Welcome to awards week at Mid-Major Madness! This week, we’re honoring the best players, coach, and game from the 2018-19 season, wrapping up today with our Player of the Year.
The westernmost portion of Kentucky is a region called the Jackson Purchase. When someone thinks of Kentucky and the idyllic hills of the Bluegrass region or the ancient mountains that create the eastern landscape of the state, they are not thinking of the Jackson Purchase. Both geographically and culturally, it’s unlike the rest of the state.
Of course, there is one large facet of life in the Jackson Purchase that feels wholly Kentuckian.
In Calloway County, the city of Murray is one of the region’s biggest towns, even if it boasts a population of just under 20,000. It’s a location that largely prides itself on two things: its niceness and its basketball team.
It’s that team which makes Murray truly feel like a Kentucky city. Truly, Racer basketball is the town’s heartbeat, and the energy behind it is what makes Murray State unique among other mid-major programs.
Throughout all these years, Murray has served as a pipeline for producing some recognizable names. With guys like Mick Cronin, Billy Kennedy, Steve Prohm, and Mark Gottfried having coached there, and players such as Isaiah Canaan and Cam Payne taking the court, it’s no wonder why Racer fans have been so passionate for so long.
However, even with all of that success that has proven to be the hallmark of Racer basketball, the fans in this area have never seen a player quite like Ja Morant.
In his sophomore season, Morant redefined Murray State basketball, putting it on the map as a legitimate producer of professional talent. He was able to use his talent to improve the brand surrounding both himself and the school, doing so by dunking opposing players into oblivion, putting up highlights that would make Zion Williamson watch in disbelief.
Even in years where Murray State was finishing the season ranked in national polls and posting 31-2 records, the buzz surrounding them nationally was never this huge. But the talent Morant displayed went beyond his marvelous plays. He put up numbers that illustrate why he’s believed to be the second overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Morant’s 24.5 points and 10 assists per game placed him among the top 10 in both categories this season, and he led the college basketball world in the latter statistic. Even more remarkable, his 331 assists were the sixth-most ever recorded in a single season by a college basketball player since 1985.
Truthfully, there isn’t much that Morant is incapable of doing. His shooting numbers are good. His athleticism is outstanding. His hands are skilled enough to do everything from turning over opponents to finding open teammates. He seems unable to ever actually be fatigued. He’s the complete package.
Believe it or not, last season, Morant wasn’t even the most important player on Murray State. With a guy like Jonathan Stark scoring in bunches for the Racers, it is easy to look back and see why Morant’s talent was overlooked, even if he was on a team that made the NCAA Tournament. It might even be difficult for some fans to believe that he didn’t even win OVC Freshman of the Year, but he was bested last season by Austin Peay’s Terry Taylor.
Yet, it was this season that might be the most memorable for all Murray State fans. He led them to an NCAA Tournament win and an OVC Title, facing off against big names like Markus Howard and Dylan Windler in the process. When coupling the success with the attention the program received, Morant was able to take two things that Racer fans were already accustomed to and make them seem even more special than before.
Morant is a generational talent; years down the line, when he’s busy tearing up the NBA, folks throughout Murray will be telling their kids about how fondly they remember those salad days when they were able to make the short drive over to watch one of the best players of our time take the court.
For one whole season, in a town of 20,000 that’s deep in the soul of West Kentucky, a player took the court at the CFSB Center and commanded the attention of onlookers throughout the country. We may never again witness something so special, so here’s hoping we cherished that experience — and the player who gave it to us — while it was here.