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

The Golden Eagles head out on the road with an eye on moving up in the Big East standings.

Creighton v Butler Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

After a rousingly successful homestand last weekend, Marquette women’s basketball finds themselves at 3-2 in Big East action. They’re on a three game winning streak after opening league play with losses in the two toughest road games in the conference, at least in terms of the current RPI rankings. That’s always a good thing. In the still very early, so sometimes topsy-turvy conference standings, Marquette is currently tied for fourth place, just a half-game behind Villanova at 4-2, and a half-game ahead of Seton Hall at 4-4. As luck would have it, the Golden Eagles will play the team that they’re tied with in the standings on Friday night, so one way or another, that tie will be broken by sunrise on Saturday.

So here’s the good news and the bad news for Marquette as they head deeper into Big East play. Their only losses so far this season are to RPI top 20 teams. If you’re going to pick a category that you’re going to only lose to, that’s the one you want to pick. Those are teams that are essentially guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Marquette has, right now, according to the NCAA team sheets through Wednesday night, no wins at all against serious NCAA tournament contenders. 0-4 against RPI 1-25, 0-0 against RPI 26-50. With 32 automatic bids and 32 at-large bids, 50 is right about your cutoff for serious contenders. If you figure there’s roughly 8 multi-bid conferences — and that’s how many Charlie Creme has this year through January 13th — then you can slide eight automatic bids over into the at-large column to get 40 teams coming straight off the list of top teams in the country that get into the field. You really only need to look at the top 50 to find 40 teams.

Marquette has the advantage of being in the RPI top 50 right now, coming in at #33. However, Charlie Creme doesn’t have the Golden Eagles in his field of 64 because, well, let’s be honest, Marquette doesn’t have any notable wins.

They also don’t have any bad losses right now.

That’s the point I wanted to make here. Why? Well, Marquette’s about to go play road games against the current RPI #141 team and the RPI #231 team. We can have a conversation about MU’s struggles to get a top 50 win some other time, but for now, we have to worry about the present. That present involves road games against teams that Marquette can’t afford to lose to if they consider themselves to be an NCAA tournament team.

I continue to maintain that merely having MU in contention for an NCAA tournament berth come March should be considered a victory for first year head coach Megan Duffy. But that’s long term goal watching. In the short term, Marquette’s path to a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance is wide open right now. They just can’t wander off the path.

Big East Game #6: at Butler Bulldogs (11-5, 3-2 Big East)

Date: Friday, January 17, 2020
Time: 5:30pm Central
Location: Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Television: FS2
Streaming: Fox Sports Go
Live Stats: Stat Broadcast
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteWBB

Marquette is 13-8 all time against Butler. The Bulldogs snapped a nine game Marquette winning streak by winning at the McGuire Center late last season (you might remember that one as the “Erika Davenport is done for the season” game), but the Golden Eagles have won 12 of the past 15 meetings.

As alluded to above, Butler comes into this one with a 3-2 record in conference play, and just like Marquette, they’re won three in a row. They lost their first two, coming at home against Seton Hall and St. John’s, the teams Marquette just beat. Then they picked up three straight road wins: first Xavier, then both Villanova and Georgetown last weekend. Weirdly at least based on the current Big East standings, they had a much easier time with Villanova (58-41) than they did with Georgetown (47-46).

The key to Butler this year is Kristen Spolyar. The senior from Indiana leads the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game, which also ranks third in the Big East. Spolyar is also the team leader in assists (2.3 per game), and she’s second in both rebounds and steals. She also leads the Bulldogs in three-point attempts per game, and that’s where her weakness is. If Marquette can provoke Spolyar into taking long range shots, that’s not the game she wants to play. She’s only shooting 30% from behind the arc this season, and she knows she shouldn’t shoot those with only 33% of her shots coming from out there. Compare that to Genesis Parker, Butler’s only real three-point shooting threat at 43% on the season, who takes nearly half her shots from behind the line.

