As Marquette men’s basketball fans, we’ve already had our ups and downs this season. From the jubilant and resilient victory over Purdue that got us all saying ridiculous things about the potential of this team to the demoralizing blowout loss to Wisconsin four days later that had us retreating with our tails under our legs…it has been one hell of a rollercoaster ride already. But it always is with Marquette basketball. Let’s take a moment in this Christmas related lull in the season to take a look back and see what we’ve learned about this team so far this season.
Before that, here are some of the highlights of the 11 games the Golden Eagles have played before Christmas.
Flashy: Markus Howard. He already has two 40+ games this year. It happened in back-to-back games in the Orlando Invitational against Davidson (40) and USC (51). He became the third major conference player ever to have a 50 point game in three consecutive seasons. Wowza!
Second fiddle: Sacar Anim. After a slow start, the redshirt senior has stepped up his game considerably and is second on the team in scoring with 12.6 points per game while shooting 47% from three. He has morphed into a lethal three-point shooter (13-for-23 in the last five games) and has been more aggressive driving to the basket.
‘Ole reliable: The Marquette defense. Our offense has been up and down and a little bit left and right as well, but the defense has remained steady so far this season. Right now they are #40 in defensive efficiency per KenPom.com while holding opponents to 43.1% effective field goal percentage (top 20 in the nation) and a 12.5 block percentage (top 60 in the nation) as a bonus. Even in the two losses, their defense played a big part in keeping the Golden Eagles remotely in the game in the second halves.
If you’ve watched any bit of Marquette basketball this season, you know that the Golden Eagles are heavily dependent on the play of senior guard Markus Howard. When he has been a little off his game, it has typically been rough-sledding for Marquette. See Wisconsin, Maryland, and Robert Morris for example.
In general, Marquette’s offense can be measured based on two different criteria. #1 is how they’ve fared when Howard hasn’t played well (which is rare) and #2 is how they’ve played versus high-major opponents. Although the so-called “buy-games” do matter in the sense that they give the team more game action to mesh and get better individually, they aren’t as important because they are expected blowout wins. As of this writing, Marquette is 4-2 against the six Major Seven opponents they’ve faced (Purdue, Wisconsin, Davidson, USC, Maryland, and Kansas State). I will bring up Robert Morris as an anomaly but then will break down how the other guards not named Markus Howard have played thus far.
I hope you don’t remember much from the RMU game because it ugly. The Robert Morris first half was the exception of the season because head coach Steve Wojciechowski intentionally decided to limit Markus’ minutes and thus his offensive impact to see how the team’s offense fared without their spark plug. Markus had a turnover and a foul in the first seven minutes of the game. Then he was on the bench for roughly four minutes before re-entering at the 8:27 mark. He lasted another minute before accumulating another offensive foul and being taken out for the remainder of the half. Sure, the foul had a lot to do with the limitation here, but it was still Wojciechowski’s decision to do it. Anyways, it wasn’t a pretty experiment as they trailed 20-19 (yep, not a typo) at the half to the Colonials. The second half was a bit better as Markus played more and the rest of the team lifted their level of play. However, the final margin of victory was only four points. Onwards.
In Marquette’s two losses thus far this year, Markus Howard was very limited by a combination of great defense and just off shooting nights. Against Wisconsin and Maryland, Markus shot a combined 7-for-33 from the field, hitting just two of his 13 three-point attempts (both against UW), and accumulated eight total turnovers. In those games Marquette lost by 16 and 21 points respectively. The game against Wisconsin stings a little more because of the rivalry and they also weren’t a top 5 opponent at the time, or ranked at all for that matter. But the question remains: Who is going to step up if Markus isn’t playing to the level we’re accustomed to seeing from him?
For the first half of non-conference, the Golden Eagles had inconsistent guard play with the exception of Markus Howard. Against Wisconsin, it was Koby McEwen who complimented Howard’s inefficient 18 points with a team leading 19 points going a perfect 4-4 from behind the three-point arc. He also brought down seven rebounds to have his best game of the season. No other player was in double figures against the Badgers.
Okay, good job Koby, maybe this was a sign of things to come? Ehhhhhhh, not particularly. In subsequent games, McEwen had
- 10 points on 1-for-5 shooting,
- three points all coming from the charity stripe,
- seven points on 3-for-8 from the field but 1-for-4 from three,
- five points on 2-for-8 from the field,
- seven points on 1-for-8 shooting,
- five points on 1-for-5 shooting
And yes, he has used about one-fifth of Marquette’s possessions according to KenPom. Although he has been taking better shots recently, he has not been a viable secondary option like we envisioned (hoped? trusted?) before the season.
