An NBA prospect ... from Murray State? It’s must-see TV.
Team to beat
Notwithstanding its stunning loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament final, Gonzaga (30-3) might have the nation’s most complete team. Just ask Duke, which fell to the Zags (when it had Zion Williamson), 89-87, in Maui in November. Deep and experienced, Gonzaga can beat you in a half-court or transition game. It’s ranked first nationally in field-goal percentage (53.6) and eighth in field-goal percentage defense (38.9).
Murray State sophomore Ja Morant’s life soon will segue from tournament brackets to tax brackets. A lanky, lightly recruited guard from South Carolina, Morant (24.6 ppg, 10.0 assists) has evolved into an NBA lottery prospect in two seasons with the 12th-seeded Racers (27-4). In late November, he had a triple double (29 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists) in a win against Missouri State. The next game, he scored 38 in a loss to Alabama. Soon thereafter, NBA scouts were flocking to his games.
Oldsmar Christian has a pair of former stars playing in this region. St. John’s sophomore LJ Figueroa has played well in his first season as a starter, averaging 14.3 points and 6.2 rebounds. He’ll lead the Red Storm (21-12) in a play-in game against Arizona State (22-10). Dontay Bassett is averaging 2.7 points for No. 10 seed Florida, which faces No. 7 Nevada.
Encore performance of Hamilton
FSU achieved a milestone of sorts with Sunday’s announcement, earning a third consecutive NCAA berth for only the third time in program history. Two of those streaks (2017-19 and 2009-12) have come under current coach Leonard Hamilton, who has led FSU to the Big Dance seven times in his 17 seasons. How’s this for some resume polish? FSU owns victories against regular-season champs from three major conferences: Virginia (ACC), LSU (SEC) and Purdue (Big Ten).
We wouldn’t be shocked to see 10th-seeded Florida upset Nevada. The Gators (19-15), who came within a no-called foul of forcing overtime against Auburn in the SEC Tournament semifinals, allow fewer than 64 points per game. Meantime, the Wolf Pack has dropped three of its past eight — all in Mountain West Conference play — after a 24-1 start. Don’t presume this West Region opener presents any kind of geographic advantage for Nevada; the game’s in Des Moines, Iowa.