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NCAA Tournament Scouting Report: The Murray State Racers

A top NBA picks stands between FSU and the Sweet 16

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round- Marquette vs Murray State Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

If the 2019 NBA draft breaks as expected, Florida State will have competed against five of the top six picks in a span of eight days. The ‘Noles beat Virginia and the projected No. 5 pick De’Andre Hunter in the ACC Tournament. The next day they got three of the top six in Zion Williamson, Cam Redish, and RJ Barrett. And now FSU gets Murray State’s Ja Morant, who has led his team to a gaudy 28-4 record.

Florida State just had to build a scouting report around a team with one dominant player, and now that goes to a whole new level. Ja Morant is the single most important player to any team in the nation, and it’s not even close.

Hi, Ja

The sophomore’s numbers are eye popping. He’s 8th in the nation in scoring (24.6 ppg), and leads the nation in assists (10.0 apg, with the No. 2 guy at 7.7). He always has the ball in his hands. Morant is the highest usage player in the nation. He assists on 52% of Murray State baskets when he’s on the floor, which is the highest rate in college basketball in five years.

Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68)

I screen, you screen, we all screen for Iced screens

Like many college offenses, including Florida State’s, the Racers offense is highly dependent on the ball screen. How to defense those screens is the key decision that Leonard Hamilton needs to make.

Murray State’s close loss at Alabama provides the most likely blue print. Bama and FSU both like to switch ball screens to try and take away 3-point opportunities. This leads to a lot of mismatches of smalls on bigs, which could be the case when Mfiondu Kabengele is playing the post for Florida State. You just switch the screen and hope it isn’t too much of a mismatch. After Morant torched their bigs for many of his 38 points, Alabama began double-teaming Morant to force the ball out of his hands, and then face guarding him to try to limit touches. FSU just employed a similar strategy vs Kyle Guy in their win over Virginia.

When Christ Koumadje is in the game, FSU will likely ice all ball screens he’s involved with. This is how Morant picks up many of his assists. The Racers bigs almost never pop. Instead they roll hard on screens and rely on Morant getting them the ball when the opposing big is slowing him down in the screen action. Florida State will have to rely on Koumadje slowing Morant down, but also covering the roll. Otherwise, perimeter defenders have to rotate down and Morant will be setting up his teammates for 3s all day.

Many OVC teams won’t do either. They’ll hust have all Morant defenders go under the screen, daring him to take open 3s all game, where he is just an average 3-point shooter.

On an island

One of Murray State’s favorite offensive sets is isolate Morant 40 feet from the basket and have everyone else get out of his way. No one on FSU is quick enough to stay with him and they love to get him going downhill where his athleticism usually wins out for easy 2s.

Achilles heel

Like many players who constantly have the ball, Morant will settle. No one can be in attack mode for 40 minutes (he won’t come out of the game on Saturday). Disrupt his flow on ball screens, and he’ll often settle for jumpers. That’s a win.

He is also turnover prone. His raw numbers are grossly inflated because he always has the ball. But he still turns it over on 22% of possessions. For reference, Trent Forrest is at 20% and MJ Walker is at 23%.

The other three

Senior Shaq Buchanan joined Morant on the All Ohio Valley Conference 1st Team. He was the defensive player of the year, and has crazy length. He’s 6-3 with a reported 6-10 wingspan. He’s a decent shooter (34% from deep) but is better going to the rim. He averaged 13.1 ppg.

Freshman Tevin Brown is their most dangerous shooter, and he made 5-9 3s in their first round win over Marquette. He’s made 38% on the year and has good size at 6-5. He’s 3rd on the team at 12.0 ppg.

Darnell Cowart is the big, big man in the middle. He’s listed at 6-8, 295. He scores 10.3 per game.

Track meet

FSU is used to out of conference foes who won’t run with them. But that’s not Murray State. Like a lot of teams that love to run, the Racers are a poor defensive rebounding team, and offensive rebounding is FSU’s main offensive strength. Florida State is going to have to crash the glass hard, but be successful enough that they aren’t getting hurt in transition. Having Phil Cofer (foot) and/or David Nichols (foot) available will be big, as FSU will need the depth.

Strength on strength

Overall, the Murray State profile is similar to FSUs. They’re both highly dependent on 2s. They’re both very good on the offensive glass. Neither is a great shooting team. Both like to run. The difference is that Florida State has an elite defense, which is why the ‘Noles are 5-point favorites.