Murray State sophomore point guard Ja Morant's rise in the past month is unlike anything mid-major college basketball has seen in a long time.
This is not the story of a three- or four-year boil to All-American status. Morant was a known talent, sure ---- but his profile has gone stratospheric in a way that almost never happens with sophomores dominating mid-major opponents.
Morant started creating a buzz when he was putting up good numbers -- and fearless dunks -- against teams like Alabama and Auburn in nonconference play. But it was this Vince Carter-on-Frederic Weis imitation on Jan. 10 that hoisted his rep.
From there, he threw down another obscene dunk last week and, most recently, posted a 40-point, 11-assist, five-steal showing that a Division I player put up those stats in a regulation game.
As Morant's star has risen, along with his position into the top five on NBA mock drafts, he's developed some fables around his time before Murray State. At this point, it's a wonder to many how a talent like Morant wound up in Murray, Ky. The bit about him being teammates with Zion Williamson in grassroots basketball is a growing legend. While it is true that Morant and Williamson were once teammates, it's not as though they played together on a shoe-company circuit and in huge events for years. Morant wasn't ignored as, all the while, big-name coaches took in Williamson's eye-popping talent.
Here's the truth: The summer before Morant was a sophomore in high school and Williamson was a freshman, they played on a small regional grassroots team called the South Carolina Hornets that did not have any shoe-company backing. Williamson (from Spartanburg, S.C.) and Morant (from Dalzell, S.C.) lived nearly 90 minutes apart; the program was based out of Columbia, S.C., and they'd each drive about 45 minutes for practices, games, etc.
It was during that summer with the Hornets that Williamson had his first burst of fame on the recruiting circuit.
"Zion was always a mild-mannered kid, never showed much expression," Tee Morant, Ja's father, told CBS Sports. "He was probably 6-foot-3 then. He had hops, but he didn't have the hops that he possesses now."
Still, he was dunking by then -- as was Morant, whose first slam in a game came at 14 playing with Williamson. It was a notable tournament in Greensboro, N.C., that sent the two on forking paths.
"I guess the rest of the athleticism had to kick in, but he was catching alley-oops from Ja then," Tee Morant said. "I think the game he really opened a lot of people's eyes, one kid went up for a layup and he tried to put it high off the glass and Zion looked like he went to the top of the square and pinned it. It was a big tournament, everyone went crazy, and that went viral."
After one go-around, Williamson went on to the Adidas circuit while Morant stayed behind with the humble Hornets. And yet, before Murray State offered, the only schools who came along with a scholarship in hand were Maryland Eastern Shore, Duquesne and South Carolina State.
That debunks another bubbling urban legend about Morant: that Murray State was the only program to offer him a scholarship.
"The narrative hasn't been told correctly," Murray State coach Matt McMahon told me this week. "He was recruited."
According to Tee Morant, 13 Division I programs made official courtships for Ja, including Frank Martin's South Carolina Gamecocks. (Tee Morant said Clemson was interested, too, but didn't have an available scholarship on the table.) Regardless, most schools only came calling after Murray State found him.
And that is the crazy story in all of this, because it was a most incredible kind of accident. In July 2016, former Murray State assistant James Kane was heavily recruiting a prospect named Tevin Brown (who now starts for Murray State). Kane showed up on a Wednesday in Spartanburg for a ragtag AAU combine of sorts.
Earlier that day, dozens of kids were measured and went through drills. The best testers were kept in the main gym. A small cluster of the rest, Morant among them, were directed to the back gym, mostly to play three-on-three. So Kane is in the building, watching Brown, but he's really hungry. So he asks an event organizer where he can get some concession-stand food. Kane wanders into the back gym, looking for grub.
Instead, he finds the next NBA player to come out of Murray State. Kane is surprised to see this lanky kid dominating in three-on-three. His name isn't even available in the recruiting packet handed out to coaches at the event.
"I've always thought James is one of the top talent evaluators in college basketball," McMahon said. "He called me and said, 'This kid's going to be a pro.'"
