I mean, wow.
Ja Morant threw up a 17 point, 11 rebound, 16 assist triple-double as his Murray State Racers pulled the 12/5 upset on Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday afternoon. Murray State advances to face Florida State in the round of 32 on Saturday, while the Golden Eagles are done for the season, wondering how things went so horribly horribly bad over the last month.
The final score was ugly, no doubt about it. But if we’re being honest, and what’s the point of having an internet website if not to be honest, the first half was a pretty compelling 20 minutes of basketball. Even with the Racers shooting 73% from behind the three-point line and even with Markus Howard sitting for the final four minutes and change with two fouls, it was just a seven point game at the half, and it definitely felt like we were in for a really great game over the final 20 minutes.
And then the Racers scored the first seven points coming out of the locker room to take a 14 point lead. Steve Wojciechowski calling a “HEY, WHAT DID WE JUST TALK ABOUT IN THE LOCKER ROOM?” timeout after the first two buckets did nothing to slow MSU down. The whole thing appeared to take Marquette completely out of sync, leading to Murray State racking up easy buckets on the other end over and over, either on turnovers or just really solid outlet passing on defensive rebounds. The lead was up to 17 with 14:39, and the writing was pretty much on the wall at that point. The scoring was 26-24 favoring the Racers the rest of the way as nothing ever came together for Marquette, not on defense, not on offense.
Marquette seemed to insist, all the way to the end, that the best way to defend Morant was to double team him. Look, I’m not an X’s and O’s wizard by any stretch, and it’s not even close to my full time job to watch tape to find the best way to stymie an opponent. But I figured that the best way to deal with Morant was to let one person guard him and maybe collapse if he got into the paint to make his decisions hard. Instead, Marquette doubleteamed him all over the perimeter, which led to Morant making pass after pass after pass after pass to the open man for either a wide open three or an easy layup or dunk. Morant had the best assist rate in the country — I presume after getting 16 helpers on 30 made MSU buckets that he only increased his lead there — so I would have figured that the way to go was to not let him find open guys all over the place.... y’know, because that’s the thing that he’s actually best at doing.
But they didn’t, and now the Golden Eagles are headed back to Milwaukee after a first round blowout loss in the NCAA tournament for the second time in two appearances during Wojo’s tenure as head coach.
The game was rightfully hyped as a battle between Morant and Markus Howard, and one of those two guys delivered. Howard finished with 26 points, which is better than his season average..... but it took him 27 shots to get it. He connected on just nine shots total, going 5-for-13 inside the arc and 4-for-14 outside it. As easy and probably justified it is to hammer him for a weeee bit too much hero ball, the fact of the matter is that Howard was getting no help from anyone else on the floor. MU shot 32.4% as a team, and non-Howard players shot a collective 15-for-47..... which is 31.9%. As bad as Howard’s performance was, it was actually lifting the entire team’s output up. That’s no way to win a basketball game.
Up Next: The offseason starts tomorrow, which sucks. Marquette projects to bring back everyone except for Matt Heldt and Joseph Chartouny, neither of whom played a major role on this team this season. MU will add Greg Elliott back from his broken hand, Koby McEwen from his transfer redshirt, and Dexter Akanno from the prep scene. Are those additions enough to radically alter the shape and function of the team as they bring back the entire core from this season? That’s the question that will linger in our minds all summer and fall......