After four and a half months of hectic hoops, the swinging pendulum of college basketball has come to rest.
Gone are the highs and lows of the regular season. No more talk of quadrants, NET, KenPom, BPI, the eye test, team sheets, tourney locks, bid thieves, bubble-watching or Joe Lunardi’s bracket bunker.
The Madness is finally here, and in their return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus, the two flagship schools of America’s Dairyland have been rewarded with one of the most precarious positions in sports: the dreaded 5-12 matchup.
Marquette will travel to Hartford to play NBA draft darling Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers on Thursday, while Wisconsin is headed to San Jose to battle Pac-12 tourney champ Oregon on Friday. Both MU and UW will play at approximately 3:20 p.m. (See the full bracket here and the tournament schedule here.)
West Region: No. 5 Marquette (24-9, 12-6) vs. no. 12 Murray State (27-4, 16-2)
As soon as Greg Gumbel‘s sultry tones announced this matchup on CBS, college basketball reporters around the country immediately hopped on Twitter to dub this the must-watch game of the first round.
Ja Morant vs. Markus Howard. So damn good. — Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) March 17, 2019
Marquette is the 5 seed in the West and will face 12 seed Murray State. JA MORANT VS. MARKUS HOWARD! — Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) March 17, 2019
MARKUS HOWARD vs. JA MORANT. LET'S GET IT. — Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 17, 2019
Morant and Howard – the backcourt representatives on Sporting News’ All-America second team – are the two most show-stopping players in college basketball this side of Duke’s Zion Williamson. Morant is a hyper-athletic freak averaging 24.6 points and 10 assists per game, while Howard is step-back maestro dropping 25 points a night on 41 percent three-point shooting. Both players also carry an Atlas-sized load for their respective teams, ranking in the top-five nationally in usage rate.
However, Morant’s Racers are currently soaring on a very different plane than Howard and his Golden Eagles. Murray State is on an 11-game winning streak and captured the Ohio Valley conference tournament title over fellow tourney team Belmont. Morant has averaged 30.7 points per game over MSU’s last three wins and is a likely top-three NBA draft pick this summer. (MU guard Sacar Anim will likely have the first crack at defending Morant.)
On the flip side, Marquette has lost five of their last six, and while they very well could have won all six games, Howard’s struggles down the stretch are a real cause for concern. He is still averaging 23.8 points during this six-game slide, but his field goal percentage (36 percent), three-point mark (30 percent) and free throw shooting (82 percent) are all well down from his season averages. Incidentally, he has also been dealing with a left wrist injury since MU’s trip to Villanova on Feb. 27.
During Marquette’s chaotic semifinal loss to Seton Hall last week, Howard re-aggravated the wrist issue and was forced into the locker room towards the end of the first half. Howard returned for the second half, and both he and Steve Wojciechowski say he is fine, but the numbers don’t lie. He shot a season worst 1-15 from the field and missed six free throws against the Pirates, both of which a healthy Howard simply does not do. The FS1 broadcast also captured his reaction to the injury in the tunnel, and it did not look ideal:
Now, he will have nearly a week between games to heal, and Howard did post 30 points on 15 shots the night before against St. John’s – so even at less than 100 percent, he is still a dynamic weapon. Howard will also benefit from getting away from Big East opponents, who have now faced him at least a half-dozen times over the past three years. It’s one thing for Murray State to have a detailed scouting report on the star guard, but it’s a totally different beast to actually have to hound Howard as soon as he steps across halfcourt. Here’s guessing Howard will have a little more room to breathe against Murray State, who is not exactly inclined to play focused defense for an entire 40 minutes.
Marquette opens as a 4.5-point favorite against the Racers. The Golden Eagles are 2-0 all-time against Murray State, including a second round win in the 2012 NCAA tournament. The victor will take on the winner of no. 4 Florida State and no. 13 Vermont on Saturday.
South Region: No. 5 Wisconsin (23-10, 14-6) vs. no. 12 Oregon (23-12, 10-8)
If the Golden Eagles are worried about Morant and Co., the Badgers are likely in a full-fledged panic after drawing the hottest team in the country in the first round. The Ducks ran off eight straight wins to end the season, including four wins in four days to earn the PAC 12 tournament title on Saturday night.
Oregon has battled injuries all season, but Dana Altman’s crew is finally living up to preseason expectations under the stewardship of point guard (and Bill Walton favorite) Payton Pritchard. The junior has been dominant during this latest run, averaging 15.8 points with a sparkling 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. Oregon even plays a Badger-lite brand of basketball, ranking 18th in defensive efficiency and 108th in offensive efficiency. (UW slots at 3rd and 52nd, respectively.)
On top of playing a scorching Oregon team, Wisconsin also has to be concerned with the production from its senior stud Ethan Happ. Happ had his worst game of the season in the Big Ten quarterfinals against Nebraska, scoring just four points on as many shots, and only playing 20 minutes after coughing up the ball seven times. Happ bounced back with 20 points, six rebounds and four blocks in the semis, but even that offensive production came on a relatively inefficient 10-20 shooting. (All 20 of Happ’s attempts were inside the paint.) The Badgers need Happ to emerge from his season-ending funk because the Ducks will not make life easy for the first-team All-Big Ten star. Oregon fields four players listed at 6-foot-9 or taller who all play big minutes for Altman: Louis King, Paul White, Kenny Wooten and Francis Okoro.
These teams also play at two of the slowest paces in the nation (as do many of the top teams in the South Region), meaning Greg Gard will need his backcourt to bail out the offense with clutch buckets late in the shot clock. D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison can be streaky from beyond the arc, but they are at least capable of catching fire from deep; at least one of them has his three treys in a game 20 times combined this year.
Wisconsin is favored by 1.5 points against Oregon. The Badgers are 5-2 all-time against the Ducks, including back-to-back wins in the 2014 and 2015 NCAA tournaments. The only common opponent on their schedules this season was Stanford; both UW and OU handled the Cardinal by double-digits. The winner will move on to face no. 4 Kansas State or no. 13 UC-Irvine on Sunday.
The 5-12 contests always create extra buzz for their upset potential, and Murray State and Oregon enter the dance with a little more juice than even most underdogs. Not only will advancing to the second weekend be a tall task for Marquette and Wisconsin, merely surviving these first-round trap matchups will be easier said than done.