In terms of style, Butler is much more defensively oriented. That’s good news for Marquette, actually, because the Golden Eagles are a better defensive team than the Bulldogs are. MU is a much more balanced team, if you consider the two teams’ relative rankings according to HerHoopStats.com, so when MU’s #38 defense is trying to stop Butler #149 offense, well, you can see how that’s beneficial to the Golden Eagles. Butler isn’t a particularly good shooting team, and they’re a passable rebounding team. On top of all of that, they turn the ball over too much. However, the big worry for Marquette is that Butler has the fifth best free throw rate in the country. Not their FT shooting percentage, mind you. They only make 69% of their freebies, which is middle of the road. We’re talking about how often they get to the line, and they get there a lot. They rank 6th in the country per HHS in terms of how much of their points come from the free throw line, even with their sub-70% shooting percentage. That’s a big problem for Marquette.

The good news is that it’s not Butler’s bigs that draw the fouls. Spolyar and Parker are both top 300 in the country in individual free throw rate, with Parker coming in at #172 in the country. MU’s guards and wings are going to need to keep their hands to themselves and let the Marquette interior core do their job altering shots when they come towards the rim.

Big East Game #7: at Xavier Musketeers (2-14, 1-4 Big East)

Date: Sunday, January 19, 2020
Time: 1pm Central
Location: Cintas Center, Cincinnati, OH
Streaming: Big East Digital Network on the Big East’s YouTube Channel
Live Stats: Sidearm Stats
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteWBB

Marquette is 13-7 all time against Xavier. The series has been back-and-forth over the years, but in that “you win a few, now I win a few” kind of way. Marquette’s current seven game winning streak against the Musketeers is the longest winning streak in the series, and yes, that means that just a few years ago, Xavier had a winning record against the Golden Eagles.

So. Xavier’s not good. I don’t think that’s a secret. They’re not the worst team in the league in terms of standings — that’s winless Providence — and they’re not the worst team in the league by way of the RPI — that’s Georgetown, which accounts for XU’s lone Big East win right now — so they have that going for them. However, I don’t think you can lose 13 straight games like Xavier did after winning their season opener and still consider yourself to be a good team, and thus, Xavier is officially not good.

That’s a bit of a bummer for the Big East’s other first year coach, Melanie Moore. As luck would have it, but Moore and MU head coach Megan Duffy are former assistants for Kim Barnes Arico back when she was at St. John’s. It’s an interesting comparison between the two former co-workers as neither one was taking a clearly excellent job situation when they were hired back in the spring. We should also point out that Sunday afternoon’s game will be pitting the only two female coaches in Big East women’s basketball against each other, as that maybe shouldn’t be the rarity that it is.

The Xavier scouting report is not complicated: Stop A’riana Gray, stop Xavier. She is the only double digit scorer on the team at 16.4 per game, and she’s the only player averaging more than four rebounds per game. The fact that she’s nearly averaging a double-double at 9.4 caroms per contest is merely secondary to the discussion here. The six-foot forward from Cleveland is pretty mobile on the floor for a player that’s essentially averaging a double-double, but at 6’0”, that provides Marquette with a variety of options to defend her.

For all of Xavier’s problems this season, they do have two things that Marquette needs to worry about. First, they’re the 16th most accurate three-point shooting team in the country, led by Aaliyah Dunham and Morgan Sharps who are both shooting over 42% from outside. Sharps is essentially only a shooter, getting 68 of her 87 field goal attempts for the year from behind the arc. She can not be left alone under any circumstances. The reason why Sharps can not be left alone is because Xavier’s actually really great at getting buckets off assists. HerHoopStats.com has them as the #70 team in the country in assist rate, and that’s largely because of Dunham. Her 4.6 assists per game work out to being ranked #110 in the country in assist rate, and Dunham’s even better (#87) in assist to turnover ratio. If Dunham is allowed space to find passing lanes, that’s going to be a problem all game long, and if she’s allowed space to find Sharps sitting wide open, Cintas Center is going to fill up with all sorts of bad words from the Marquette bench.