by Thomas Zinzarella ’21
Winning a national championship is always a top achievement for a college basketball player. But being named the best player in the country? That accolade may be even more special. The reigning award-winner is Jalen Brunson from Villanova University who was able to achieve both.
Every year it is a challenge to predict who will be the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year because there are so many intriguing candidates. On this year’s list, players such as Zion Williamson, Grant Williams, Markus Howard, and Rui Hachimura are all vying to be the best player in all of college basketball.
A player who may not be known to many casual college basketball fans but is well-known to hardcore fans is a 6’3” sophomore guard from Dalzell, South Carolina. Ja Morant plays for the Murray State University Racers, a team in the Ohio Valley Conference that has strong history of being one of the best mid-major teams in the country.
Murray State has had its success with strong guard play with Cameron Payne and Isaiah Canaan being the most recent NBA draftees. This season, Morant is averaging 24.1 points per game, 10.3 assists per game, and 5.6 rebounds ber game. Morant was not unknown coming into this year. CBS Sports writer Matt Norlander had Morant in his pre-season top 101 college basketball players.
His number really started to buzz when he dropped 25 points and 7 assists against a ranked Auburn University Tigers squad. Morant also put on a show against University of Alabama, where he scored 38 points on 16-29 shooting and tallied nine rebounds and five assists. Morant’s legacy really started to come full circle when he made a Vince Carter-esque dunk earlier in the year on a defender that surfaced on social media.
And yet, many college basketball fans are wondering why such a talented sophomore guard chose Murray State. In fact, his recruiting story is an interesting one. As a high school sophomore, Morant was playing with freshman Zion Williamson on a local South Carolina AAU team. Williamson’s fame took off when he went to the more prestigious Adidas circuit and Morant would stay with his local AAU team. Murray State “accidentally” fell upon Morant when they were recruiting another player. Before Murray State finally offered a scholarship, the only other schools involved in his recruiting were South Carolina State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and Duquesne University. After Murray State offered him, more schools began to take a look at Morant. Soon in-state rivals Clemson University and University of South Carolina began recruiting him. In the end, a total of 13 schools were actively recruiting Morant, and for good reason.
Murray State head coach Matt McMahon raves about his athleticism and explosiveness but also praised his basketball IQ. Morant leads the country with 10.3 assist per game. Morant has rocketed up NBA mock drafts where many have him as a lottery draft pick, even just behind his former AAU teammate.