Two of college basketball's most exciting players lead their teams into an opening round showdown
At 25 and 24.6 points per game respectively, Marquette's Markus Howard and Murray State's Ja Morant are the two highest-scoring players in the 2019 NCAA Tournament field. They headline a first-round showdown on Thursday that has all the makings of a classic 12-over-5 upset.
Marquette limps into the Tournament with losses in five of its last six. Howard told reporters on Monday he was ready to go at full strength despite suffering a wrist injury in the Big East Tournament, and there's no doubt the Golden Eagles need him. He went off for more than 50 points twice in the regular season, showing an offensive repertoire similar to that of Arizona State legend and longtime NBA mainstay Eddie House.
Howard's an intriguing NBA prospect; so, too, is Morant. Morant burst onto the scene this season, generating draft talk in league with noteworthy names like Duke freshmen phenoms Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. The high-flying Morant and his Murray State teammates aren't thinking about June's draft, though. The OVC champions want to dance on.
West Region: No. 12 Murray State Racers (27-4) vs. No. 5 Marquette Golden Eagles (24-9)
Time: 4:30 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: XL Center (Hartford, Conn.)
Keys for Murray State
For as great as Ja Morant is at scoring, no one in college basketball plays as critical of a role in complementing the entire team. Morant is No. 1 overall in assist rate per KenPom, which contributes directly to the Racers' No. 5 national ranking in two-point field-goal percentage.
Murray State's a team that thrives when it attacks the rim. Few in college basketball are as individually good at that as Morant. The Racers need to get him loose early to establish the pace offensively. Defensively, Murray State defends the 3-pointer exceedingly well. It must do so again against an outstanding 3-point-shooting opponent; Marquette hit just south of 40 percent as a team on the year, good for ninth in the NCAA.
Keys for Marquette
The strength of Markus Howard's injured wrist plays a critical role in Marquette's forecast. He comes into Thursday's matchup ranked No. 5 and No. 7 nationally in possession and shots-taken percentage, per KenPom.com. Part of what makes Howard such an outstanding player is that his scoring facilitates teammates' buckets, as well.
Defenses forced to focus on Howard leave other Golden Eagles with clean looks at the hoop. Sam Hauser and Howard feed off each other well, with Hauser shooting better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line on the season. If the struggles that rendered Howard 1-of-15 from the floor in the Big East Tournament against Seton Hall continue, Marquette's entire offense suffers.
The severity of Howard's wrist injury looms large. If he's at 100 percent, the Golden Eagles have a shot at dancing deep into the Tournament. Howard's capable of carrying this team in the same fashion Dwyane Wade led the program to the 2003 Final Four. A redux of the Big East Tournament loss spells an early exit for Marquette.
Murray State's a difficult first-round draw. The Racers play a style that's a coach's dream, sharing the ball (despite having a nearly 25-point per game scorer) to get good looks, and defending well. Of the 5 vs. 12 matchups, this one has the strongest sense of an upset.
Prediction: Murray State 76, Marquette 72