Kane was smitten and dumbfounded: Why is this kid not playing in the main gym, and who the hell is he? Tee Morant was there that day, GoPro in hand, capturing his son on video in hopes of eventually catching the eye of a flourishing program. Kane connected, and within essentially a week's time, McMahon offered Morant a scholarship in the parking lot after a tournament in Greensboro.
Soon after, other schools followed -- slowly, because Morant wasn't on social media and didn't use the platform to boost his reputation the way the most players do now. Within a few months, Morant would commit to Murray State, doing so in McMahon's home and surprising the staff and players in the process.
Now the Racers (15-2), who made the NCAA Tournament last season, have a huge matchup against Belmont (13-4) on Thursday. McMahon called Morant a "basketball genius" and told me his ability to see the floor and improvise plays separates him from the other college point guards. He referenced the one below in particular. This is not a set. This is Morant deploying legerdemain and pulling one over on the defense.
Ja Morant is an incredible point guard and is a potential top five pick because of his floor-reading ability as much as his athleticism. Here, he calls a flip of pin-down action and improvises, sending the 4 to the rim + easily lobbing it in from 25 feet out — with his off hand. pic.twitter.com/kPbNUhKiDQ— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) January 22, 2019
"The athleticism, explosiveness, it's unbelievable," McMahon said. "But for me it's more the basketball IQ, the playmaking, the making people around him better. We were playing a game at Morehead State. It's a 5 man pin-down for the best shooter to get him a 3 or a post up for the 5. On the fly, Ja recognized how they were playing that pin-down action. Without anyone saying a word to him, he flipped our 4 and 5, he saw they were over-sending on the pin-down, ran the same play, had the 4 slip the pin-down and threw a left handed lob pass from 25 feet on the money for a dunk. Wasn't a play call, was just him seeing the game and making that read."
Morant getting back to the NCAA Tournament would be a boon for Murray State -- and set the stage for an electric Cinderella candidate. But whether or not the Racers are dancers in 2019, Morant's star quality seems set to grow exponentially from now until the moment his name is called in the NBA Draft.
Morant and Williamson couldn't have had a more disparate paths to get to this point. From 2015-18, Williamson became the most famous high school player since LeBron James en route to being the top attraction in college basketball. Morant thrived in obscurity until just a few weeks ago. And now they seem fated to meet up again in the green room at the 2019 NBA Draft -- their names called only moments apart by Adam Silver.
Duke destined to be doomed by the 3 -- and the free?
No. 2 Duke's loss at home to Syracuse on Jan. 14 was a shocker, and it highlighted a season-long festering matter for Mike Krzyzewski's team: 3-point accuracy.
Duke was 9-for-43 vs. the Orange, then, interestingly, was 2-for-14 vs. Virginia but didn't lose -- in part because the Blue Devils watched UVA go 3-for-17. Against Pitt on Tuesday night: 7-for-23 from deep.
Duke has traditionally ranked among the best power-conference teams -- if not the best teams overall -- from long range. It's finished, on average, 44th in college basketball over the past decade and a half in 3-ball accuracy. Only once in that span did the Blue Devils fall outside the top 60 nationally in 3-point percentage.
But this season? It's 292nd, hitting just 31.2 percent of its triples, which is a 6-percent drop from a season ago.
Just as troubling is Duke's free throw percentage. The team is making 67.6 percent of its freebies, which ranks 256th in the sport and is flirting with the worst foul-shot percentage for Duke since 1994-95 -- the last time the Blue Devils didn't make the NCAA Tournament. It's been almost as long since Duke was this unreliable from 3-point range as well.
Alex O'Connell is Duke's most accurate 3-point shooter (37 percent), but he only plays 13 minutes per game. For all Duke's strengths, there are glaring weaknesses begging to be exploited if they don't get fixed by March.
The best race in college hoops is to 3,000
Without looking, what's your guess on how many Division I men's basketball players have scored 3,000 career points? Fifty? Twenty-five? Twelve? Two?
