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Is Marquette’s Defense Bad Or Unlucky?

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We need to start figuring this out just for our own sanity.

Marquette v DePaul Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

It shouldn’t be a secret to you, the smart and intelligent Marquette men’s basketball fan, that Steve Wojciechowski’s teams have struggled on the defensive end of the court. According to KenPom.com, after a first season where Marquette ranked #69 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency — or how many points they give up on a per possession basis, adjusted for strength of opponent — Wojciechowski’s teams got worse at getting stops in each of the next three seasons: #88, #165, and #182. Year five featured a top 50 defense, the first in Wojciechowski’s tenure, but only just barely at #45 in the country. That #45 doesn’t tell the full story, though, as the Marquette collapse down the stretch saw the Golden Eagles give up over 102 points per 100 possessions in five of the six losses and over 113 points per 100 possession in the final three losses of the year.

Last year, things went backwards. The KenPom AdjD number — 96.9 — was only a little bit worse than the year before — 96.7 — but it brought with it a 28 spot drop in the rankings to #73 in the country. Yet again, that doesn’t tell the full story, as the Golden Eagles ranked eighth in raw defensive efficiency in Big East play per KenPom, one of just three teams to give up more than 105 points per 100 possessions. The other two? Georgetown and DePaul, who finished 5-13 and 3-15 in league play respectively.

And now here we are in the 2020-21 season, with Steve Wojciechowski presumably well aware that his teams do not play reliably good defense. Merely by pure happenstance, Marquette eliminated perhaps their most obvious flaw from the defense for the last four years: Markus Howard’s height. I’m not saying Howard was a bad defender, but a defender of Howard’s ability that is 6’2” like D.J. Carton and not a listed 5’11” like Howard is inherently a better defender just because of those extra three inches of space. In theory, at least, the defense should be accidentally better this season, especially with very tall and very long freshmen Dawson Garcia and Justin Lewis getting minutes.

It is and it isn’t.

The number is better. Marquette’s adjusted defensive efficiency is, as of Monday afternoon, 94.6. That’s better than last year, a pretty decent amount better than 96.9, honestly. It’s also just three spots better in the rankings, sitting at #70 right now as opposed to the #73 defense from a year ago. If everyone else is just as improved as you, you’re not improved.

However, it is still early in this season, all the way to the point that the KenPom number still has a lot of preseason projection built into it. Say, what was KenPom’s preseason projection for Marquette’s defense? #39 in the country? And now it’s at #70? That kind of a drop would seem to be bad, especially when the preseason projection is still propping it up. As you can guess from the fact that this article exists, things have been getting notably worse lately. After three very good to great defensive performances to start the season, Marquette has allowed each of their last six opponents to score at least 102 points per 100 possessions. Each of the last four have scored at least 104 points per possession, and Xavier and Creighton both cranked that number up north of 125. Sunday’s effort against Xavier — 132.4 points/100 possessions — would have been the worst defensive performance of last season, beating out a 130.6 posted by Seton Hall on Senior Day while the Golden Eagles were in the middle of their second straight end of season collapse.

So, that leaves Marquette fans everywhere hunting for explanations other than “coaches are starting to get game film on Marquette and they have unlocked the puzzle that Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Eastern Illinois could not.”

One thing that stood out to me recently, particularly in the three games this past week, was the three-point shooting defense. Up through the road game against UCLA, Marquette had yet to surrender a game where their opponent made at least 30% of their long range attempts. Generally speaking, that’s pretty good. When you convert three-point shooting percentage to effective field goal percentage, 33.3% is the same as shooting 50% inside the arc in terms of the points that you’re scoring. If you’re under 33.3%, then that’s good. Keeping teams in the 20s is definitely good. In the past week, aka the three games since visiting Pauley Pavilion, Marquette’s three opponents hit 44%, 43%, and 54% of their three-pointers.

That’s bad, and it does not come with a free frogurt.

This led me to wonder: What is it about the last three teams (other than one was Creighton) that let them shoot so well against Marquette? Did something change lately?

First, before we go any further, I want to make a note. Three-point shooting percentage defense from game to game is, generally speaking, totally luck.

I point you to Mr. Ken Pomeroy on the topic:

When people say that advanced-stats users are a bunch of nerds, I can only think the people that don’t use them are the real dorks. Nobody with any knowledge of the game would talk about free throw defense using opponents’ FT% as if it was a real thing, yet we’ll hear plenty of references to three-point defense in that way from famous and respected people. Of course, both free-throw defense and three-point defense exist, but it’s much better measured in the amount of shots taken and not in the noisy world of the percentage of shots an opponent makes.

