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#10 Marquette Women’s Basketball Preview: at Xavier & at Butler

The Golden Eagles embark on a road trip for their first two games as a top 10 team in program history.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Xavier vs Florida State Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Marquette women’s basketball is presented with a wonderful opportunity this weekend.

First, it’s the mere concept of being a top 10 ranked team and proving that they belong amongst the giants in the tippy top parts of the Associated Press poll. That’s a thing all by itself, and I really can’t say enough about how awesome it is that Carolyn Kieger has driven this group of seniors from they were 5-10 on the season and 0-4 in Big East play as freshmen to this point and all of the points in between.

Second, there’s the matter of the Big East standings. This weekend marks Marquette’s final two games in the first pass through the league. They’ll have played all nine squads by sundown on Sunday, and there’s a pretty strong chance that they’ll be 9-0 at that point. If the Golden Eagles get to 9-0, they will have opened up a two game lead on the entire league and at least a three game lead on eight of their nine foes. If MU gets a little bit of help from DePaul on Friday night, it would end up being a three game lead on the entire league.

To put it another way, their magic number for an outright Big East regular season title could be just seven with nine games left to play. It won’t be easy, as Marquette has already played five home games in the front half of the league slate, leaving them with four at home and five on the road in the back half, and that’s on top of this weekend’s two road games.

But it’s possible. The Golden Eagles could be firmly in the driver’s seat for a regular season title and the #1 seed in the Big East tournament by the end of the day on Sunday. On top of all of that, every win that Marquette picks up brings them one step closer to locking up a top 16 seed in the NCAA tournament and thus hosting games at the McGuire Center.

One final note: We’ll have to wait and see what’s up with Allazia Blockton this weekend. She made her return to action on Sunday against St. John’s after missing all of the previous five games after suffering an ankle injury in the sixth. She played 13 minutes against the Red Storm, and from her stat line, it very much appeared that Kieger, Blockton, and the training staff were treating that game like it was a rehab assignment in the minor leagues in baseball. A kind of “just get out there, move up and down, don’t push yourself too hard, don’t overdo it” performance. Marquette has proven across the first seven games of the Big East slate that they’ll be able to take care of business in the league without command performances from Blockton, so it’s not a problem if she slowly works her way back in. However, when it comes time to win three games in three days in the Big East tournament or push the team into the program’s first ever Sweet 16 appearance, then that’s going to require a fully functional and engaged Blockton. We’ll see what happens.

Big East Game #8: at Xavier Musketeers (10-8, 1-6 Big East)

Date: Friday, January 25, 2019
Time: 6pm Central
Location: Cintas Center, Cincinnati, OH
Streaming: Big East Digital Network on Fox Sports Go
Live Stats: Sidearm Stats
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteWBB

Marquette is 11-7 all time against Xavier. The series hasn’t been back and forth evenly, but it’s been one side winning a few at a time all the way down. The Golden Eagles currently have the longest winning streak in the series at five straight.

With their lone win in conference play coming dropped in between two groups of three straight losses and the fact that it came in overtime at home at that, I think it’s safe to say that Big East action is not going well for Xavier to this point. Then again, was it supposed to go well? The Musketeers were picked to finish last in the league and to this point, that’s where they’re trending. The good news is that they’ve already won as many games this season as they did all of last season, so it’s all bonus from here.

In our whiparound the league at the start of conference play, I posited the theory that Xavier could be an interesting team if their top 70 shooting numbers per stood up once their schedule got more difficult. It.... has not. They’re now ranked #100 in the country in effective field goal percentage, which isn’t bad, of course. It just shows you how badly they’ve been affected by playing the teams in the Big East. They’re still shooting a higher volume of three-pointers than all but eight teams in the country, but they’ve now dipped below the 33.3% efficiency break-even point on that as a team.

One way or another, Marquette is going to have to contend with A’riana Gray in this game. The 6-foot tall sophomore is averaging 15 points and 13 rebounds per game in league play, and both of those numbers are up from her season long averages. Na’Teshia Owens can be counted on for double-digit points night in and night out to help Gray in that department, but no one else is particularly rebounding well. If MU can figure out how to isolate and negate Gray, they should be able to get through this one easily enough.

The Musketeers are an objectively bad offensive rebounding team, which implies that they’re not trying to clean the glass on that end. If that’s the case, expect Marquette to have difficulty getting out in transition against XU. Head coach Bryan Neal has them trending towards being one of the slower teams in the country anyway, and they’re relatively solid at holding onto the ball.

Big East Game #9: at Butler Bulldogs (16-2, 6-1 Big East)

Date: Sunday, January 27, 2019
Time: 1pm Central
Location: Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Streaming: Big East Digital Network on Fox Sports Go
Live Stats: StatBroadcast
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteWBB

Marquette is 12-7 all time against Butler, but that doesn’t really give you a solid picture of current events. MU has won eight straight against the Bulldogs and 11 of the past 13 meetings, which covers every game since the turn of the century.

There’s a lot on the line for Butler this weekend. To this point of the season, the Bulldogs have no top 50 wins. In fact, they’ve only played one top 50 team, and that trip up the road to Indiana led to a 64-46 loss. That’s not the kind of thing that you really want and/or need when making a case for the NCAA tournament for the first time in over 20 years. But on Friday, RPI #42 DePaul makes its way to Hinkle Fieldhouse, and then on Sunday, it’s RPI #15 Marquette’s turn to make the visit. That’s the kind of thing that can really give your whole season a kick in the pants, even if you only come away with a split.

Butler is kind of in need of said kick, too. The Bulldogs were on the verge of punching their way into the AP top 25 a week ago, but instead, BU blew a nine point lead and took a triple overtime loss at Providence. It was their first loss in Big East play and just their second loss of the season, snapping a 9 game winning streak in the process. To make matters worse, they were on the front end of the worst road trip in the league: at Providence on Friday and then at Creighton, halfway across the country, less than two full days later. Things got even wilder when all sorts of travel mishaps led to the Bulldogs not getting to Omaha until late Saturday night. What did they do against the Jays at Sokol Arena? Merely thumped the home team by 32, 75-43.

This Butler team is vastly different than what we have seen in the past, where the goal was largely “get the ball to Tori Schickel and pray.” BU has four players averaging double digits in scoring in conference play, led by 16.0 per outing from Whitney Jennings. All four of those top scorers also average at least 4.5 rebounds per game, led by Schickel at 8.7 per league contest. It’s an excellent mix of talents that provide head coach Kurt Godlevske with options..... which is good, because the rest of his roster isn’t doing that. Butler has only played seven women in all seven Big East games so far. Four of the five starters average at least 30 minutes of action per game. If Marquette can turn this game in their favor tempo-wise, Carolyn Kieger’s liberal substitution patterns may play a role in helping MU secure the victory.

It won’t be particularly easy to kick up the tempo, as Butler matches their travel partner in that department, ranking right around #200 in the country per Butler is a great two-point shooting team, ranking #44 in the country. If they get the ball inside, they’re going to score a lot of the time, which is going to slow down MU’s transition attack. They’re also a pretty good offensive rebounding team, ranking #65 in the country. That slows things down as well. Marquette’s best crack at getting up and down is forcing turnovers, because Butler isn’t good at holding onto the ball. Over 20% of their possessions end in a turnover, and if MU can turn somewhere between 10 and 14 possessions into a quick bucket on the other end, that’ll work out nicely.