ROUNDBALL DAILY

Murray State should make the NCAA Tournament, even if they don’t win the OVC title

 

If you’ve been following college basketball this season, you’ve probably heard of the kid from Murray State who’s rising up draft boards quicker than he gets to his apex on one of his devastating throwdowns.

19-year-old Ja Morant, a 6-3 sophomore guard from Dalzell, South Carolina, is a potential top-five pick in this June’s NBA Draft, thanks to his revelatory athleticism, court vision and knack for dropping 30 on you at the drop of a hat.

He might be the most-ballyhooed player in Murray State history, and maybe, in the history of the Ohio Valley Conference, which has been around since 1948 and produced pros like Dick Barnett, Kenneth Faried, Popeye Jones and Anthony Mason.

He’s been given a dialed-back version of the Trae Young treatment by ESPN, with the network sending push alerts on his highlight-reel plays (of which there are many) to your phone every chance they get, and showcasing him on SportsCenter every night.

Despite all of this, there’s a decent chance that you won’t see the soon-to-be lottery pick in the NCAA Tournament come March.

Murray State is 20-4, and in first place in the Ohio Valley at 11-2, but unless the Racers emerge from a stacked conference tournament field, they likely won’t be invited to the Big Dance.

Murray State doesn’t have any noteworthy non-conference wins (though they gave both Auburn and Alabama everything they wanted), and despite the fact that it’s decidedly not their fault that few major-conference teams will willingly schedule them, they’ll be hurt come Selection Sunday.

If the Racers do win the OVC tournament title, they’ll have earned it. Four teams in the conference currently have league records of 10-3 or better, including Belmont (20-4, 11-2/OVC), Austin Peay (18-8, 10-3), and Jacksonville State (18-8, 10-3).

If Murray State did end up falling short, it wouldn’t be an unreasonable ending to their great season.

Still, you’ve got to believe that if Morant played for a major-conference team and was still generating the amount of buzz that he is now, the NCAA would (wink, wink) find a way for his school to reach the Dance.

The NCAA no doubt gifted Oklahoma an invite to the tourney last year because of Trae Young, the biggest name in the sport and a guy who was going to draw eyeballs to the sets.

The Sooners finished below rival Oklahoma State in the Big 12 standings, and lost to the Cowboys twice, but it didn’t matter—you probably can’t name anybody who played on Oklahoma State last year, and you couldn’t have named them last March, either, so it was Oklahoma in the field and State relegated to the NIT.

Including Morant’s Murray State squad in the field this year wouldn’t be nearly as controversial, given the Racers’ gaudy record and the quality of the teams at the top of their league.

The NCAA should take extra steps to look out for its smaller member schools, not only because the playing field is weighted so heavily against them, but also because they provide the type of drama and excitement that makes March Madness what it is.

There’s no doubt that a player like Morant could lead a team as good as Murray State on a miraculous tournament run, the kind that captivates the country and stirs the imagination of basketball fans everywhere.

Just think: if Loyola-Chicago had been tripped up in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last March, despite its record-setting regular season, it would have been left out of the field. And then you wouldn’t even know who Sister Jean was. Is that the kind of world you want to live in?

Murray State is having a special season–one Racers fans won’t forget for a long, long time.

It deserves to end in the NCAA Tournament.

 

Murray State has been here before (from 2012):

Exclusive Interview: Murray State head coach Steve Prohm talks pressure, expectations, going undefeated, and the Final Four

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