WATCH: Florida State previews its second-round matchup against Murray State
HARTFORD, Conn. – He may play for Murray State, and he might have spent the regular season beating up on the likes of Tennessee Tech and Morehead State in the Ohio Valley Conference. But, at this point, anyone with even a passing interest in college basketball who is not already familiar with MSU guard Ja Morant must have somehow missed the first day of the NCAA tournament.
They’d have to have ignored the 24 hours of between-rounds media coverage, too.
On an otherwise pedestrian opening day, Morant, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound sophomore grabbed the national spotlight with a 17-point, 11-rebound, 16-assist outburst in the 12th-seeded Racers’ 83-64 victory over No. 5-seed Marquette.
Yes, that’s a triple-double, the first in an NCAA tournament since NBA star Draymond Green did it with Michigan State in 2012.
Morant’s performance – and the highlights that came along with it – captured the college hoops world’s attention on Thursday evening. And they’ll all be paying attention again on Saturday, when Morant attempts an encore against Florida State in the Round of 32 (6:10 p.m., TNT).
Don’t believe it? Just check out some of the headlines that have posted since the game went final:
“He might be one of the more talented point guards that we’ve played against,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “…He’s one of those unusually skilled, talented youngsters that maybe you might not be able to stop him or contain him.”
Morant does a number of things that give opposing coaches ulcers.
He can score:
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 21, 2019
He can pass:
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 21, 2019
And, perhaps more than anything else, he can elevate his teammates.
Murray State has a 28-4 record, went 16-2 on the way to an OVC championship and, on Thursday, simply embarrassed a higher-seeded team from Marquette.
“He’s as impressive of a point guard as I’ve seen in a long time,” FSU assistant Charlton Young said. “And we’ve faced some guys. … But I don’t think we’ve ever seen a guy like this that can score and make everybody around him better than they are.”
The Seminoles might be impressed, but forgive them if they’re not intimidated.
After all, the Seminoles just finished 21 consecutive games against competition from the Atlantic Coast Conference, where lining up across from ultra-athletic future pros is the rule rather than the exception.
Just last week at the ACC tournament, Florida State went up against four of the top five players in CBS analyst Gary Parrish’s latest NBA mock draft.
They’ll meet the fifth on Saturday.
The Seminoles’ challenge, they said on Friday, is to limit Morant’s scoring while also respecting his abilities as a passer.
“We’ve got to try to contain that,” senior forward Terance Mann said. “Keep him out of the lanes to where he finds his teammates and keep them out of spots, (put them) where they’re not comfortable doing their thing when they do get the ball.”
“You never know what he’s going to do,” junior guard Trent Forrest added. “If you fan out to (defend) people on the wings, he’s getting his own shots. If you come in, then he’s finding (passes for) wide-open shooters.”
The Seminoles, though, have had a knack for throwing off an opponent’s best player.
They’ve held their opponent’s leading scorer under his season average in 10 of their last 17 games and are 9-1 in those contests. That includes a zero-point output for Georgia Tech’s Jose Alvarado (12.5 PPG), one point for Miami’s Chris Lykes (16.2 PPG) and, just last week, 11 points for Virginia’s Kyle Guy (15.6 PPG).
And FSU on Thursday limited Vermont’s Anthony Lamb, the America East Player of the Year who came in averaging 21.4 points per game, to just 16.
Those players might not have the same draft pedigree as Murray State’s Morant. But the Seminoles have also had enough success to know that they can rely on their defensive principles against the country’s top talent.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Hamilton said. “But it’s still going to be Florida State’s defensive schemes against Murray State’s schemes.”
“We’ve got to wear him down,” Young added. “I think we’ve got to use multiple defenders. One guy is not going to be able to lock him down. We’ve got to keep fresh bodies on him. We’ve got to make sure we scheme. We’ve got to make sure we crowd him.”
They’ve also got to make sure they survive the circus.
After his opening-round theatrics, Morant is sure to be one of the top storylines in the Round of 32, and, given his abilities and the Racers’ underdog status, most of the fans who attend Saturday’s games are likely to be adopted Murray State fans.
But that’s nothing new for the Seminoles, either.
Last week in Charlotte, they found themselves almost an afterthought among the ACC’s semifinalists, overshadowed by star-studded teams from Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.
No matter, Florida State was happy to crash the party by beating No. 2 Virginia and holding a healthy lead over Duke before fading in the second half.
So, sure, let someone else have the headlines for this one, too.
“That’s obviously how it’s going to go,” Mann said. “We don’t have any ‘stars’ on this team. Everybody loves the story of the star, and how good they’re playing and this and that.
“They’re not worried about us. But that’s OK. All we want to do is win.”
Or, as FSU’s RaiQuan Gray put it, when asked about Morant:
“He can have a great game. But as long as we come out with the win, that’s all we’re concerned about.”