HARTFORD, Conn. — As the final seconds ticked down and Murray State became the first mid-major team to pull an upset in this year’s NCAA tournament with an 83–64 win over Marquette, Tee Morant stood proudly in his front row seat at the XL Center and yelled to everyone within earshot about his son: “Are you not entertained?”
That sentiment had already reverberated around the country. Probably first to the Marquette fans across the court who had been chanting “overrated” early and often, then around the Twitterverse to the thousands of college basketball fans glued to their TVs that couldn’t stop sharing videos and gifs and simple “oh my god” tweets, and then maybe to some NBA front offices in the running for the first few picks in this summer’s NBA draft.
This is all because of Ja Morant, Murray State’s electric, unselfish guard who recorded a triple double (17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds) in the victory. It was Morant’s third triple double this season and only the ninth in NCAA tournament history—the first since Draymond Green in 2012 at Michigan State and the first one by a guard since Dwyane Wade in 2003 at Marquette.
The spectacle that Morant’s games have become is omnipresent. Little kids came to Thursday’s first-round game wearing “JA” sweatshirts, fans arrived early to snap photos of him warming up, Patrick Mahomes gleefully tweeted about him. Morant has gotten so popular so fast that he even has a one-man security detail, provided by a Murray State campus security officer named Jeff Gentry.
Heading into this game, we heard about Morant’s raw athleticism, vicious dunking ability, ambidexterity as a passer and as a finisher—in short, how he’s basically Russell Westbrook. Then, Morant lived up to all that hype and excitement and gave us even more against Marquette. On the first play of the game, he took on a double team and threw a lob to KJ Williams for a dunk. He finished off the first half with a step-back three to give the Racers a 42–35 edge. In the second half, he threw down a monster two-handed dunk over Marquette’s 6'9", 290-pound forward Joey Hauser that should hold up as the best highlight of the tournament’s first day.
“That’s just everyday Ja,” says sophomore forward Devin Gilmore. “For real.”
Asked after the game what he hoped someone who never watched him before might have noticed in this game, he said, “Honestly, if they don’t know me by now, I don’t know what to say.” Then he said, “But I hope they see not just me, but that Murray State is a great team and we can run with the big dogs.”
That’s the thing about Morant. For all the attention he gets—which is deserved—he’s always diverting the conversation back to his friends on the team. They’re the ones who help him deal with the extra interview requests by asking him practice questions in the locker room so he can be comfortable—albeit mostly silly questions like, “How were your shoes feeling today? Do you need different ones?” According to senior forward Brion Sanchious, it’s so that “he can be more relaxed. We try to mess with him and make him laugh.” They also never miss an opportunity hold up their phones as fake tape recorders, laughing while pretending to part of the media scrum to keep things light.
Thursday’s win was a perfect opportunity to shine the spotlight on the whole team. All five starters scored nine points or more. Freshman guard Tevin Brown looked like an elite shooter, leading the team with 19 points and going 5-of-9 from three (he was 4-of-4 in the first half). Senior guard Shaq Buchanan dominated defensively, and Darnell Cowart helped spread the floor with his ability to score inside. Asked about his remarkable stat line, Morant said, “It feels good, but I give all the credit to my teammates because without them, I wouldn’t have a triple double.”
Brion Whitley, a sophomore guard who went in for the final minute after the Racers pulled their starters, still teased that Murray State should be called “Ja Morant University.” Morant rolled his eyes.
“We have a great group of guys, not just me,” Morant said. “Obviously I can’t win the game by myself.”
But of course, Morant will still be the story moving forward as Murray State makes its way through the tournament as a potential Cinderella. The Racers face Florida State in the second round Saturday.
Morant’s ascension is a Cinderella story of its own. As the oft-told tale goes, he was an under-recruited kid from rural South Carolina who ended up at Murray State because a former assistant coach spotted him playing 3-on-3 on a side court while he was at a tournament recruiting other kids. Now, Morant is projected to be a top-two pick in this year’s NBA draft.
“I mean, I really credit him for having the will power to fight through everything that he was up against,” Tee Morant says. “I mean, everybody knows the story, under the radar, maybe he’s not good enough, maybe he’s too small, maybe he can’t do this, can’t do that. But he’s put the world on notice.”
Highlight-reel dunks aside, the most captivating part about Morant’s skill set, his creativity as a passer, was on full display against Marquette. Murray State had 23 assists to 13 turnovers, while Marquette had twice as many turnovers as assists. Morant, whose 10 assists per game lead the nation, finished with 16 dimes, second this season only to an 18-assist night against UT-Martin.
His teammates joke about how difficult it can be to be on the receiving end of a perfect Morant no-look pass, but they also relish his cleverness.
“It’s fun playing with him because he’s a very exciting player,” Brown says. “You never know what you’re going to get from him and you just always have to keep your hands ready because he could make a pass at any time. Whether he’s dribbling or going up for a shot—you never know when it’s going to come. He could be up in the air shooting a layup and then turn and pass you the ball.”
Morant said passing is his favorite part of the game and that “10 times out of 10” he’d rather have an assist and watch his teammate score than finish it himself. Morant first developed this piece of his repertoire by watching Rajon Rondo growing up and loved how he got his teammates involved.
“It’s amazing,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said. “Cross-court passes, lobs, backdoor cuts, whatever. It’s always right where the ball needs to be to lead his teammate into the shot. He’s had multiple games this year where over half of his assists were one-handed lefty passes.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime type player and his IQ for the game, he’s a step ahead,” McMahon said. “He sees things before anyone else and then he has the talent and the skill level to deliver the ball where it needs to be.”
This game was billed as the matchup of two future first-round draft picks in Morant and Marquette’s Markus Howard, who finished with 26 points. Morant singlehandedly turned those headlines into an afterthought, and as the Racers continue their tournament run, there won’t be many stories he can’t overshadow.