Of the 3 victories over Villanova in the Steve Wojciechowski era, this one feels the most...normal.
The first one signaled the beginning of a new era of competent Marquette basketball, and the second (at the time) ushered in what was supposed to be a legitimate championship window for this team. There are no gates being opened as a result of the win today. There is no grand statement to be made about the bright future of this program as a result of today’s performance. It was just a damn good win for a team that still has a shot to compete in a loaded Big East.
The first 10 minutes of the game were defined by Nuclear Markus Howard. The nation’s leading scorer accounted for 17 of the team’s first 27 points. That needs to be repeated. In 10 minutes of game action, Markus scored 17 points. And he only missed twice from the floor during that stretch. The Golden Eagles were charged by the energy provided by a packed Fiserv and pounced on the Wildcats early.
The safe lead and extra attention on Howard allowed other players to contribute the rest of the half. Koby McEwen was in the midst of a dreadful slump coming into today, having only hit 12 of his previous 58 shots. He hit 2 threes to pit stop mini spurts by Villanova and contributed to the early VU foul trouble by getting to the line as well. Theo John had his best offensive half of the season so far, scoring 6 points, including a bucket that came on an isolated post up deep into the shot clock. The final 10 minutes were defined by the supporting cast making sure that the Nova defenders couldn’t just put the crosshairs on Marquette and expect to win. All told, the differential was 19 going into the break.
Unfortunately, Marquette’s offensive powers seemed to run out of juice by the time halftime rolled around. Until the game turned into a free throw fest with 2 minutes left, Marquette scored 16 points over 18 minutes. Markus scored 10 of them, but they came at an inefficient rate. After a half of dominating in the paint, Villanova shored up that area and severely limited the guards’ ability to drive and kick.
Villanova spent the under-16 timeout through the under-8 timeout slowly chipping away at the 16 point lead Marquette had built up. It seemed like every Golden Eagle shot was trying its best to go in the bucket, but physics just kept saying no. They went the entire stretch without a point and the lead was trimmed down to 8, with fans at home wondering what disaster would finish off this game.
The big exhale came with Marquette taking the ball under the basket following the commercial break with less than 8 minutes to go. Markus ran along the sideline on a simple catch-and-shoot-double-guarded-corner-three-with-momentum-carrying-you-to-the-sideline. You know, the simple play that every coach draws up for your run of the mill college player. Anyway Howard hit it and the lead teetered between 12 and 10 for the rest of the game.
You may be wondering how Marquette was able to hold the point differential in the second half to -8 with that poor of an offensive stretch against a bombing team like Villanova. To that we can turn to what may have been the best defensive performance of the year. The Wildcats had no chance getting past the Marquette wins with their perimeter screens. With the length these guards have, switching everything was an easy decision and it created no matchup issues. Six different players registered a steal today because of this type of disruption and they were able to stave off a 7 minute scoring drought by keeping the leading at double digits for the majority of the half.
Looking at the box score, it will look like a typical Markus game supplemented by a Koby resurgence that will hopefully be a good sign of future performaces, but the MVP of this game might be Theo John. Despite mostly fixing his foul issues, he has quietly struggled for most of the year, largely because of a hand injury that we’re now finding out almost caused him to redshirt this year. Today he showed why he might be the best interior defender in the conference.
Villanova is the exact type of team a big shot blocker would struggle against. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was running around the court, taking Theo with him and switching him on smaller forwards and guards. When players would drive to the basket, they would do the patented Jay Wright Jump Stop to disrupt the timing of shot blockers. John ended up with 4 blocks in 33 minutes and, most importantly, just 1 foul. The Wildcats are a top 25 team shooting inside the arc and John limited them to hitting half of them today, buoyed by a couple garbage time buckets. He anchored the defense, kept up tremendously with the smaller guards, pulled down clutch rebounds, and took great care of the ball.
In the Random Symmetry Department, Greg Elliott finished with 4 points on 4 shots, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 hugs. I can’t confirm the hugs statistic, but he seems like the kind of guy to give his pals a good squeeze every now and again. His ability to finish strong at the rim has improved so much since his freshman year.
Next week Marquette stays at home as they prepare to take on Providence Tuesday, who has started Big East play with a 2-0 record (????), following a hilarious last-second defeat of DePaul, who I was told should be ranked by this point. After that they’ll head to Newark to take on Seton Hall in what could be one of the season-defining games.