Marquette versus Murray State has the potential to be the best first-round matchup of the 2019 NCAA Tournament with Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard squaring off against projected top-five NBA Draft pick Ja Morant.
If both players simply score their season scoring averages (25.0 points per game for Howard and 24.6 for Morant), that’s 50 points combined. If you add up both players’ single-game season-high, that’s 93 points, between Howard’s 53 points against Creighton and Morant’s 40 against SIU-Edwardsville.
It’s really hard to overstate the two players and their roles for their respective teams. They have two of the five highest usage rates in all of college basketball (meaning what percentage of their team’s offensive possessions end in them making a shot, missing a shot that is rebounded by the opponent or committing a turnover, when they’re on the floor) with Morant’s 36.6 percent usage rate and Howard’s 36 percent usage rate.
Marquette limps into the NCAA Tournament having lost five of its last six games, including its final four games of the regular season, which prevented the Golden Eagles from winning at least a share of the Big East regular season title. Meanwhile, Murray State has won 11 in a row and two of its four losses this season were two-possession games on the road against SEC opponents Auburn and Alabama.
Date/Time: Thursday, March 21, 4:30 p.m. ET
kenpom.com prediction: Marquette def. Murray State 76-72
Point spread: Marquette -3.5
No. 5 seed Marquette
Coach: Steve Wojciechowski
Record: 24-9 (12-6)
Conference tournament finish: Lost in the semifinals
Player to watch: G Markus Howard
You could make the case that the idea of Marquette is better than what the Golden Eagles are in reality. Markus Howard is an All-American and one of the most exciting players in the sport. He’s flanked by brothers Sam and Joey Hauser, who are 6-8 and 6-9, respectively, and both shoot at least 40 percent from three.
Marquette’s 39.3 3-point percentage ranks ninth nationally.
Theo John and Ed Morrow split time at the “five,” giving Marquette a physical presence on the interior, and wing Sacar Anim has scored in double figures in his last three games, giving the Golden Eagles a secondary scorer in their backcourt.
However, it’s fair to question how much reliable production Marquette can get from its bench and who is the team’s secondary ball-handler/creator. Turnovers, both committed and forced, could be an issue as the Golden Eagles turn the ball over on 19.4 percent of their possessions (240th nationally) and only force turnovers on 16.6 percent of their defensive possessions (298th).
[RELATED: Print Your 2019 NCAA Tournament Bracket Here]
No. 12 seed Murray State
Coach: Matt McMahon
Record: 27-4 (16-2)
Conference tournament finish: Won Ohio Valley Conference Tournament
Player to watch: G Ja Morant
If you haven’t watched Murray State guard Ja Morant play in college, Thursday could be your last chance. The 6-3 sophomore has a ton of NBA Draft hype after averaging 24.6 points, 10.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds this season. His 51.6 percent assist rate leads the country, meaning he gets the assist on more than half of the Racers’ baskets when he’s on the floor.
Morant’s 3-point shooting could use some improvement (he’s shooting just 34 percent on almost five attempts per game) but he’s making 56 percent of his twos and 81 percent from the free throw line, while shooting more than eight free throws per game.
Defensively, the Racers limit both the 3-point attempts and 3-point percentage of their opponents – 35.4 percent of opponents’ shots are threes and opponents make just 28.5 percent of their attempts from deep – which could pay huge dividends against the outside shooting of Marquette.