2019 NCAA WOMEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT FIRST ROUND
#5 Marquette Golden Eagles (26-7, 15-3 Big East) vs #12 Rice Owls (28-3, 16-0 Conference USA)
Date: Friday, March 22, 2019
Time: 1pm Central
Location: Reed Arena, College Station, TX
Live Stats: NCAA.com
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteWBB
All-Time Series: Marquette leads, 2-0
Last Meeting: Marquette picked up a 78-62 road victory on December 3, 2006. Krystal Ellis had 26 points in 27 minutes to lead Marquette. The only other meeting happened the year before, with current MU head coach Carolyn Kieger tallying nine points, nine assists, and three steals in an 82-57 win.
Marquette is here in the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year after winning the Big East regular season title and losing to second place DePaul in the conference tournament championship game. That wasn’t the only setback for the Golden Eagles late in the season, as senior forward Erika Davenport blew out her knee in in the fourth to last regular season game, and she is done for the year. It’s a pretty notable loss for Marquette, as Davenport is one of just four women in Marquette history to record at least 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Counting the game where she suffered the injury, Marquette went just 4-3 down the stretch heading into the national championship tournament.
Rice, like Marquette, is the regular season champion of their league. The Owls have won 21 straight games right now dating back to December 20th. That includes a 16-0 run through the Conference USA regular season and three wins in the CUSA tournament as well. They have just three losses on the season, which is pretty impressive no matter how you slice it. We should provide a note of caution on that, though. The losses came against three of the six toughest opponents that they played by way of the HerHoopStats.com rankings, and their three toughest opponents if we’re counting by the NCAA’s RPI calculations. With that in mind, we should point out that Marquette will be Rice’s most difficult test of the entire season by either measuring stick.
Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that Rice has an RPI of #31 and a HHS ranking that matches it. Look, I get that they stacked up wins against the back two-thirds of Division 1, going 22-0 against sub-100 RPI teams, 11-0 against sub-200 teams, and 6-0 against sub-300 teams. It’s not the world’s greatest schedule..... but they did win all of those games. I can divide 31 by 4, and there is a very real possibility that Rice is wildly underseeded as a #12 seed.
Let me put it another way: The AP put out a new top 25 poll on Monday. Rice is ranked #21 in the country, up from #24 the week before. Look, I get that polls have nothing to do with how the committee seeds the tournament, but if that doesn’t worry you at least a little bit, it’s probably time to check your pulse.
In light of Erika Davenport being unavailable for Marquette, we should probably start the discussion about this game with Nancy Mulkey. The redshirt sophomore transfer from Oklahoma averaged 13.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game this season as well as 3.9 blocks. Oh, and she’s 6’9”. This is what the kids today are calling “a problem.” During the run over the past four years with the current senior class, Marquette has consistently struggled to defend the interior, and the idea of Rice being able to loft passes seven feet in the air to Mulkey is absolutely terrifying in that regard. That’s without even getting into the fact that she’s #2 in the country in block rate per Her Hoops Stats.
That was my initial reaction to seeing Mulkey in the team picture on Rice’s roster page. It’s a pretty reasonable reaction. Then I remembered that Marquette wants to play as fast as possible, which is generally speaking not the best possible pace for a woman that’s 6’9”. Thus, I did some research.
First: Rice ranked #344 per Her Hoop Stats in possessions per 40 minutes. That makes them the eighth slowest team in the country. That makes sense. Head coach Tina Langley is maximizing the impact of her most impactful player. With Mulkey dealing with a preseason wrist injury, she didn’t actually debut for the Owls until their December 15th game against SMU. As chance would have it, Mulkey missed Rice’s games against the two fastest opponents that they played. That left her five games with teams ranked in HHS’s top 100 in tempo, and actually it’s five against the top 85. In those games, she was limited to just 10 points per game on average, but her rebounds stayed steady at 5.6 per game. Her blocks were only down a little bit to 3.6 per game, which is pretty impressive, given that her minutes fell from nearly 26 per game to 21.6 per outing.
In short: Yeah, if Marquette plays as fast as they want to — #46 in the country in tempo per HHS, faster than any team Mulkey has seen this season — then they can limit her impact, at least a little bit. They can get her off the floor relative to her average, but she’s still going to manage to do a lot of damage while she’s out there. The key may be making big pushes while she’s on the bench, as Rice’s next tallest rotation player is the 6’1” Nicole Iademarco.
That’s a lot of words about just one player who isn’t even Rice’s leading scorer or rebounder. Those titles belong to Erica Ogwumike, who’s good for 16.3 points per game and 10.6 rebounds every time out. Marquette’s best plan to defend Ogwumike is to get her to settle for three-pointers. She’s second on the team in attempts at 109 this season, but she connects on just 29% of them. If MU can keep her launching and keep her out of the paint, good things are probably going to happen. As a whole, Rice does like shooting threes, posting the 87th highest three-point rate in the country per Her Hoop Stats. The aforementioned Iademarco is the shooter of note, leading the team in attempts and knocking in 41% of them. I wouldn’t say she’s exclusively a shooter, but 63% of her attempts this season have come from behind the arc.
Generally speaking, Marquette does get a lot of mileage out of their offensive rebounding, as they’re a top 50 team in terms of rate. Grabbing up your own misses is an excellent way to have an efficient offense, but two things will be affecting that here. First is the lack of Davenport in the lineup, as she was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country this season. The other is Rice’s ability to haul in defensive rebounds. As a team, they rank in the top 70 in the country, with Ogwumike and Mulkey carrying the biggest loads there.
It’s the world’s simplest game plan, isn’t it? “Play the way we want to play.” If Marquette can dictate terms in this game, they’ll be headed to the second round for the second straight year.