It sounds funny, but Ja Morant better not mess around when the No. 12 seed Murray State Racers take on the No. 5 seed Marquette Golden Eagles in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday afternoon. Yes, the Eagles are coming in as 3.5 favorites right now. They are also coming into the game from the Big East. However, there’s not a whole lot of love for the Eagles in the round of 64. That means they are a dangerous team with a lot to prove.

12 Murray State Racers (27-4) vs. 5 Marquette Golden Eagles (24-9)

When: Thursday March 21, 4:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Hartford, Connecticut – XL Center

TV: TBS

Betting Line: Marquette -3.5 – o/u 149.5

More importantly, Morant will go head to head with the most explosive scorer he has seen this year. This is not to take anything away from every guard in college basketball, but Markus Howard is an elite scorer. Unfortunately, Howard was suffering through a wrist injury at the tail end of the season. Therefore, we have not seen the best from the lethal shooting point guard in recent weeks.

Howard is averaging 25 points and 4 assists per game. That includes a game where he didn’t score after leaving three minutes into a win over the Georgetown Hoyas. Howard also scored six points in a loss to the Seton Hall Pirates. Yet, Howard’s worst performance may have come against the Pirates nine days later when he shot 1 of 15 from the field. He made 1 of 9 from 3-point range. However, he still scored 21 points on the most feeble night of his career. That’s the last time we’ve seen Howard in uniform.

Well, he will have six days in between games. Hopefully, Howard is at his peak physical condition. If so, the college basketball world is in for a treat. As a result, Morant may be in for a nightmare. Is Morant a lockdown defender? We will find out on Thursday.

The Eagles are limping into the tournament. They have lost 5 of their last 6 games. Keep in mind, the Eagles only have 9 losses on the year. In fact, they were looking more like a 2 or 3 seed than the 5 seed they earned on Selection Sunday.

Morant is averaging 24.6 points, 10 assists and 5.5 rebounds for the Racers. He can do it all. Moreover, the Racers have not lost since February started. They have won 11 games in a row, including winning the OVC championship game over the Belmont Bruins.

One team is surging into March Madness while the other hoping to regain their rhythm immediately. In the end, Marquette’s size on the perimeter may be the difference in the game. The Hauser brothers, (Sam and Joey) combine to score 25 points per game. They also shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range, along with Howard and Sacar anim. If the Racers pay too much attention to Howard, his teammates will have plenty of opportunities to scorch the nets.

The Racers have four double digit scorers, but most of the offense really does go through Morant. Moreover, none of their prolific shooters hit over 37 percent from beyond the arc. Therefore, it will likely be up to Tevin Brown to go crazy in round one. He attempts over 7.3 3-pointers per game. How will he perform on the brightest stage? Last season, he was playing high school basketball. Now, it appears he will have to play second fiddle on both ends of the court.

The Racers are scoring 83.3 points per game. They are giving up 67.8 points per game. Therefore, they come into the round of 64 with a 15.5 scoring differential. That’s a nice recipe for success.

Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles are scoring 77.7 points per game. Their defense is holding opponents to 69.1 points per game. The 8.8 point differential would be much more impressive if they didn’t fall flat in the last three weeks.

Murray State is (19-10) against the spread. They are (17-12) vs. the over. The Golden Eagles are (19-14) against the spread and (13-19) vs. the over. Marquette is (2-2) in neutral site games. All four games were against teams that made the NCAA Tournament field. The Racers won both of their neutral site games during the OVC tournament.

Pick- Marquette 80 – Murray State 78

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