This could end up being one of the more exciting Games in the first round with two of the best point guards in the Tournament going at each other. As the better seed, Marquette was an early -4.5 point favorite (at 5Dimes Sportsbook) for the Game in Hartford.
Marquette will likely be a popular team to be upset given how it’s closed the season, losing five of its final six Games. The Golden Eagles had the Big East wrapped up and then they didn’t and they again fell in the semis of the Conference Tournament. They have some nice wins (Wisconsin, Kansas State, Villanova), but were also swept by St. John’s in the regular season and lost at home to Georgetown when they could’ve gotten a piece of the Conference title.
Murray State isn’t a team to sleep on even though it doesn’t have one outstanding win outside of the conference, losing by a combined 11 points to Alabama and Auburn, both on the road. Those are still good results and the Racers at least closed the season on the right note, winning their final 11 Games. Both of these teams rank second offensively and defensively in their respective conferences, but there’s a chance offense shines through in this Game as both teams prefer to run a little more.
That’s where Ja Morant, the top point guard prospect in the country, and Markus Howard, enter the picture. Morant (24.6 ppg, 10.0 apg) gets most of the attention for his highlight dunks, but Murray State may be more balanced offensively with three other guys that average double digits. Most of his help comes from fellow guards Shaq Buchanan and Tevin Brown, both of whom also love to shoot, albeit at a mediocre clip below 38%. Marquette’s main question will be how it defends Morant because Howard isn’t known for his defense and it doesn’t help that he’s a few inches shorter. Sacar Anim could be put exclusively on him, but since they play such a big lineup, one of Murray State’s guards will have a quickness edge on Sam or Joey Hauser.
On the other end, Morant may be asked to mark Howard as long as he doesn’t pick up an early foul or two. Howard will likely want to show NBA scouts that he’s the better prospect, but given how he’s played of late, that may not be the best strategy. In two recent losses to Seton Hall, he went a combined 3-for-26 from the field. That’s not a good number and clearly something that could keep Marquette from advancing in the Tournament. The big advantage for the Eagles could be the Hauser brothers, both of whom can hit threes at better than 40%, but will also have a size advantage against Brown and whoever Murray puts at the Four spot.
This is a Game advertised as Morant vs. Howard, but the Hauser brothers may be what decide it. Morant may have the advantage over Howard with at least 27 points scored in the last three Games, but even if Howard isn’t hitting shots, the Hausers can fill it up on smaller defenders. That said, the Golden Eagles are struggling for a reason and if Howard isn’t making his shots, this could go down to the wire.
Our Pick – Marquette -4