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2019 NCAA Tournament First Round Preview Primer: vs Murray State Racers

This is March, according to sources close to the calendar.

Murray State v West Virginia Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

2019 NCAA MEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT FIRST ROUND

#5 Marquette Golden Eagles (24-9, 12-6 Big East) vs #12 Murray State Racers (27-4, 16-2 Ohio Valley)

Date: Thursday, March 21, 2019
Time: Approximately 3:30pm Central
Location: XL Center, Hartford, CT

Marquette Stats Leaders

Points: Markus Howard, 25.0 ppg
Rebounds: Sam Hauser, 7.1 rpg
Assists: Markus Howard, 4.0 apg

Murray State Stats Leaders

Points: Ja Morant, 24.6 ppg
Rebounds: Darnell Cowart, 6.5 rpg
Assists: Ja Morant, 10.0 apg

KenPom.com Rankings

Marquette: #27
Murray State: #52
KenPom Projection: Marquette has a 63% chance of victory, with a predicted score of 76-72.

Tempo Free Fun: I can imagine that most of you reading this know about Murray State because of the meteoric rise of Ja “Not Rule” Morant. He follows the long lineage of Murray State guards like Cameron Payne and Isaiah Canaan to lead the Racers to the treasured prize of being the hot mid-major topic come March. He’s also probably the best of those guards. Ja Morant is probably going to be a top 5 pick in the NBA Draft and is at least 75% of the reason that Murray State is in this tournament position.

The first thing you’ll notice on his stat line is the gaudy assist numbers. His assist rate is 51%, leading the nation by 5%, as well as surpassing Trae Young’s best in the country mark of 48.5% last year with a similar usage. That is, to use a technical term, bonkers. Before anything else he is a distributor, and he is a great one. These aren’t even kickout passes, either. He has the type of pinpoint control on backdoor cut passes that would make Greg Maddux blush and can limit the effects of a double team by the way he can pull off a jump pass. The whole team does the bulk of their work inside the 3 point line and they earn their keep mainly in transition opportunities, cuts, and pick-and-rolls. To make an offense work like that, a distributor that is patient and willing to take risks is absolutely crucial. Ja Morant embodies that perfectly.

He’ll take his share of threes, which he hits at an “Eh, that’s fine” percentage of 34%, and that goes down in a hurry when the competition gets stronger, too. The issue is that his release is a bit slow and he doesn’t come up high once he shoots. Marquette should go under ball screens as much as possible and rely on quick closeouts when he does pull up off the dribble. While that could result in some open threes, it’s way better than the alternative.

At 6’3”, Morant has the length necessary to get layups up above outstretched arms of opposing centers and his explosiveness is only matched by Zion Williamson. Once he gets any sort of downhill momentum the result often looks something like this. My god what a dunk. His unquenchable thirst for getting as close to the rim as possible also leads him to draw fouls at a high rate. As in 15th highest in the country, per KenPom. Sources close to IBM are telling Anonymous Eagle that #15 is very good. This is where Marquette’s big man depth will be critical. Ed Morrow’s recent emergence gives them 5 more precious fouls that they’ll likely need in order to win.

With that aggressiveness, however, comes turnovers. It’s expected that players with high usage rates will turn the ball over more than normal because they’re drawing so much more attention. Morant turns it over 22% of the time. Trae Young, whose issue in college was (perceived to be) turnovers, turned it over 20% of the time last year. MU’s very own Markus Howard, who can definitely be declared to have a turnover problem, is at 18.6% this season on a similar usage rate. Think about that. Marquette can help neuter Morant’s overall effect by having active hands and following their man at all costs. I think Wojo might even pull a page out of the Big East’s playbook for Markus Howard by staying aggressively in the face of Morant and maybe even doubling him once he crosses the midcourt line to try and throw him off. That’s exactly how Alabama decided to attack him earlier in the year and forced him alone to commit 10 turnovers and no one else was able to pick up the slack offensively.

So that’s Ja Morant. Limiting his opportunities will be a huge part of Marquette’s strategy, but there are other players to consider. Current thicc boi and former thiccc boi Darnell Cowart (6’8”, 295 lb.) and KJ Williams (6’9”, 240 lb.) will be the ones receiving most of the interior passes when they’re in the game. They both convert around the rim at excellent rates and, most importantly, neither of them cough up the ball. I wouldn’t suggest doubling up on them for this reason so it will be vital for Theo John and Ed Morrow to stay disciplined and keep them from getting easy opportunities.

