HARTFORD, Conn. — Murray State coaches knew they had something special with Ja Morant as a freshman. The athleticism, ball handling and court vision were exceptionally rare.

Last offseason, Morant and Murray State went to work maximizing those prodigious physical talents and refining his game.

While the biggest stars in college basketball often arrive on campus ready to dominate, Morant blossomed in college, going from unheralded recruit to promising mid-major freshman to the talk of the NCAA tournament. The point guard from South Carolina put up a triple-double in the Racers’ first-round win against Marquette that has pushed his stardom to a new level.

“There were plenty of signs for what was in store last year as a freshman, but it’s a great credit to him and the work he put in in the offseason,” Murray State Coach Matt McMahon said Friday as the 12th seeded Racers prepared to face fourth-seeded Florida State on Saturday in the West Region.

Morant was already a lock to be an NBA lottery pick. Now he is a celebrity. But it was last summer, before the social media attention, that Morant laid the foundation for a breakout season and his memorable tournament performance.

Morant worked tirelessly on his outside shot, grinded in the weight room – putting 20 pounds on his lanky frame – and became more studious in the film room. After averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 assists as a freshman, while shooting 46 percent from the floor and 31 from 3-point range, Morant jumped to 24.4 points, 10.2 assists, 50.4 percent from the field and 34 percent from 3.

THE BIGGEST challenge for No. 2-seed Kentucky as it tries to avoid an upset from No. 7-seed Wofford on Saturday will be containing Fletcher Magee.

In Wofford’s 84-68 win against 10th-seeded Seton Hall on Thursday, the star shooting guard became the nation’s all-time leader in 3-pointers. John Calipari, never shy about talking up his own ability, said Magee reminds him of someone he thinks is really great.

“You know who I saw in him and how he played?” the Kentucky coach said Friday. “I thought and the closest I could get to him is how I used to play.”


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