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28 October 2019 04:54

NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament College basketball National Collegiate Athletic Association

Murray State's star Temetrius "Ja" Morant was discovered on accident when Murray State coach James Kane stopped by a concession stand at a high school gym. Kane's curiosity led him to serendipitously lay eyes upon Temetrius "Ja" Morant, a skinny, 6-foot-3 guard from Dalzell, South Carolina, who was heading into his senior season. Nobody knew the kid then. Everyone, at every level of basketball, knows him now. Ja's near-impossible ascent from unranked prospect to viral college sensation to potential top-five NBA draft pick began then and there, in an auxiliary gym off the beaten recruiting path.

– Pat Forde Murray State's Ja Morant is a future NBA lottery pick who presents a challenge for Marquette The Marquette-Murray State matchup in the first round of the NCAA Tournament has generated a lot of buzz. The fifth-seeded Golden Eagles (24-9), who have lost five of their last six games, are a trendy pick to be an upset victim of the 12th-seeded Racers (27-4) on Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. The game also features two of the most exciting guards in college basketball. MU fans know all about Markus Howard, the Big East player of the year who has scored 30 or more points in 10 games for the Golden Eagles this season. MU followers should also get acquainted with Murray State star Ja Morant.

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"They got a lot of good stuff going for them," MU coach Steve Wojciechowski said of the Racers. "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." Origin story The rise of Temetrius Jamel "Ja" Morant to future NBA lottery pick is pretty remarkable. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound sophomore is only a few seasons removed from being an unheralded player from Dalzell, South Carolina. His biggest claim to hoops fame before his senior season in high school was that he once played on a travel team with current Duke supernova Zion Williamson. RELATED: The best NBA prospect you've never heard about In a stroke of good fortune, a former Murray State assistant coach stopped by a concession stand to get a snack during a basketball camp and saw Morant playing in a 3-on-3 pickup game on a side court. The assistant got Morant on the main court to see him against better competition and then convinced Murray State head coach Matt McMahon that the guard was a future pro. McMahon eventually took a look himself and then convinced Morant to attend Murray State just before offers from bigger schools came rolling in. Building buzz Morant had a solid freshman season, averaging 12.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists for a team that lost to West Virginia in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament. But Morant started attracting the attention of NBA scouts by standing out at Chris Paul's Elite Guard Camp in the off-season. The camp included some of the best guards in college basketball, including MU's Howard. Then the season began and Morant's high-flying antics turned him into a cult hero for basketball fans. He probably is surpassed only by his childhood teammate Williamson for the most-viewed highlights this season. He skied over a 6-8 defender from Tennessee-Martin. He threw down a jaw-dropping dunk against Alabama. The clips were replayed constantly. "You see him all over social media and stuff like that," MU junior forward Ed Morrow Jr. said. NBA future Morant's explosive style has drawn comparisons to Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook. Morant averages 24.6 points, 10 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. That versatility – and a vertical leap that has been measured at 44 inches – has NBA scouts drooling. "I don't see anybody out there, outside of (Williamson and fellow Duke freshman R.J. Barrett) that I would take over Morant," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told the Louisville Courier-Journal in January. Morant struggles as an outside shooter (33.6 percent on 149 three-point attempts this season) and can be careless with the ball (5.2 turnovers per game) in the Racers' breakneck offensive pace. He will be the top name on MU's scouting report for Murray State. "They like to get up and down, like to play in transition," Howard said. "It should be be a great game."