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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | March 22, 2019

Let's imagine Ja Morant and Murray State's path to the NCAA title game

Ja Morant drops triple-double in NCAA Tournament debut

Welcome to the Ja Morant Fantasy Tour. In this world, Murray State doesn’t exit the second round, or the next, or the next. On the theory that the Ja Show is way too much fun to watch for it to close early, we can ponder -- what happens if it doesn’t?

WATCH EVERY GAME LIVE: Tournament action on March Madness Live

But first, this glowing report from his 2019 NCAA Tournament debut. Notably from the coach whose team he triple-doubled into oblivion. Long before Steve Wojciechowski was coach at Marquette, he was point guard at Duke, so he knows how the position is supposed to be played. Give him the floor a minute.

“The best thing about that kid is his decision-making. I mean, you’re talking about an elite, elite decision-maker, who’s got elite athleticism. And when you’re talking about a point guard, you should always start with decision-making.

“They’re good without him, but with him, they’re pretty unique. I have a ton of respect for him. He’s a big-time, big-time player. I mean, the triple-doubles, 16 assists in an NCAA Tournament, it’s crazy. You can’t speed him up. You can run two people at him, you can switch, try to get the ball out of his hands. There’s nothing that we found that could speed him up or shake his decision-making.”

Or how about the coach he is getting ready to face.
 
“My opinion is you have to be careful because he’s not winning the games by himself,” Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton said Friday. “He’s surrounding himself with good players who feed off of who he is and what he is about as a player. And I’m excited for him and their team, because I enjoy watching guys play with such an unselfish spirit, that they actually get excited about it. You can just see the gleam and joy in his eye. It motivates him.
 
“That’s an unusual player and you don’t get a chance to play against people like that.”

No. 12 UPSET: Morant's triple-double leads Murray State over Marquette

It’s like reading a Broadway critic’s review of Hamilton. Put it this way, Morant's 17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists have created a little bigger wave than his 14 points, three rebounds and two assists did this time last year, when the Racers lost in the first round to West Virginia.

And since Morant tweeted out a promise of more – “RELAX!! i’m not done yet – we’ll take him at his word.  So away we go  . . . .

Next is Florida State on Saturday. What if the deep Seminoles, who come at opponents in waves, can’t stop him? Vermont pushed Florida State, so Morant and the Racers probably can. He’s never played against an ACC team before. What if he says hello by winning?

That would mean the Sweet 16 – the first ever for Murray State -- and probably Gonzaga. The Zags used to be an annual tournament double-digit seed Cinderella before they got cool. Now it’s the Racers wanting to do the upsetting. What if, despite Gonzaga’s well-chronicled firepower, the Zags can’t slow him down, either?

That’d mean the Elite Eight, and maybe Michigan. We all know the Wolverines play sound defense, but ask Wojciechowski how hard it is to defend him. Not to his mention his supporting cast that is underrated. What if John Beilein doesn’t have an answer? Come to think of it, Morant has never played against the Big Ten, either. By then, he’d be cutting a swath through the power conferences. Imagine Morant being booked for the Final Four. He’d be bigger than Loyola’s Sister Jean. Or close, anyway.

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This is when the hype could really go to Pluto. Because guess who’s on Murray State’s side of the bracket, and therefore could be its opponent in our virtual reality Final Four? Yep, Duke. The Zion Show vs. the Ja Show, matching the two guys who have owned the biggest buzz this season. Eleven days after the 40th anniversary of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. They’re both native sons of South Carolina. The state would be the proudest it’s been since, well, Clemson football got done with Alabama.

And then, what if somehow, some way, the miracle happens? Mike Krzyzewski has a couple of tournament shockers in his closest, too, you know. He lost to Mercer once. The Blue Devils could be caught looking this way for North Carolina, or that way for Gonzaga, or another way for Virginia, and instead be run off the road by Murray State. Hey, it’s our tour, we can conjure up anything.

Ja Morant in the championship game. Against – oh, let’s think of a good one.

Got it.

Kentucky.

Two schools from the same state. That hasn’t happened since Cincinnati and Ohio State in 1962, Matter of fact, they’re the only two to ever do it. So there’d be that. And also this: Kentucky is the co-capital (with Duke) of McDonald's All-Americans on their way to the NBA. But here’s a sophomore from the other side of the state who hardly anyone recruited, but is the player lighting up the eyes of the pro scouts. March Madness gives way to April Irony.

What if, when they play One Shining Moment, up there on the award platform, after the first official championship game triple-double in history, stands . . .

Well, never mind. Fantasy Tour’s over. Can’t happen, right? Just like a No. 16 seed will never beat a No. 1, and someone like George Mason will never go to the Final Four and someone like Butler certainly will never see back-to-back title games, let alone nearly win one of them.

Florida State is one of the hottest, most relentless teams out there, and it could all be over in hours. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be Florida State against Murray State,” Hamilton said. But Morant doesn’t seem to want to leave, and no wonder. Who wants to exit the stage, when there’s a packed house out there clamoring for encores?

 

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