray State’s Ja Morant made sure to elevate his case with a monster game on Tuesday night. In a tight game with Evansville, the sophomore lead guard played all 40 minutes as he had 27 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.

Morant already has a triple-double against a Missouri Valley opponent this season as the nation’s leader in assists is putting up huge numbers all over the stat sheet. While he doesn’t play for a major program that will get seen by a huge national audience, Morant is a potential lottery pick and a darkhorse in this Player of the Year race.

VIDEO: Murray State’s Ja Morant throws down monster dunk on Alabama

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Murray State sophomore point guard Ja Morant is becoming a hot name among NBA draftniks and hardcore college hoops fans.

The 6-foot-3 lead guard had another monster outing on Monday night as he went for 38 points, nine rebounds and five rebounds in a loss on the road at Alabama. Morant, who some consider a potential first-round pick next summer, is coming off of a triple-double against Missouri State that was 29 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.

This dunk in the loss to Alabama should make more people aware of Morant’s freakish upside. He’s the nation’s leader in assists per game, shooting 42 percent from three-point range and he’s still playing above the rim over SEC-caliber competition.