|Howard, Marquette move to keep Morant, Murray St. from marquee|
Ja Morant is the highlight-reel star looking to elevate Murray State to new heights.
Marquette's Markus Howard is the long-range bomber who tosses up 3-pointers from all over the arena.
The two stars will be on the same court Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when 12th-seeded Murray State looks to upend fifth-seeded Marquette in a highly anticipated West Region showdown at Hartford, Conn.
Morant led the Racers to a 27-4 record while seeing his individual stock soar into the stratosphere entering the tournament. The sophomore do-it-all point guard could rise to the No. 2 overall pick should he enter the June draft, according to pundits projecting the post-Zion Williamson prospect field.
Morant averages 24.6 points, 10.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds and will be looking to lead the Racers to just their fourth NCAA Tournament victory in 20 chances. Murray State is certainly entering on a roll with 11 consecutive victories.
Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski has heard the chatter and is aware the Racers present a huge challenge.
"They got a lot of good stuff going for them," Wojciechowski told reporters. "Obviously, people know Ja Morant. He's going to go in the top two or three in the NBA draft. If you are going to do that, then that's pretty darn good."
Howard, a junior, averages 25.0 points and has knocked down 116 3-point baskets. He has posted 10 30-point outings -- topped by a school-record 53 versus Creighton -- and has made five or more 3-pointers on eight occasions.
"He has put up video-game numbers all season long," Murray State coach Matt McMahon said of Howard.
McMahon knows the Racers need a big game from Morant to advance but he is reluctant to buy into the Morant vs. Howard narrative.
"I'm sure it will drive some ratings," McMahon said during a press conference. "At the end of the day, it is all about the team. I think both Marquette and Murray State have great teams. They're led by superstar players but there is a lot of balance on both teams."
The Golden Eagles (24-9) dropped five of their last six games and were eliminated by Seton Hall in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. Howard was 1-of-15 shooting in the contest despite finishing with 21 points.
He reportedly aggravated a wrist injury during the loss to Seton Hall but insists the injury won't be a factor against the Racers.
Howard is intrigued by Murray State and is looking forward to a fast-paced game.
"I know they are an exciting team," Howard told reporters. "They like to get up and down, like to play in transition. It should be a great game.
"A really good team from the Ohio Valley, a really good conference. Looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to competing at the highest level."
Howard isn't the lone Golden Eagles' player who is proficient at draining 3-pointers. Junior forward Sam Hauser had made 85 from behind the arc while averaging 14.9 points and a team-best 7.1 rebounds.
Morant's supporting cast will certainly carry some importance against Marquette.
Senior guard Shaq Buchanan averages 13.0 points, freshman guard Tevin Brown averages 11.7 points and has made a team-best 84 3-pointers and junior forward Darnell Cowart contributes 10.4 points and a team-leading 6.5 rebounds.
"It's really what we worked all year for," Morant said of the NCAA Tournament stage. "Just to see it all pay off feels good."
--Field Level Media