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Ja Morant’s forgotten March Madness moment shows why Championship Week is so great

Before he was the NBA’s star of the future, Morant built his hype train during college basketball’s Championship Week.

NCAA Basketball: Murray State at Austin Peay Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than a year since Ja Morant made the jump from mid-major college basketball’s favorite son to household name.

The metamorphic moment occurred on March 21, 2019 when Morant put up one of the more unique triple-doubles in NCAA tournament history, and the first NCAA tournament triple-double of any sort since 2012. His 17-point, 11-rebound, and 16-assist effort in 12th-seeded Murray State’s 83-64 blowout of 5-seed Marquette became easily the most talked about individual performance of the tournament’s opening weekend.

You know the next few chapters of the story. Murray State loses to Florida State in the second round but Morant’s star only grows brighter, he becomes the second pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, and he appears well on his way to the 2020 Rookie of the Year award and years and years of life as an NBA superstar after that.

This is the quintessential March Madness story. A player that only college basketball diehards had seen up close multiple times puts on an absolute show in his first performance for a national audience, and then parlays that breakout moment into a lifetime of fortune and fame. Sure it’s not entirely accurate — Morant was going to make an absurd amount of money playing basketball regardless of how he fared against Marquette — but it’s the type of story that draws everyone into March each and every year.

Only it almost didn’t happen.

Two weeks before his monster moment against Marquette, Morant’s final college postseason seemed destined to end in disappointment. With less than 10 seconds to play in the Ohio Valley tournament semifinals, Murray State trailed upset-minded Jacksonville State by a point. The Racers had been playing from behind for most of the second half, but now their season — and their chances of capitalizing on a generational talent like Morant — hung in the balance.

This is the Ja Morant March moment that nobody talks about. The one that set the stage for the other one, and then everything that came after that.

Murray State would go on to take care of Belmont in the OVC championship game, and then ascend to its new role as America’s sweetheart two weeks later.

This is the beauty of Championship Week. It’s the legwork that affords the diehard hoop heads the luxury of having a deeper appreciation for everything that happens in the weeks that will come deeper into March.

One run. That’s all it takes to change everything about what you’ve been for your entire existence. But you have to get there first.

This is where Gonzaga starts the process of going from a school no one in America can place to one synonymous with gaudy records and No. 1 seeds. This is where Horizon League Butler lays the foundation to evolve into Big East Butler. This is where the University of Maryland, Baltimore County gives itself a chance to become “UMBC!!!!.” This is where you get ... this guy:

This is the mini-madness that becomes March Madness. You can’t have one without the other.

For the next 12 days we will be consistently bombarded by dream-fulfilling, career-ending, win-or-turn-in-your-jersey conference tournament action. All the elements that draw casual fans so completely into the first weekend of the NCAA tournament are inherent in each and every one of the 32 conference tournaments that will take place over the course of the next two weeks. Quite simply, it’s high drama you can’t find anywhere else.

It is exhilarating, it is cruel, it is rewarding, and it is unrivaled. It’s time to let the madness wash over you.