It’s been a busy week in Marquette men’s basketball schedule news land. First we got notice of MU’s schedule for the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, then an update on when the yearly contest with Wisconsin-Madison. On Thursday, the athletic department released the remainder of the non-conference schedule for men’s basketball.
Well, almost all of the schedule. It would appear that Marquette is not quite at liberty to discuss their participation in the Gavitt Tipoff Games other than they know that it will be a road game and that it will be on either November 17th or 18th.
In any case, here’s what was officially announced by Marquette:
There’s also the road trip to UCLA in there, but that’s not a new announcement. The athletic department already announced that game and its date back in August 2019 when the series with the Bruins was made public. However, we haven’t gotten a chance to talk about UCLA and what to expect from them in 2020-21 yet, so we’ll be doing that here.
In fact, we’ve got six opponents to talk about, so let’s just jump right in to it, and we’ll talk about the schedule in general a little bit as we go.
2019-20 Record: 11-21
2019-20 Final KenPom.com Rank: #304
2020-21 T-Rank Preseason Rank: #295
Head Coach: Dr. Brett Reed, entering his 14th season at Lehigh and overall
All-Time Series: Marquette leads, 3-0
This will be the season opener for Marquette, and as such, seeing a KenPom rank from last year right around 300 isn’t terribly surprising. It’s going to be the first collegiate game for three freshmen who are going to have to play major roles for the Golden Eagles this coming season, so it does make sense to schedule a game that seems like it will go their way fairly easily.
However, I’m here to tell you that might not be the case for the Mountain Hawks. 2019-20 was the only time in Brett Reed’s tenure as head coach where Lehigh has finished with a KenPom rank below 270, and it’s the first time they were below 250 since his second season in 2008-09. Lehigh finished above .500 in Patriot League play in each of the previous five seasons, finishing with a KenPom rank no worse than the #235 in 2017-18 each time. In short, Brett Reed is pretty good at this whole coaching thing, and expecting them to be in the bottom end of Division 1 for a second straight season might not be the right move.
However, that is what T-Rank suggests. Jordan Cohen led the team in scoring last year as a senior, and big man James Karnik is headed to Boston College as a transfer. That’s Lehigh’s top two scorers at 14.2 and 12.2 points per game respectively. That does somewhat explain why Lehigh might not be better in 2020-21. The next five guys on the stat sheet all averaged between six and 11 points per game, though, so Reed won’t be completely without options. Rising junior big man Nic Lynch had to sit out the first semester with an academic issue, but he averaged 9.6 points and 5.1 rebounds in 24 minutes per game once re-joining the active roster. At 6’11”, Lynch will give MU’s incoming freshman a very quick lesson in what it takes to defend at the Division 1 level, so that’s an extra bonus to the game.
I’m really not sure why Marquette keeps scheduling Chicago State. MU has scored at least 90 points in all but two of the previous eight contests, and they still won by at least 19 in the other ones. The closest margin of victory in the series was 17 points, as the Golden Eagles won 91-74 back in December 2015, using a 24-5 run in the first half to shake off a rocky start. In short, things don’t go well for the Cougars against MU, and that’s largely speaking because things don’t go well for the Cougars against really anyone in Division 1. They’ve won at least 10 games in a season just twice in the last decade, and the last time was back in 2014. Lance Irvin has yet to win a game in WAC conference play, meaning the Cougars have won just one conference game in the last three seasons, getting the 96-82 W over UMKC in the 2017-18 regular season finale. In fact, Irvin has just two Division 1 victories in his two seasons at the helm.
Quite honestly, the scheduling of this game is more surprising because of the date involved than the opponent, with the former somewhat explaining the latter. This game will be played on the day before Thanksgiving, which implies that the men’s basketball team will not be going home for the holiday weekend. The fact that their next game is just three days later on Saturday helps draw that picture into clearer focus. That’s generally surprising, but it’s particularly surprising in a school year where Marquette University is shutting down the residence halls at Thanksgiving Break. With that in mind, it does make sense to schedule the Cougars in this game, as it’s just a quick bus ride up and down I-94 for them.
It would appear that CSU will be returning their core from last season, as none of their seniors were major contributors. Rising seniors Xavier Johnson and Andrew Lewis both averaged north of 12 points per game, so that’s a solid tandem that MU will have to tangle with. Johnson had a usage rate that ranked #50 in the country per KenPom.com, so there’s no reason to think that Irvin will vary from the plan to let him both attack and create. The 5’11” Johnson also ranked #228 in the country in assist rate, so he’s pretty versatile.
2019-20 Record: 13-19
2019-20 Final KenPom.com Rank: #237
2020-21 T-Rank Preseason Rank: #264
Head Coach: Clayton Bates, entering his first season at WMU and overall
All-Time Series: Marquette leads, 21-8
Well, we can’t address this game at all without pointing out that this will be the first meeting between the two squads since March 14, 2005. For those of you that do not remember, that was a NIT first round game at the Bradley Center, and the Broncos came out ahead, 54-40. That is not a typo. It was an incredibly dismal end to a season that went completely sideways when Travis Diener’s otherwise terrific senior season was cut short by injury. In fact, WMU has taken two of the last three meetings, as they knocked off MU 68-63 in Milwaukee back in January 1989.
