HARTFORD — Ja Morant mania meets Florida State’s elite defense while Phil Booth and Carsen Edwards are on the same floor in Hartford. That’s just a start for storylines in what you could argue is the best second round doubleheader of Saturday’s action in the NCAA Tournament. Here’s five thoughts ahead of the action at the XL Center.
What’s Ja got in store for his second act? That’s what everybody across the country is asking after Morant took the Big Dance floor by storm on Thursday in the 12th-seeded Racers’ 83-64 win over 5-seeded Marquette. It might have been a 5-12 upset, but didn’t feel like one. Morant showed why he deserves to be the second-best NBA Draft prospect on people’s radar. Now, everyone will be glued to what he has in store Saturday. After a 17-point, 16-assist, 11-rebound triple double — all while taking just nine shots — on Thursday, it’s for good reason that Morant, a sophomore, leads the national discussions right now. This kid, like Zion Williamson, deserves the title of a “generational talent.” It’s not crazy talk at all, and it’s his efficiency and the talent that he’s elevating around him which prove it. His freshman teammate Tevin Brown is even awed by Morant. “We’re even surprised (by his passes) at times,” said Brown.
“You’re talking about an elite decision maker,” said Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski. “I have a ton of respect for him. That’s a big-time player. There’s nothing that we found that could speed him up.”
Can Florida State find a formula for Ja Morant? The Seminoles enter Saturday’s matchup winners of seven of their last eight games, and it’s their length that can give teams problems. It eventually got them a 76-69 win over Vermont on a day when they did not shoot the ball well from the field. How did it happen? Florida State got to the free throw line, making 31 of 37. If the Noles are going to win, they have to keep Morant from transition and pound the ball inside. You can’t stop Morant, but you can make him and the Racers work defensively and for the Noles, outdo them with their size.
There’s another All-American on the floor at the XL Center Saturday. Carsen Edwards leads Purdue into a 3-6 matchup with Villanova. The Big Ten leading scorer, who tallies 23.1 points per game, is coming off a 26-point showing in the Boilers’ first round win over Old Dominion on Thursday. So, what’s the gameplan for Villanova on the 6-foot-1 guard? Jay Wright will look to put his most versatile player, Eric Paschall, on Edwards. The Wildcats’ most versatile player, who really epitomizes the Cats’ small ball approach and ability to guard 1-to-5 on the floor, will see at least some time guarding Edwards. Paschall’s coming off a 14-point, six-rebound output in Thursday’s first round win over Saint Mary’s.
“I think he’ll play in the NBA for a long time,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter of Paschall. “Not too many guys can say they can play the 2, 3, 4 and 5-spots and guard those positions.”
Stylistically, what will dictate the Villanova / Purdue showdown? It really comes down to the Cats’ 3-point arsenal or the Boilers’ rebounding capabilities. Nova averages 10.5 triples per game. The Boilers post a +5.1 rebounding margin, and it really works by committee. Mainly, what Purdue gets out of 7-foot-3 sophomore Matt Haarms (9.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG) is huge in this game. If Haarms can control the interior and get Purdue an advantage inside, advantage Boilers. That said, expect Villanova to go small and play 5-out to force Haarms’ hand defensively. That’s my key to the matchup.
The showdown between the Wildcats and Boilermakers bears significance for the two conferences involved. A year after sending just four of its 14 to the Big Dance, the Big Ten has bounced back in a massive way. The league has tied the Big East (2008, 2011) by sending the most teams to the second round of the NCAA Tournament from one league with seven. Meanwhile, in a retooling year the Big East holds just a 1-3 record in the NCAA Tournament, with Villanova as the lone team left. Marquette’s first round exit was disappointing, while St. John’s was flat in the First Four loss to Arizona State. A Seton Hall team that exceeded expectations by making the tournament just fell to a Wofford team that shot the lights out. The conference could very well send 6-7 teams back to the Big Dance next year, so there’s no cause for concern, but Villanova is what is left. The Big East could use this more than the super deep Big Ten in this instance.
Tip time is set for 6:10 ET for Florida State and Murray State, with Purdue and Villanova around 8:40 ET. Both will be televised on TNT. Follow @John_Fanta for updates from the XL Center.
PHOTO: Ja Morant/gannett.com