Ja Morant Shows Shades of March Madness Legends in Historic Round 1 Performance

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 22, 2019

Ja Morant
Ja MorantElise Amendola/Associated Press

Ladies and gentlemen: Meet Ja Morant.

On a Thursday afternoon loaded with would've should've could've performances by Cinderella candidates, there was nothing close about Morant and No. 12 Murray State destroying No. 5 Marquette by an 83-64 final score.

The soon-to-be top-five pick—whose actual first name is Temetrius, so don't be taken aback if you hear that early on draft nightfinished with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds, notching the first triple-double in the NCAA tournament since Michigan State's Draymond Green did it against LIU-Brooklyn in 2012.

Even before the TBS broadcast crew began mentioning the possibility of Morant doing something that hadn't been accomplished since Green, he was already making us reflect on the NCAA tournament run of a current Golden State Warrior.

It wasn't Green, though.

It was Stephen Curry.

When he was a sophomore at Davidson, Curry propelled the Wildcats from a No. 10 seed to the 2008 Elite Eight. He began that run with a 40-point outburst against Gonzaga in the first round, showing the "I only watch in March" college basketball fans what the diehards had known for a while: This kid was special.

Flash forward to the present day, and it was a sophomore from a minor conference stealing the show once again, courtesy of step-back jumpers, a rim-rattling dunk and passes that make you wonder just how many eyes Morant has.

Par for the course for anyone who made it a point to watch Murray State games this season, but an eye-opening performance to those just tuning in to see how their bracket is doing.

From the moment on Selection Sunday when we found out about this pairing, it instantly became the first-round matchup everyone wanted to watch. Maybe not so much from a team vs. team standpoint, but the individual battle between Morant and Markus Howard promised to be worth the price of admissionor perhaps the price of cutting out from work a few hours early to get comfy on the couch in time for tipoff.

Howard (25.0) and Morant (24.6) entered the day ranked sixth and eighth, respectively, in points per game this season. They were No. 1 and No. 2 among players who made it into the NCAA tournament.

Howard finished with 26 points, doing his best to keep the Golden Eagles in this contest.

He would've needed to just about double that to keep up with the Racers, though, who did just that, racing up and down the court at what couldn't have been much slower than the speed of light.

Naturally, Morant was at the forefront of that assault, either scoring or assisting on 21 of Murray State's 30 buckets.

Despite solid performances earlier this season against Auburn and Alabama, there might have been questions about whether Morant is actually as good as his numbers or if he just benefited from playing in the Ohio Valley Conference.

It didn't take long for him to prove those numbers are realand they're spectacular.

Morant's combination of talent, vision and explosiveness are similar to that of Russell Westbrook. He's only 6'3", but he plays above the rim. He passes out of triple-teams like they're not even there. And his role in the fast-break offensereceiving an outlet pass from the rebounder before turning and immediately finding someone streaking to the basketis like watching a shortstop execute a flawless relay drill.

Simply put, Morant is the total package, and he is the best player in this tournament not named Zion Williamson. Hell, if you feel so inclined as to not include the last four words of that sentence, we'll allow it. It's just too bad Murray State is the No. 12 seed in Gonzaga's region instead of Duke's, because they would've needed to sell standing-room-only tickets for a Sweet 16 battle between Morant and Williamson.

Of course, Murray State still needs to get through Florida State on Saturday before we start entertaining Sweet 16 scenarios. But based on what the Racers showed against Marquetteand perhaps just as much based on what the Seminoles didn't show in their battle with Vermonta deep run feels possible, if not inevitable.

The incredible thing is that if Murray State hadn't defeated Belmont in the OVC championship game two weeks ago, it wouldn't be here. Even with that win, the Racers finished at No. 46 on the selection committee's overall seed list, behind every at-large team except for St. John's.

That's ancient history now, though. Murray State is on to the second round, and the world has been put on notice.

When Morant is playing, you either stop and pay attention, or you risk missing something amazing.

                 

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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