However, there is some optimism with the recent play of both redshirt senior Sacar Anim and 22 year old sophomore Brendan Bailey. Aside from being very athletic and versatile guards, Anim and Bailey have fine-tuned their three-point shot. After struggling with the deep ball at various points last season, they have both been draining them consistently. Anim is at a team-high 47% on 34 attempts and Bailey is at 42% on 40 attempts as of the North Dakota State game. This dynamite three point shooting has opened up driving lanes inside for the Marquette offense which was a popular attack method against Grambling State.
After the Maryland game, in which Brendan and Sacar combined for 48 of the 63 Marquette points, Anim has really raised his game in both intensity and effectiveness. It was Sacar who stepped up against Jacksonville with Markus unavailable due to a concussion, and pitched in 19 hard-earned points, 2-for-4 from three and made all three of his free throws. Then against Kansas State, he complimented Markus with 13 points and pulled down six rebounds. Could he continue it against Grambling? Absolutely. 18 points, four rebounds, and a sharpshooter from behind the arc knocking in five of his seven attempts. In the ensuing contest, he posted 14 points (2-for-3 from three) and six rebounds. Sacar has shaken off the early season rust and become Marquette’s second option offensively.
We cannot talk about the improved guard play without mentioning Jamal Cain. Or as my good friend Jamey insists on calling him: Threezus Christ. He has certainly delivered as of late, draining six of his last eight attempts and shooting 44% on the year. Before the most recent game against North Dakota State, he put up 8 points and 12 rebounds against Jacksonville, had a breakout performance with 17 points and 9 rebounds against Kansas State, and all around nice 11/5/5 game against Grambling State. When called upon, Cain has absolutely answered the bell. He has a top 200 offensive rating of 118.6 while being used in about 14.4 percent of MU’s possessions according to KenPom. What this tells me is that he can absolutely step up if the other potent scorers are struggling.
I say all this to make the point that there are three guards aside from Markus with the potential to shoot exceptionally well on any given night. They’ve shown some lasting consistency as the season has gone on. If Brendan, Sacar, and Jamal can maintain this level of consistency, then the Golden Eagle offense becomes a dangerous force with the start of Big East play just around the corner. As fellow Anonymous Eagle savant Sam Newberry wisely mentioned on the Anonymous Eagle Podcast: if two of the other guards (#TwoOtherGuys) can have a good shooting night, then the Golden Eagles will just dandy on offense.
Through 11 games, the Golden Eagle defense is holding opponents to 41.7% on twos and 30.5% on threes. Both of which are top 100 numbers per KenPom. In reality the only thing the defense hasn’t done proficiently is force turnovers. Their 17.5 turnover percentage is sub-250 in the country. So there is room for improvement in that department. At times, most notably the Maryland second half, MU has switched to a zone defense which has been executed rather well in the sense that they have forced the opponent to take low-percentage shots.
While the Marquette bigs haven’t played much of a role offensively, they have been very important on the defensive side of the ball. Theo John, Ed Morrow, and Jayce Johnson have all been pretty good at forcing opponents to either kick it out when they get in the paint or force up a tough shot. Theo also boasts a 10.3% block rate which is currently 32nd in the nation per KenPom. The only flaw with the big men is getting into foul trouble. All three bigs average north of five fouls per 40 minutes so it becomes a question of which big can foul less to determine who gets more playing time. Right now Theo is averaging about 20 minutes per game while Jayce and Ed are a little under 12 minutes per game.
The defense has also improved this year due to stout defensive guards. Sacar, Brendan, Jamal, Greg Elliott, and yes even Markus have all improved their on-ball defense this season. They have been better at fighting through screens and sticking to their man. Jamal Cain and Koby McEwen also have a top 500 defensive rebounding rate via KenPom, and any time you get big time rebounding contributions from guys who aren’t your bigs, you’re doing something right.
As a whole, the Golden Eagles have been pretty darn good in half-court defense. Based on their defensive efficiency rating of 91.3, this is the best defense Coach Wojciechowski has had in his tenure at Marquette. They’ve also looked it on the court with an impressive tenacity defensively forcing a lot of tough shots. If this trend continues, they can rely on their defense to win them a lot of games in Big East play.
If they can stick to their defensive game plans and continue making it hard for teams to get off quality shots, I can definitely see this defense becoming the best in the Big East. Thus far, that’s where the team as a whole has been most consistent. Offensively, their focus should remain to be moving the ball around quickly and efficiently. In the last couple of games against Grambling State and North Dakota State, we’ve seen the Marquette attack at its best when they are assisting one another on nearly every made field goal. This includes being effective from the pick and roll and getting paint touches and working the ball around the court. This creates a lot of good looks for perimeter shots which have been falling more so recently than at the beginning of the year.
Let’s all stare at this ball movement for a while:
Remember, all we need is for two other guys to play well alongside Markus and the Golden Eagles should find themselves in great position to win a bunch of games in Big East play.