The only other shooter of note is freshman sniper Tevin Brown. His only job is shooting, so as long as someone is faceguarding him at all times the outside threat can be limited. Again, don’t ball watch when Ja has control. That’s my job and I earned it, dammit.

The overall theme of the Marquette defense should be to lock down the interior. Even though Murray played a tissue paper schedule, they’re still the fifth best two point shooting team in the country. That’s one of the “battlefield” areas in the game, where half of of two point shooting is in the control of the offense, so the Marquette defenders need to stay disciplined.

Let’s talk about Marquette’s plan of attack on offense. I’m very worried about Markus Howard’s wrist. Missing six free throws and 14 shots from the floor like he did on Friday of the Big East tournament against Seton Hall is so far beyond the norm for him and it happened to occur after aggravating an already banged up left wrist. Assuming Morant is guarding Howard, the way for him to attack will be based on ball screens, which Ja tends to struggle with. If that left hand is still hurt, his dribble-drive game is a lot more predictable, which means that he’s not able to create the space that is critical for him to hit those step-back threes that make our little hearts flutter. They certainly can still win without him at 100%, but his health will shift the pendulum more than any backup strategy Wojo implements.

What I find odd is that the Racers on offense want all of their offense working through the paint, and on defense....they want opponents to do the same thing. You would think that if MSU head coach Matt McMahon sees the most efficient offense being done a certain way, he would want to prevent opponents from doing that thing. This isn’t the case, though. Murray State’s defense is dependent on chasing guys off the three point line (this is generally not great for Marquette) and funneling them into the teeth of their defense. They rank fourth in the country in three-point defense, but that’s not nearly as important as the fact that they rank 65th in the country in limiting three point attempts. Teams don’t take threes if they’re not open, so stopping them from even getting those shots off is the best measure of how effective their three point defense is.

Marquette definitely loves taking threes since that’s what they’re best at, but they’re not nearly as dependent on the deep ball as they were last year. The pick-and-rolls that they’re already running are probably going to result in more drives to the basket instead of pull up jump shots. Markus being able to get to the rim is one thing, but Sacar Anim and Joey Hauser will need to build off their strong performances in the Big East Tournament for them to have success. Part of the team’s weak performances stemmed from a lack of options that can create their own shot. If they’re not able to do that, this game could turn into Murray State’s victory against Belmont where the Bruins didn’t have much of an option on offense when the threes didn’t fall.

The Racers also don’t depend much on creating turnovers, so Marquette can not just start gifting them those easy opportunities that plagued MU over the losing streak, but that issue does seem to mostly be subsided after a recent stretch of low turnover games.

One more area that Marquette can really take advantage of is offensive rebounding. You may have noticed that recently Wojo is starting to send more guys to crash the offensive boards. I’m looking mainly in the general direction of Ed Morrow. Some of their best offensive rebounding performances have come over the last couple of weeks and, most importantly, it hasn’t resulted in a negative effect on defense. Murray State works best in transition (remember all that discussion about Morant finding angles with passes?), so having that discipline to follow up on misses but also run back on defense will be important because the Racers suck at rebounding. They ranked 256th in the country at grabbing opponents’ misses this year. I can absolutely see Wojo releasing the hounds whenever a shot goes up like his name is C. Montgomery Burns.

That’s the overall matchup. Putting it all together, we’re facing a team that performed about as well as Seton Hall did this year. While that may worry you, Seton Hall was a matchup nightmare and Marquette still came a Flagrant 2 call away from beating them 2 out of 3 times. I expect this game to be close and low scoring, but Marquette just has more resources that they can dip into. For all the worry about the last 5 games that we’ve seen, Murray State had a stretch where they lost to Jacksonville State and then beat SIU Edwardsville, Tennessee Tech and Eastern Illinois by a total of 25 points. All of those last three teams are sub-300 on KenPom. I get that fans were immediately scared because of the name recognition, but I’d so much rather be playing Murray State over New Mexico State and Liberty, who don’t share that same status. They’re still a team that has a chance at beating Marquette, but don’t let the recent struggles by the Golden Eagles and the Ja Morant Hype Train cloud your view of how good this team is.

Marquette Last 10 Games: 5-5, with losses in five of their last six games.

Murray State Last 10 Games: 10-0, and that streak actually stretches back to 11-0.

All Time Series: Marquette leads, 2-0

Current Streak: As these things go, Marquette has a two game winning streak, earning NCAA tournament wins against the Racers in 1969 and 2012.

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