Daniel Mayes, Editor-in-Chief
Thursday night. Jacksonville State against Murray State. Sole possession of first place in the Ohio Valley Conference standings on the line.
That alone might be enough to make Thursday night’s clash of the OVC titans the most important, or at least most hyped, game on the floor of Pete Mathews Coliseum in Jacksonville State’s Division I history.
Now add a consensus projected top-5 NBA draft pick into the mix.
That makes for the type of game that usually is reserved for the power-5 leagues. The “basketball schools.”
Yet the heralded Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant will bring his Murray State Racers, who are fresh off a 38-point demolishing of Tennessee State, into Jacksonville, Alabama to take on the Gamecocks Thursday night at 7:15 p.m.
Even with all the excitement surrounding the matchup, the Gamecocks are not letting the noise make them lose focus.
“We’re excited for the game, but that’s because it’s the next game on the schedule,” senior guard Jamall Gregory says.
Morant comes into the game putting up almost-unheard of stats this season. Numbers that certainly warrant the troop of NBA scouts and front office personnel that show up to most of his games, including at least three teams that will have representatives in Jacksonville Thursday night.
The sophomore stud puts up 24.1 points per game, which is good enough for ninth in the nation and first in the OVC.
The scoring numbers are formidable on their own, but pair that with Morant’s NCAA-best 10.5 assists per contest, which is almost three more than the 7.8 average from second-ranked Kai Toews out of UNC Wilmington, and you get a combination of offensive statistics that are hard to come by.
According to Sports Reference College Basketball, the last player to average Morant’s mark of at least 10.5 assists for an entire season was current University of Alabama coach Avery Johnson, who averaged 13.3 assists during his senior season at Southern in 1988. Johnson, however, scored just 11.4 points to go along with those assists.
“He’s a top-5 pick, so you know he can do a lot of things,” JSU senior Jason Burnell says of Morant. “We just have to go at him on the offensive end. We have to make him guard, he’s not going to just sit there and not do anything.”
With all the hype heading into Morant and Murray State’s venture to Pete Mathews Coliseum, it’s hard to believe that this isn’t the star’s first game in the venue.
Morant had just nine points and five assists in 31 minutes last year when Jacksonville State beat Murray State 76-71 last January.
Last season, a freshman Morant played second-fiddle to senior Jonathan Stark, who took most of the ball-handling duties en route to winning last year’s OVC Player of the Year.
Morant still put up a more-than-respectable 12.7 points and 6.3 assists last season, but no one could have seen coming the meteoric rise that propelled him to the national stage and the NBA radar that this year has brought.
Burnell says last year’s matchups, in which the Gamecocks held the point guard to nine, five and 11 points respectively, can’t reveal much about Jacksonville State’s ability to limit Morant this season.
“I think what helped us was the fact that he was in the smaller role,” Burnell said. “He’s dangerous, but we’ve just got to stay on what we do. Last week was the two worst defensive games we’ve had all year. We’ve just got to get back to defending.”
Listening to Jacksonville State players discuss Morant, the message is clear: The Gamecocks respect the star, but they want to focus on what they do.
“Morant’s going to give us some trouble,” Burnell said. “He is a top-5 pick. At the end of the day, like coach Harper says, he’s going to hit some shots. We just can’t get frustrated, we’ve got to keep going at him and doing what we do. One thing about this team is we have a bunch of dogs. Nobody is scared of him or anything, so we’re just going to go at him.”
Despite two wins over Belmont already under their belt and a chance to take sole possession of first place in the league on Thursday, the Gamecocks seem happy flying under the radar.
“Belmont and Murray State get all the attention, but we beat Belmont twice,” Burnell says. “I think we do have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, but we’ve just got to stay within ourselves.”
“We’re staying humble,” Gregory says. “We know what we’re doing here in Jacksonville. It’ll all show when it’s time to hang banners.”