Florida State's stifling defense aims to slow Murray State standout Ja Morant
A flourish to the finish powered Florida State through a first-round scare Thursday against one of the best players the 2019 NCAA Tournament had to offer, Vermont's Anthony Lamb. In the second round, the Seminoles must now deal with a likely top-three pick in this summer's NBA draft: Murray State guard Ja Morant.
Morant paced the Racers to an opening-round rout of Marquette, recording the first NCAA Tournament triple-double since Draymond Green in 2012. Morant, the second-highest scoring player in the Tournament coming in at 24.6 points per game (and now the highest, with Marquette's Markus Howard eliminated), showed just how versatile his game is, looking like a young Rusell Westbrook en route to 17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists.
Florida State, one of the nation's best defensive teams, must contain Morant and his talented Murray State teammates if the Seminoles are to reach a second straight Sweet 16.
West Region: No. 12 Murray State Racers (28-4) vs. No. 4 Florida State (28-7)
Time: 6:10 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: XL Center (Hartford, Conn.)
Keys for Murray State
A basketball-following nation who may have only known the name Ja Morant from checking out NBA mock drafts learned the full range of his game on Thursday. They also got a sample of what's made Murray State so successful this season: There's more to the Racers than Morant.
Yes, the nation's leader in assist rate per KenPom.com metrics set the table, but his Racers teammates finished with a variety of baskets against a Marquette defense unable to slow them down. Four of Murray State's five starters scored in double-figures on Wednesday, with the fifth — Darnell Cowart — tallying nine.
Murray State again needs that balance against Florida State's long defense. In particular, the Racers must show off their team speed to score on fast breaks against the bigger Seminoles. Guards Shaq Buchanan and Tevin Brown, along with Morant, will have to weave through Florida State to combat its size.
Keys for Florida State
Florida State ranks No. 11 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency coming into its second-round matchup, and the Seminoles must live up to that prior production to advance. Leonard Hamilton-coached teams often play a defensive-minded, physical style, and this year's takes that attribute to another level.
Florida State has 6-foot-10 Mfiondu Kabengele and 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje to clog the lane against Murray State's slashing guards. The Seminoles guards not allowing the Racers guards to operate with dribble-drive penetration to get the big men either out of position or in foul trouble, will be critical for the defense.
Offensively, the Murray State defense is vulnerable. Look for reserve guard David Nichols to play a central role in igniting the Seminoles on offense.
A common school of thought is that the team with the best player has the best prospect of winning an NCAA Tournament game. Given only a handful of individual stars are up to Ja Morant's level, that bodes well for Murray State. Morant's ability to elevate his teammates further positions the Racers to make a possible run at the Sweet 16.
However, Florida State's played some great team basketball down the stretch, including a win over Virginia in the ACC Tournament. Leonard Hamilton's one of the most underrated head coaches in the game, and his typical defensively stout approach will give Murray State trouble. The Seminoles may be without veteran Phil Cofer, a certain blow to the lineup. But Florida State has unparalleled depth that can crank up the intensity late in a game — as was the case vs. Vermont.
Prediction: Florida State 71, Murray State 67