Back in October, Big East coaches met and ranked the Xavier Musketeers and Marquette Golden Eagles as the third- and fourth-best teams in the conference. The Musketeers were expected to be led back to the Tournament after a rare off-year in coach Travis Steele’s second season behind First-Team Preseason All-Big East forward Naji Marshall. While expectations for the Golden Eagles were slightly dampened by the defections of the Hauser brothers, Preseason First-Teamer Markus Howard.
As college basketball settles into conference play, these teams’ issues have become apparent. Xavier simply can’t score. Guard Paul Scruggs is just about the only efficient scorer (and he still passes up plenty of open looks) leading to sub-30 percent 3-point shooter Marshall shooting his fair share of step-back threes. While the Musketeers were good enough defensively to make up the difference in non-conference play, Steele believes that the lack-of-offense has led to frustration’s boiling over on the other end of the court. Since Big East play began, Xavier has dropped 20 spots (from 17th to 37th) on KenPom’s defensive rankings.
Marquette is facing a problem that was anticipated before the season: there just isn’t a whole lot of scoring outside of Howard. The star guard averages 26.8 points per game and is well on his way to breaking the league’s scoring record, but only fellow senior guard Sacar Anim averages in double-figures at 12 points per game. Despite Howard’s greatness, KenPom only has Marquette as the 43rd-best offense in the country.
While Steele will likely get another couple of years to figure things out (besides former Xavier coaches Sean Miller and Chris Mack needed a short adjustment period to figure things), one has to begin to ponder about Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski’s future in Milwaukee. An off-season extension seemed a little curious for a guy who has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game, especially for a school with a proud history that had entered the reformed Big East with eight consecutive tournament appearances. A good recruiting class may allow Wojo to keep his job another season but a win tonight would go a long way to ensuring that Howard gets to finish his career in the Big Dance.
Tale of the Tape
- Record: 12-5, 1-3 in BE (KenPom: 48th, NET: 67th)
- Coach: Travis Steele, 2nd Season (31-21)
- KenPom AdjOffense: 105.0 (86th)
- KenPom AdjDefense: 91.3 (37th)
- KenPom AdjTempo: 69.3 (168th)
- 3-Point %: 29.3% (303rd)
- Record: 11-5, 1-3 in BE (KenPom: 41st, NET: 42nd)
- Coach: Steve Wojciechowski, 6th season (108-74)
- KenPom AdjO: 107.8 (43rd)
- KenPom AdjD: 92.6 (45th)
- KenPom AdjT: 73 (24th)
- 3-Point %: 40.0% (5th)
- Marquette leads 51-24 overall
- Xavier leads 9-5 since Xavier joined Big East in 2013
- Xavier is the third-most frequent opponent for Marquette since 1949, while Marquette is the fifth-most frequent opponent for Xavier in that timeframe.
What to Watch For
- Markus Howard: The way this season is going, he might outscore Xavier by himself. Xavier played Seton Hall last Wednesday and actually did a pretty good job on Pirates’ star Myles Powell (24 points on 21 difficult shots) by having Marshall hound him. The problem was that the Musketeers basically gave the rest of the Pirates free reign. Xavier will likely key on Howard as they did Powell with the 6’7” Marshall, but will the rest of the defense hold up.
- Tempo: Marquette is one of the fastest-playing teams in the country, while Xavier has really ground games to a halt recently. Steele will likely want to slow things down, but he did mention that we might see more pressing as it has been effective in late-game scenarios recently. Given that Xavier scored more efficiently earlier in the season when the quicker pace they played at allowed them to pick up some easy buckets, playing at Marquette’s tempo might not be the worst thing in the world.
- Can Marquette defend the paint? When things have gone very poorly for Xavier, it’s often against teams that have the size and strength to prevent Marshall and forward Tyrique Jones from bullying their way to points down-low. Outside of 7-foot senior Jayce Johnson, Marquette doesn’t have a ton of size but still ranks as one of the better shot-blocking teams in the country blocking 7.4% of opponent’s shots (57th). If 6’9’ forward Theo John stifles the Musketeers down-low, it could be a long day for Steele’s squad.
Time/Place: 8 p.m. at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, WI.
Line: Marquette -3.5
While I can’t personally speak on how Marquette fans feel about their squad right now, Xavier fans certainly don’t feel great about the Musketeers at the moment. It’s hard to see what can change with this team, while they might get lucky and make 35% of their threes one night they just cannot consistently shoot the ball. Against a player like Howard, it’s just hard to see Xavier keeping up while slowing the Eagles the entire game. Despite Xavier generally having Marquette’s number the past few years, Steele is 0-2 against the Eagles. At this point, 0-3 seems more likely than 1-2. Marquette wins while Xavier doesn’t score enough for the over to hit.
Marquette: 78, Xavier: 69