That was in December 2012. Here he is again in December 2018, this time writing for The Athletic ($):

Another way to understand how little influence a defense has over 3-point percentage is to look at history. Through Kentucky’s first nine games this season, its opponents made exactly 40 percent of their 3-point attempts. Last season, 46 teams allowed a 3-point percentage of at least 39 percent through nine games. Over the rest of the season, opponents made 35.165 percent of their 3s against those teams. Excuse the false precision there, but it’s necessary because, for the other 305 teams, opponents made 35.161 percent, a functionally identical number. The teams whose opponents made a bunch of 3-pointers against them early in the season were no different from the rest of the country for the remainder of the season.

Okay. So, to a certain extent, what happened to Marquette this past week was bad luck. It was also wildly worse than the first six games of the season, so it can’t be all bad luck.

Let’s look at what every Marquette opponent so far this season shot from the arc against MU and then what they’re shooting for the season:

Marquette Opponent 3pt Shooting Percentages

Team Vs MU Season
Team Vs MU Season
Arkansas-Pine Bluff 15.0% 30.4%
Eastern Illinois 29.2% 39.3%
Oklahoma State 27.8% 30.5%
Wisconsin 29.2% 43.7%
Green Bay 29.6% 31.1%
UCLA 26.1% 35.1%
Creighton 43.8% 38.1%
Seton Hall 42.9% 36.1%
Xavier 54.2% 41.5%

If three-point shooting percentage defense from game to game is mostly luck, then it would appear that Marquette was getting good luck for six games and then bad luck for the last three games. Six straight teams went under their season average, some by a little, some by a lot. Each of the last three opponents all went over it. Way, way over it, honestly. Sometimes all there is to do is throw your hands in the air and say “well, guys made shots, what do you want?”

Let’s go back to a line from Mr. Pomeroy.

it’s much better measured in the amount of shots taken and not in the noisy world of the percentage of shots an opponent makes.

So let’s look at that, shall we? What was the ratio of three-point attempts given up by Marquette against their nine opponents relative to the rest of their season?

Marquette Opponent Three-Point Attempt Rates

Team vs MU Season
Team vs MU Season
Arkansas-Pine Bluff 30.3% 31.2%
Eastern Illinois 39.3% 29.6%
Oklahoma State 30.0% 34.2%
Wisconsin 42.9% 37.8%
Green Bay 42.9% 36.2%
UCLA 41.1% 32.9%
Creighton 55.2% 43.4%
Seton Hall 39.6% 36.2%
Xavier 42.9% 38.0%

I think I see a problem here.

Seven of Marquette’s nine opponents this season attempted a higher ratio of three-pointers against the Golden Eagles than they did against the rest of their schedules this season, and both of the two that weren’t higher were in MU’s first three games. In other words, in each of the last six games and in seven of the last eight games, Marquette has seen their opponent attempt more three-pointers than they normally would otherwise.

Here’s the question then: Why? What is it about Marquette’s defensive structure that seems to create the mindset of “let’s shoot way more threes than we like to shoot against these guys”?

Is this by design — three-pointers are a lower percentage shot than a layup, of course — or is it by accident? Is this a feature of the Marquette defense, something that Steve Wojciechowski wants, or is this a bug, something that Wojciechowski hasn’t managed to correct in the last six games? The Seton Hall game at least stands out to me as one that could go either way. Sandro Mamukelashvili was getting to the middle of the court and passing out to an open teammate who let loose from behind the arc an awful lot in that one. I would find an argument that collapsing on Mamu and taking your chances on him finding guys AND those guys making shots was the intended game plan to be very compelling. I would also find just as compelling an argument telling me that guys were either coming off their man on the opposite wing when they shouldn’t have been or not recovering to close out fast enough.

If it’s a feature, if the defenders are doing what the coaching staff wants them to be doing, then Marquette is going to be at risk for teams to hit shots against them all season long and the Golden Eagles were just very unlucky this past week after six straight games of having Lady Luck favor them. We’re just going to have to cross our fingers every night for the next nine weeks if that’s the case. When the shots aren’t falling, Marquette looks like a pretty good defensive team because guys are missing shots. When the shots are falling.... well, y’all watched what it looks like when Xavier can’t miss for 20 straight minutes on Sunday.

If it’s a bug, if there’s just mistakes being made..... well, then the mistakes have been made over and over and over and over this season because teams have been getting those shots nearly all season long. There’s no sign of that stopping, and that means the defense is just bad and I don’t know how the coaching staff can figure out how to fix it if they haven’t corrected the mistakes before now. I really hope it’s just bad luck because the other thing is something that I really don’t want to think about, and I definitely don’t want to think about it six-plus seasons into a head coach’s tenure.

If you want to see this end on a note of optimism, well, let me throw this at you: Over the past four seasons, according to KenPom, Marquette has ended the year in the top 100 in defensive three-point attempt rate. The Golden Eagles are usually pretty good at denying the shots from even going up. This year, so far? #222 in the country. Going from #97 last year to sub-200 through nine games definitely looks like there’s a problem that can be solved as opposed to this happening by design. There’s a lot of season left, and if there is a bug, there’s definitely time for it to get ironed out.