#10 Marquette Golden Eagles (19-4, 8-2 Big East) vs #14 Villanova Wildcats (19-4, 10-0 Big East)
Date: Saturday, February 9, 2019, aka National Marquette Day
Time: 1:30pm Central
Location: Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee, WI
Marquette Stats Leaders
Points: Markus Howard, 24.6 ppg
Rebounds: Sam Hauser, 7.0 rpg
Assists: Markus Howard, 4.2 apg
Villanova Stats Leaders
Points: Phil Booth, 18.3 ppg
Rebounds: Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, 6.6 rpg
Assists: Phil Booth, 4.0 apg
KenPom Projection: Marquette has a 57% chance of victory, with a predicted score of 72-70.
Tempo Free Fun: Well, let’s start with the elephant in the room, shall we? First place in the Big East is no longer on the line in this game. For all of the “GET READY” and “CIRCLE THIS DATE ON YOUR CALENDAR” that’s been going on for the last two weeks or so, Marquette didn’t live up to their end of the bargain. The Golden Eagles took their second loss in league play on Tuesday night, and after Villanova escaped from overtime against Creighton at home on Wednesday, the Wildcats are now 10-0 in the conference standings. That’s a two game lead for VU over Marquette, and thus, regardless of the outcome on Saturday afternoon, Villanova will still be in first place by themselves.
The overall tone of the game hasn’t changed, though. While Villanova has a two game lead on Marquette in the standings, the Golden Eagles have a three game lead on St. John’s and Georgetown, who are both at 5-5 and tied for third place. While first place isn’t on the line, it is still a clash between the only two teams in the Big East who are clearly on a course for the NCAA tournament this March. Bracket Matrix can’t possibly paint the picture more clearly: As of their update on February 7th, Marquette is the final #3 seed in the compilation of 105 bracket projections, while Villanova is the first #4 seed.
It’s still a big deal nationally speaking in terms of relevance to the college basketball landscape, and it’s still a big deal for Marquette, too. The Golden Eagles are enjoying their best season under Steve Wojciechowski, even after suffering the season sweep by St. John’s. On Tuesday, Marquette picked up their fourth loss of the season and second loss in Big East action. In Wojo’s previous four seasons at the helm, Marquette couldn’t get out of the first week of January without checking both of those boxes. With that in mind, a chance to beat Villanova is something of a landmark for this season. While Xavier did win the regular season title last year, the Wildcats have been the class of the Big East since The Reformation, winning three regular season titles by multiple games in the standings and earning either a #1 seed or a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament as a result. A win over the Wildcats on Saturday would be something of a rubber stamp on the season and to a certain extent on Steve Wojciechowski’s entire tenure: Hey, look at us. We’ve arrived. This is for real.
Okay, how about some actual basketball talk?
Last year, after Villanova beat Marquette by the score of 94-70 in the Big East tournament, I referred to the Wildcats as “a roving death sphere” and remarked that that they’re so efficient at the beatings that they hand out that even after you take one, you have to stand there and be impressed at the entire experience. This is, of course, not the same Villanova team, with four of the guys off of that squad being selected in the NBA Draft last summer. However, the “death sphere” aspect is still in effect. Yes, even after losing at home to Furman and after losing at The Palestra to Penn. When you look at Big East play only, Villanova has the top offensive efficiency in the league according to KenPom.com. They’re averaging 118.7 points per 100 possessions, and yes, that’s a raw number unadjusted for opponent strength or game location. The differential between #1 Villanova and #2 Creighton is 9.1 points per 100 possessions, which is essentially the same distance between #2 Creighton (109.6) and #9 Seton Hall (100.0). Last year, when Villanova was the true death sphere, they were clipping along at 121.9 points per 100 possessions. Whatever early season struggles that the Wildcats had, head coach Jay Wright has ironed them out nearly completely.
In fact, the Wildcats are, at least right now, a better defensive team than they were last season. They have the #3 defensive efficiency in the Big East per KenPom at 102.7 points per 100 possessions, and last year wrapped up league play at 105.7 points per 100 possessions. Last year, that was the best defensive number in the league, so there’s something to be said about the offenses in the Big East taking a dip to help the Wildcats out here, but the point still stands: They’re a death sphere again.
While the Wildcats are a death sphere, it’s not exactly like Marquette is loafing around. MU comes in with the #4 league offensive efficiency and the #2 league defensive efficiency, and yes, that means that the Golden Eagles are a tad better than the Wildcats on defense. Something is going to have to give between VU’s offense and Marquette’s defense, though. The big thing is going to be how Marquette handles Villanova’s three-point shooting. Villanova shoots over 53% of their long range shots from behind the arc, more than any other team in Division 1 with the exception of Savannah State which is essentially trying to do nothing but shoot threes in their final season at the Division 1 level. On the flip side, Marquette ranks #55 in the country per KenPom in the rate that they allow teams to shoot three-pointers at just 34.7% of their total shots. Phil Booth, Eric Paschall, and Collin Gillespie all attempt more than five triples a game, and Booth is north of seven. If Marquette can drive them off the line and force the Villanova offense into just taking different shots, it might create enough dysfunction to give MU a chance to win. It also might not, because Villanova is the #20 two-point shooting team in the country.
On the other end of the court, the good news is that Marquette doesn’t really have to worry about Villanova pressuring them into turnovers. Collin Gillespie barely sneaks into the top 500 in the country in steal rate, and as a team, they rank #217 in the country in turnover rate on defense. Their shooting defense is a little suspect, and while Villanova has two quality defensive rebounders in Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels in terms of individual rate, they’ve been struggling a little bit, at least relative to the rest of the league, on the defensive glass in Big East games. Marquette isn’t a strong offensive rebounding team, not by any stretch of the imagination, but someone is going to have to come out on the plus side of that equation.
It might not have a major impact on the game in terms of how the Four Factors regularly impact a game, but I’m fascinated by the free throw rate battle. Marquette is the best team in the Big East in free throw rate on offense, meaning they have a higher free throw to field goal ratio than anyone else in the conference. This is particularly important, because MU is the best free throw shooting team in the Big East and the 9th best free throw shooting team in the country. They’re getting there more than anyone else and making more free throws than anyone else. With Markus Howard and the Hauser boys running around out there, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. However, Villanova is the best team in the Big East at not sending their opponents to the free throw line. There is a nearly 16 percentage point difference — 38.1% for Marquette’s offense, 22.5% for Villanova’s defense — between the two sides. Someone is going to win this battle, because that’s how these things work, of course, and if Markus Howard can wander over to the charity stripe 15 times, that’s probably going to be good news for the Golden Eagles.
Marquette Last 10 Games: 8-2, with both losses coming to St. John’s.
Villanova Last 10 Games: 10-0, and they’ve actually won 11 straight now.
All Time Series: Villanova leads, 23-10
Current Streak: That advantage that Villanova enjoys in the all time series is essentially the streak that they’re on. The Wildcats have won 12 of the last 13 between the two teams, and have now won three straight since Marquette knocked them off when VU was ranked #1 in the country in 2017.
Follow Along On Twitter
@AnonymousEagle - hey, that’s us!
@MarquetteMBB - The official Marquette team account
@NovaMBB - The official Villanova team account
@BenSteeleMJS - The Journal Sentinel’s beat reporter
@VUHoops - our SB Nation friends that cover Villanova
@becb_sbn - our SB Nation friends that cover the entire Big East
@cf_gardner - The Athletic’s beat reporter