Thank goodness Murray State made it into the NCAA Tournament, because before last Saturday it seemed worryingly possible that Ja Morant and his Racers might be hanging out in the NIT this postseason. But after finishing as OVC regular-season co-champions with Belmont and then winning their conference tournament over those Bruins, Murray State won itself a date with Marquette in the first round. This is good, because it means that the two highest-scoring players in the entire field of 68 will go toe-to-toe, at the same position, in what looks like a pretty evenly matched game.
The fifth-seeded Golden Eagles are favored, in large part because they have Markus Howard, a 5-foot-11 point guard who fearlessly shoots over taller defenders and looks beautiful while doing it. Howard, a junior, only has one NCAA Tournament game on his resume so far, a loss to South Carolina during his freshman year. He was a staggeringly good marksman on that team, too, but 2019 Marquette lives and dies on his shooting performance in a more profound sense. Despite the team sliding into the tournament having lost five of their last six, Howard himself has ably carried the weight all season long, with a .404 shooting percentage from three in conference play and a team-best 4.0 assists per game. His ferocious 53-point OT game against Creighton still needs to be seen to be believed:
Murray State hasn’t faced any player as good as Howard this season—they’ve played very few teams that qualify as good, period, since the calendar flipped to 2019—so it’s hard to predict how they’ll try and stop him. But it’s likely they’ll have shooting guard and OVC Defensive Player of the Year Shaq Buchanan cover Howard as closely as he can in the hopes that his four-inch height advantage might give him a chance. That would leave the Racers’ most important player, Ja Morant, to take the relatively unthreatening Sacar Anim and keep himself fresh for the heroics that will be required of him on the other end of the floor. Whatever the match-up, Murray State will have to keep its defense extended well beyond the three-point arc, switch quickly when Howard tries to free himself with screens, and keep their eyes on three-point shooting brothers Sam and Joey Hauser on the wings. The worst-case scenario for the Racers would be something like their game against Auburn in late December, when the Tigers racked up 93 points in major part because Murray State looked clueless as point guard Jared Harper drive-and-kicked them into oblivion.
Even if Marquette drops a bunch of points on MSU, Morant can be counted on to bust his ass in trying to make up the difference. After senior point guard Jonathan Stark led Murray State to a 12-seed last season, Morant took the reins as a sophomore and quickly became the single most crucial player on any team in college basketball, using 36.6 percent of the Racers’ possessions while remaining remarkably efficient. This is not to say that he’s perfect: Morant averages an astonishing 5.2 turnovers per game, and can get wild and messy with his play sometimes. Murray State surely knew that some of this was in the offing when it handed the ball to a 19-year-old and told him to go out there and just do everything, but Morant makes it work by balancing the mistakes out with startling bursts of athleticism and laughably high assist totals. Even those who casually follow NBA prospects know Morant’s name by now, and now he’ll get an opportunity to show what he can do where people other than ESPN+ subscribers can see it. If he can isolate himself against the shorter Howard, he’ll hopefully try to pull off at least three of these dunks on Thursday.
As thrilling as the first two days of the NCAA Tournament are, they often lack marquee matchups. On paper, everything except the 8-9 and 7-10 games have clear-cut talent disparities, and beyond those, it’s pretty much a crapshoot determining which other contests will or won’t be close. Murray State-Marquette isn’t guaranteed to be an instant classic or anything like it. But this is the rare first-rounder that teases us with a compelling battle before the first shot has even been taken. Helpfully, it gets that awkward time slot right before the dinner break, which means that, in the late Thursday afternoon, all eyes will be on Markus Howard and Ja Morant.