The answer is eight -- but it will soon be 10. In a freaky coincidence, South Dakota State's Mike Daum and Campbell's Chris Clemons started the season at 2,232 apiece. And now, Clemons sits at 2,757; Daum has 2,740. At each player's respective pace, Clemons (29.2 points per game) should hit 3K on Feb. 21 in Campbell's home game vs. High Point. Daum (24.2), if he manages to play to his average, will hit the mark in SDSU's first game in the Summit League tournament.
Reaching 3,000 is such a rarity, yet here we have two guys ready to do it in the same season and within less than two weeks of each other. Good story for mid-major college hoops. Daum had 34 and 21 vs. North Dakota last week.
Have a question, curiosity or complaint? Do @ me. Lob your question my way on Twitter.
Which coaches do you think will be Hall of Famers (inducted that is) in the next 20 years?— John Steichen (@JohnSteichen) January 16, 2019
Believe this: There are assistants nobody knows about who are 5-10 years away from getting their first head coaching job who, one day, maybe 40 years from now, will be Hall of Famers. My guess on active coaches who will be in the Hall of Fame by the year 2039: John Beilein, Tony Bennett, Mark Few, Bob Huggins, Lon Kruger, Tubby Smith, Jay Wright.
most fun player/team to watch?— seakos (@srk_16) January 16, 2019
My top five teams to watch, in no order: Marquette, Duke, Gonzaga, St. John's, Nevada. All of those teams intrinsically have entertaining guys to watch. A few more players to add to that: Carsen Edwards, Ja Morant, Coby White, C.J. Massinburg, Frankie Ferrari, Shamorie Ponds.
Tuesday night's buzzer-beating loss at Northern Illinois was tough, but yes, if Buffalo were to lose only once more between now and Selection Sunday (that's asking a lot, of course), I think it would get a 4 seed.
Is this the best team Tony Bennett has had at UVA? Do they exercise their postseason demons of last year in the tourney?— Matthew Coca (@MatthewCocaCBS) January 16, 2019
Hey, some intra-CBS inquiry! I do think this is the best team Bennett has ever had. I think UVA will win the rematch vs. Duke on Feb. 9. I think Virginia will get a No. 1 seed. I think Virginia will be playing in Minneapolis in the national semifinals on April 6.
- Miami is expecting to hear a final word from the NCAA on the eligibility of Dewan Hernandez, who has been held out of competition because of his attachment to Christian Dawkins, who was charged in October of bribery in the first of three scheduled trials on corruption in college hoops. Miami and Hernandez's attorney have put up impassioned pleas to the NCAA.
- If there's one team now prone to have its season boomerang the wrong way, it's TCU. The Horned Frogs have lost all-important guard Jaylen Fisher, who is hurt and transferring, and lost four players to transfer in total: Fisher, Yuat Alok, Kaden Archie and Angus McWilliam.
- If the Big 12 scale is to balance, then Baylor could be flipping roles with TCU. Scott Drew has a shorthanded Bears team at 4-2 in the league with surprising wins on the road against West Virginia and Oklahoma State. At home, Baylor's knocked off two of the seemingly three best teams in the conference in Iowa State and Texas Tech.
- Not good for Indiana: Devonte Green (7.9 points in 24.6 minutes per game) has been indefinitely suspended and did not travel with the team for its loss against Northwestern on Tuesday night. IU is 12-7, and it hasn't gone to plan for Archie Miller's Hoosiers this season.
- Food for bracketology thought: Tennessee, Duke and Syracuse are the only teams yet to lose on the road this season. (But have only played three road games apiece.)
- A shout to Valparaiso, which is 12-7 with a 5-1 mark in the Missouri Valley. Valpo only won six games in the league last season and finished last. It might become the only worst-to-first story in college basketball's 32 conferences this season. Swapping from worst to first has only happened four times in 111 years of MVC competition.
- Reports out of Georgetown are that Patrick Ewing is occasionally not making at least one or two players available to the media after losses. This should never be acceptable, and coaching paranoia about media access is overall getting worse by the year.
Terrific shot from Michigan Athletics on Tuesday night. That's Charles Matthews after he let go of but before it fell true.