4:30 PM EST, TBS – Line: Marquette -4, Over/Under: 149.5
With the First Four out of the way, the NCAA Tournament proper kicks off with one of those signature 5/12 matchups that appears ripe for an upset, as the Fifth Seed Marquette Golden Eagles battle the Twelfth Seed Murray State Racers at XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. For the second consecutive year, Murray State (27-4, 16-2 in OVC) enters the NCAA Tournament as both the Ohio Valley Conference Regular Season and Tournament Champion, though will be looking to make a more prolonged run in the Big Dance than they did a year ago, when they were eliminated in the First Round by West Virginia in a 68-85 rout. However, that experience has helped propel Matt McMahon’s charges though the term, winners of eleven consecutive outings. Now we’ll see if they can in fact earn what would be just their fourth tourney win in the last twenty years, and their first since the 2011-2012 campaign. So let’s take a look at why this team is such a trendy pick to pull an upset, shall we? First and foremost, the Racers are everything their name implies; they’re a prolific offensive unit averaging 83.3 Points (11th Overall) on 49.6% shooting from the field (9th Overall), including 58.2% from within the arc (6th Overall) and 34.8% beyond it (157th Overall), while dishing out 18.1 Assists (10th Overall) in comparison to 12.1 Turnovers (63rd Overall). On the opposite end, they’ve allowed just 67.8 Points per Game (76th Overall) on 41.0% shooting from the field (45th Overall), proving particularly staunch against the Money Ball relegating the opposition to a scant 28.2% shooting from downtown (4th Overall). Furthermore, they’re extremely active, racking up 7.6 Steals (65th Overall) and 4.6 Blocks (49th Overall), while exhibiting sound discipline defensively, committing 16.3 Personal Fouls per Game (39th Overall), with opponents attempting just 17.3 Free-Throws against them (57th Overall). Oh, and then there’s this kid that goes by the name of Ja Morant (24.6 PTS, 50.3% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 10.0 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 31.9 PER), who you may have heard of. The Sophomore Point Guard has done nothing but see his stock skyrocket this season, so much so that the popular opinion among NBA Scouts is that he’s successfully planted his flag as the No. 2 Pick in this Summer’s NBA Draft. Morant leads the Ohio Valley Conference in a slew of categories, including Points, Assists, Free-Throws made and attempted, and Minutes Played. If some how you’ve managed to miss out on this kid, then by all means you are about to get acquainted.
When we last saw the Racers, they were busy running their current winning streak to eleven games, avenging an earlier loss to Belmont on the strength of a 77-65 triumph in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship Game. The reigning league champions exploited the shorthanded Bruins, particularly in the Second Half in which McMahon’s troops ran their opposition out of the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana, outscoring them 51-34 over the final twenty minutes of action, and shooting a blistering 58.6% in that span. Unsurprisingly, Morant was the star of the show, scoring Twenty-Two of his Thirty-Six Points in the Second Half, in route to a 13-of-25 shooting performance (52.0%), along with Seven Rebounds, Three Assists, Steal and a pair of Blocks. He was also 9-of-9 from the Charity Stripe, where the team as a whole really seized control of the affair, outscoring Belmont by Eight Points in that regard. Hell, they even MADE more Free-Throws (16) than their opponent attempted (11). The OVC Player of the Year played the entire forty minutes of the Final, stringing together an eight consecutive points down the stretch to fend off a final push from the Bruins. Murray State outscored their counterparts 11-0 over the final 2:25 of play. Defensively, the Racers really put the clamps on the Bruins, who struggled without OVC Freshman of the Year Nick Muszynski, sidelined with a sprained right ankle suffered in the Semifinal. Murray State relegated Belmont to a miserable 39.1% shooting from the field, including 7-of-32 from beyond the arc (21.9%), while hammering them on the glass 43-30.
Meanwhile, looking to avoid the upset is Marquette (24-9, 12-6 in Big East), who are back in the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus, the second appearance in Steve Wojciechowski’s five-year reign in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s very much been a case of incremental growth for the Golden Eagles, who after accumulating their highest win total since the 2012-2013 campaign, are in search of earning their first NCAA Tournament victory since that same season, in which they coincidentally advanced to the Elite Eight. However, achieving that goal will be no small task, for this is not a team that has much momentum on their side, for apart from an 86-54 thumping of (fading) St. John’s in the Big East Tournament, they’ve lost five of their last six outings. Ending the Regular Season on a four-game losing streak is never the way you want to enter the NCAA Tournament, though to be fair a good deal of their struggles had to do with health of their own star Guard, Markus Howard (25.0 PTS, 42.4% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 26.0 PER). This particular matchup with Murray State’s Ja Morant is shaping up to be one of the premier one-on-one battles of the tourney, though a great deal is going to depend on just how healthy the Junior sharpshooter is after sustaining minor groin and wrist injuries three weeks ago. To his credit, Howard gutted his way through the ailments, managing to score 23.8 Points despite shooting just 35.8% from the floor, including a dreadful 29.8% from downtown, with more Turnovers (5.0) than Assists (3.8). This could certainly be more of a case of the wrist bothering him more than the groin, particularly when you consider the Turnovers. However, if this kid is on his game, then the Racers had better look out; Howard scored Thirty or more Points on ten occasions this season, including a Fifty-three outburst against Creighton back in early January. Wojciechowski is going to need to call upon the Supporting Cast compensate for his ailing star, with the Hauser Brothers, Sam (14.9 PTS, 46.4% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 21.0 PER) and Joey (9.7 PTS, 45.0% FG, 43.3% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.4 STL, 13.4 PER), mot likely to supplement the production. Both have been prolific from beyond the arc, with the former knocking down Eighty-Five Three-Pointers this season, second-most on the team behind Howard, while also pacing the them with 7.1 Rebounds per Game.
When we last saw them, Marquette followed their aforementioned thrashing of St. John’s by getting eliminated by Seton Hall in the Big East Semifinals 79-81. What was billed as a heavyweight fight featuring the league’s top two scorers, instead became an affair littered with fouls, Fifty-Seven between the two teams to be exact, which led to a jarring performance from both sides that was admittedly hard to watch for the folks at Madison Square Garden. Altogether, the Golden Eagles and Pirates combined to attempt a staggering Eighty-Five Free-Throws, with the latter netting only 56.4% of their Attempts, which allowed the former to keep things close throughout. Hell, between them, four different players fouled out, which should provide further context for the events that transpired Friday Night. Trailing by two minutes inside of a minute to play, Howard had a good look to take the lead with a clutch Three, but saw his desperate attempt hit the front of the rim, ending what was arguably his poorest performance of the season. The Big East’s leading scorer clearly looked like he had reaggravated his sore left wrist, for he finished the affair with Twenty-One Points, but did so on a horrendous 1-of-15 shooting from the field (06.7%), including 1-of-9 from beyond the arc (11.1%). If you’re wondering just how the hell he scored all those points, then look no further than the Charity Stripe, where Howard was for all intents and purposes a one-man band, calmly knocking down 18-of-24 Free-Throws (75.0%). All in all, his struggles were indicative of the team as a whole, for Marquette only shot 39.4% from the floor, including 8-of-26 from long-range (30.8%), and struggled to move the basketball throughout the night, assisting on just Eleven of their Twenty-One Field Goals, while committing Ten Turnovers. The Hauser Brothers definitely picked up the slack for Howard, with the Forwards combining for Thirty-Four Points on 12-of-24 shooting (50.0%), including 5-of-12 from three (41.7%), with Fifteen Rebounds and Five Assists.