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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Chris Paul camp attendees square off in first round of March Madness

Jack Phillips
Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics

HARTFORD, CONN. — As Murray State guard Ja Morant arrived at the Chris Paul Elite Guards Camp last August, he met at a table with one of the other 19 collegiate guards at the camp.

The player introduced himself as Markus Howard from Marquette. The meeting was hardly planned. Morant chose a random table, and Howard was there.

“Markus actually was the first person I talked to,” Morant said. “We had a meeting that night when we got there.”

“It was just like any other conversation,” Howard said. “You just say, ‘Hey,’ and then you just start talking ball.”

Seven months later with far more buzz and implications than a casual conversation, Morant and Howard will meet again in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“To be able to share the court with him on Thursday is going to be pretty cool,” Howard said. “We’re looking forward to playing against a great opponent.”

Unlike the camp, their reunion will be in front of millions of viewers, and the buzz around Morant has grown dramatically.

He is the only player in college basketball to average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game and is projected to be a top-five pick in this June’s NBA Draft. At the Hartford-area high school where Murray State practiced, students said they were going to the bathroom. They were actually going to the gym to watch Morant play.

“He’s a combination of a lot of great things,” Murray State head coach Matt McMahon said. “Athletically and from an explosiveness standpoint, he is elite. … He’s got great court vision. He sees things develop before anyone else on the floor.”

Morant is the only Division I player to average double-digit assist numbers this season.

“He’s definitely a really good playmaker,” freshman Joey Hauser said. “He’s a really good scorer, but he also makes plays for his teammates.”

It’s something Morant has embraced.

“I really don’t care too much about the points,” Morant said. “It’s the assists. That’s one thing I love to do. If I had the choice to score or assist, I’d take the assist. … It’s my favorite stat.”

Morant has drawn comparisons to Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, an eight-time NBA All-Star and the 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player. Morant said he enjoys the comparison.

“I love that comparison,” Morant said. “He’s my favorite player.”

The Chris Paul camp accelerated the hype around Morant’s freakish athleticism. Howard saw it first-hand.

“There is some plays where he displayed his athleticism. There’s some alley-oops thrown when his torso was above the rim,” Howard said. “Just seeing that, I was blown away. … That was definitely something that caught my eye.”

As Morant’s spotlight has grown, Howard and Morant’s friendship have stayed in touch throughout the season.

“Me and him were pretty close,” Howard said. “We got close over that time in camp. We’ve been in contact throughout the season.”

Both teams have tried to downplay the Ja-vs.-Markus storyline, though.

“Both teams have star players that get a lot of attention,” McMahon said. “They both have good teams. We both have balance, multiple double-figure scorers.”

“We can’t really control what the media’s focus is, so we try not to worry too much about things that we can’t control,” Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “A lot of people want to make this a one-on-one duel. But from our perspective, this is Marquette vs. Murray State.”

Marquette redshirt junior Sacar Anim will have the challenge of guarding Morant.

“Obviously, he’s a terrific player with a lot of speed (and) can create for his other players and also get his own shot,” Anim said. “(We need to be) making sure we don’t get on the side where we let him get a head of steam going to the rim.”

This is hardly the first time Anim has needed to defend against an elite guard. He had to defend top BIG EAST guards like Seton Hall’s Myles Powell and Villanova’s Phil Booth.

“I played against a lot of great opponents in the BIG EAST, so I think that’s prepared me,” Anim said. “I’ll be ready to go.”

Meanwhile Murray State will divide the duties of guarding Howard between Morant and teammate Shaq Buchanan.

“He’s a great player on offense,” Buchanan said. “I did study a lot of film on that. I’m accepting the challenge to guard Markus Howard.”

Morant didn’t need to study as much film to know of Howard’s ability.

“I expect a lot from Markus tomorrow,” Morant said. “He had a couple 50-point games. He’s a great scorer. … I saw that at Chris Paul camp. He was able to get up and down a little bit, and he scored the ball very well.”

Nine months after that first conversation at a random table, there was a different conversation between the two budding stars Tuesday night in Hartford, Connecticut.

“We spoke a little bit (Tuesday) night, just saying how it’s crazy that we met at the Chris Paul camp and now both, obviously, our names are out there, and now we get to play against each other,” Morant said.

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