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Marquette Basketball’s Defense Has Been Bad. What Parts Need To Improve The Most?

The refrain is familiar: “The Golden Eagles need to be better on defense.” But exactly what do they need to be better at in 2018-19?

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Marquette
What kind of defense plays are going to get Wojo this fired up next season?
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve probably heard one of the following sentences or variations on it repeatedly over the past two years or so.

“Marquette needs to prove they can guard someone.” “Marquette can’t guard anyone.” “If Marquette just figures out how to defend, they’ll be a tournament team.” “Marquette can do damage in the Big East if they learn how to get stops.”

And so on and so forth.

It’s not a secret that Marquette men’s basketball has been sub-par on the defensive end of the court the past two seasons. After posting top 100 defensive ratings in Steve Wojciechowski’s first two seasons on the MU sidelines, the Golden Eagles have finished the season ranked #165 and #182 in the past two years respectively.

This is, in a word, bad.

Looking at only the 2017-18 season amongst the major seven conferences (the power five football leagues, the Big East, and the American Athletic Conference), Marquette had the eighth worst defensive rating out of the 87 teams involved. Four of the teams behind them — Memphis (#200), Tulane (#207), East Carolina (#263), and South Florida (#261) — all play in the AAC. In other words, if you toss the sorry ass AAC out of the equation, Marquette was better on defense than just three other major conference teams: Vanderbilt (#219), Iowa (#242), and Washington State (#278). Every single team in the Big 12 and the ACC was a more efficient defensive team than Marquette last season.

This is not getting it done, as the kids say.

The 2018-19 Marquette season is going to be an important one for Steve Wojciechowski. It’s his deepest roster and his most talented team as well. The Golden Eagles appear to have constructed a team that’s expected to take a step forward at the exact moment when most of the rest of the Big East will be taking a step backwards due to roster attrition. A reasonable person could make the claim that Marquette should be contending for a regular season conference championship this coming season, and as such, they should be in the hunt for a top six seed in the NCAA tournament as well.

That same reasonable person would also have to admit that the defense needs to be much much better for that to happen.

If we’re going to talk about that, though, we need to identify which areas of the defense are actually a problem. Thus, I fired up KenPom and charted each of Marquette’s defensive characteristics year by year under Wojo. Not just the Four Factors, but also two-point shooting percentage, three-point shooting percentage, block rate, steal rate, three-point attempt rate, and assist rate. These are the actual numbers involved, not Marquette’s national ranks in each category.

I’ve created two charts, separating these things into the very simple categories of “things we want to be as low as possible” and “things we want to be as high as possible.” This way, we know at a glance if it’s good or bad if the lines are going up or down.

Here’s the “low as possible” chart, featuring effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding rate, free throw rate, two-point shooting percentage, three-point shooting percentage, three-point attempt rate, and assist rate.

I think this chart can be summed up with “everything is bad.”

eFG% has been on the rise each of the past two seasons, essentially directly powered by a year-over-year rise in 2pt% every single season. There appears to be a correlation between how much teams rely on shooting threes against Marquette and how often they make said shots, with both numbers improving for the Golden Eagles in 2017-18. However, eFG% and 2pt% was still up, so it seems that teams were more than willing to forego shooting threes against the Golden Eagles last season because they could score inside the arc seemingly at will.

That leads us to the fact that the assist rate against Marquette has been consistently falling in each of Wojo’s four seasons.... but the two-point shooting percentage has been going up each year. It would seem to me that the combination of the two indicates that teams aren’t scoring by hitting the open man because teams are finding that they can take MU defenders off the dribble at will. Even if that’s not the case, it would definitely appear perhaps putting assist rate on the “as low as possible” chart was a misguided choice, but it does seem like it still belongs with the shooting percentages.

There is good news in the fact that Marquette has been doing a better job on the defensive glass, causing an overall drop in opponents’ offensive rebounding rate, even if there was a little bit of a backslide in 2017-18. The bad news is that MU still only ranked #217 in the country in that department last season, so while it may be getting better, things are a long way off from being described as good.

Wojo’s first two teams were great in terms of keeping their opponents off the free throw line, with both ranking in the top 40 in the country. That aspect of things has completely fallen apart over the last two years, leading to MU barely staying out of the 300s in 2017-18.

In summary: Marquette needs to figure out a way to stop teams from scoring inside the arc. This means better perimeter defense to allow fewer drives to the rim, and it means better interior defense to provide a second line of defense if attackers get past the perimeter. While doing all of that, the Golden Eagles desperately need to stop fouling so much. Whether it’s perimeter defenders fouling as their man goes past or rim protectors fouling as drivers come in at them, MU’s free throw rate has gone completely out of control since Wojo’s second season, and that needs to change immediately.

Moving on to the “as high as possible” chart, then. This features turnover rate, block rate, and steal rate. Obviously, a defense would like to do all three of those things as much as possible, so we’d like to see these lines either staying flat or going up.

Instead, Marquette has been getting worse at two of them under Wojo. The turnover rate and the steal rate were always going to be intertwined, though, as steals are the best kind of turnover that you can get: The ball stays live.

While the defensive turnover rate consistently falling in each of Wojo’s last three seasons is a problem, it’s really not the biggest problem with the defense. Yes, 2017-18 saw the lowest TO% in Wojo’s tenure, but according to the KenPom rankings, it was also the most successful of MU’s Four Factors. Besides, you can have a turnover rate ranked between #175 and #200 (MU was #197 last season) and still be a very successful team. Five of the 26 teams in that range according to KenPom in 2017-18 made the NCAA tournament. Two of them earned #1 seeds in the tournament. One of them was eventual national champion Villanova. They were ranked #186 in the country in TO% at 18.2%. Marquette was at 18.1%. The fall might be an overall problem for the MU coaching staff to deal with, yes, but if they choose to ignore fixing the forcing turnovers issue because fixing everything else is a bigger deal, I’m not going to take them to task over it.

I’m not particularly worried about block rate, which you can see has wobbled somewhere between 10.1% and 9.3% in Wojo’s four campaigns. That’s fine. It’s ranking between #110 and #160. Either you have shot blockers or you don’t, and honestly, shot altering or even the threat of shot blocking is arguably more important than actually blocking shots on the regular.

There you have it. Those are the numbers, those are the trends, and those are the areas that Marquette most needs to improve. What jumps out at you the most, either in terms of the numbers or what’s going to be the biggest way that MU improves on defense in 2018-19? Hit up the comments section to explain what you’re thinking.