As for this meeting, it will be part of the first campaign under the direction of Clayton Bates, who was promoted to head coach this offseason. Bates was on his third stint as a WMU assistant, with now former head coach Steve Hawkins keeping him on board from the previous administration and then bringing him back twice after that. This tenure had run since 2012, and while there were three 20 win seasons at the start of it, WMU had finished under .500 in each of the past two campaigns. Hawkins was let go on March 11, and ultimately Bates was promoted on March 25.
Anyway, Bates’ job got a lot harder than he was probably expecting almost immediately. First of all, it seems that he was nowhere near close to being WMU’s first choice for the job. Second, top scorers Michael Flowers and Brandon Johnson have elected to transfer after Bates was hired with one season of eligibility remaining. Bates told The Detroit News “we were surprised by some of it.” So there’s that.
Flowers and Johnson were an inside/outside combo that took a heavy majority of the shots for the Broncos. They both averaged north of 15 points per game and combined to attempt 24 of WMU’s 56 shots per game. It’s going to take a lot to get guys to play brand new roles for Western Michigan this coming season, and there’s at least questions to be asked as to how many of the guys are actually looking forward to playing for Bates after the two guys who had the most leeway with him as an assistant decided to bounce.
2019-20 Record: 18-14
2019-20 Final KenPom.com Rank: #53
2020-21 T-Rank Preseason Rank: #33
Head Coach: Mike Boynton, entering his fourth season at OSU and overall
All-Time Series: Oklahoma State leads, 4-1
This is probably the opponent on the slate with the biggest question mark for the 2020-21 season. Here’s the deal: The Cowboys are getting that #33 ranking in the T-Rank preseason chart because Cade Cunningham, the #1 recruit in the Class of 2020 according to 247 Sports, is signed and set to enroll this fall. However, the NCAA dropped the hammer on OSU about a week ago, banning them from the 2021 NCAA tournament because of now-former assistant coach Lamont Evans’ conviction for bribery. For now, Cunningham is still set to attend OSU. However, with no NCAA tournament available to him, it’s not going to be surprising to see him do literally anything else other than go to OSU for a year. In fact, head coach Mike Boynton has point blank said that Cunningham has to do whatever’s best for him, even if it’s not attending OSU.
So yeah, right now, it’s a lot. I wouldn’t bet on Cunningham being in uniform when the Cowboys visit Milwaukee on the first day of December. It’s hard to make any serious statements about Oklahoma State until that issue is settled. Boynton is losing four of his top six scorers as seniors last season, and three of his top six rebounders, too. He was going to have to figure out a lot of stuff on the fly in the first place, and I would imagine having Cunningham on the roster was going to fix a lot of those issues or at the very least paper over them until some roles get settled for the long haul. Or maybe Cunningham will end up in Stillwater anyway, as his older brother Cannen is one of Boynton’s assistant coaches. Who knows??
On January 15, 2020, UCLA was sitting on a record of 8-9 overall and 1-3 in Pac 12 play after a 74-59 home loss to Stanford. They had suffered home losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton, although the latter was much worse than the former. Things were not going well for Cronin in his first season at Pauley Pavilion.
And then they closed the year on a 11-3 tear, wrapping up the regular season in second place in the conference and just barely missing a tie for the regular season title thanks to a loss to crosstown rival USC in the regular season finale. The NCAA tournament wasn’t a guarantee for them, but a win or two in the conference tournament would have done them a world of good in that regard. It was quite the turnaround for Cronin to end his first season on such a high note, and it’s clear that good things were going to be expected from the Bruins in year two.
UCLA looks to return all of their top five scorers from 2019-20 if leading scorer Chris Smith withdraws from the NBA Draft. They’re also going to add Johnny Juzang as an immediately eligible transfer from Kentucky. Juzang was a top 40 prospect out of high school that never quite put it together for the Wildcats in his one year in Lexington. The biggest question facing the Bruins for 2020-21 is how much the loss of Daishen Nix from the recruiting class will impact Cronin’s plan for the season. Nix is ranked as the #16 prospect in the Class of 2020, but after signing with UCLA in the fall, he opted for the G-League’s new development program squad. Signing Nix was clearly a big deal for Cronin, so the creation of a Plan B on the fly since late April is kind of a big deal for the second year coach.
No one is going to confuse Jackson State for a worldbeater of a college basketball program. However, Wayne Brent has been having some pretty solid success in the SWAC. After a 7-11 opening campaign in 2013-14, he’s finished at least .500 in league play every season. This past year, JSU went 9-3 down the stretch 11-7 in the conference, so that’s pretty good.
While they had seven seniors on the roster a year ago, most of them were not regular contributors. Most notably, the Tigers will have to replace Roland Griffin, who was second on the team in scoring and rebounding. Leading scorer Tristan Jarrett will be back after averaging 16.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. He was one of the highest usage players in the country a year ago, accounting for 34% of his team’s possessions per KenPom.com and over 38% of their shots. I’m just going to tell you right now: Unless something seriously changes, Marquette should absolutely let Jarrett fire away from long range, as he’s just a career 26% three-point shooter with one year at JSU and one at Kennesaw State.
The best reason why JSU’s on this schedule? They force turnovers like crazy. Brent’s squads have ranked somewhere between #17 and #86 in the country in turnover rate, and there’s only been one year where they forced turnovers on fewer than 20% of possessions. Steve Wojciechowski’s teams have been notoriously fumble fingered over the past few years, and getting pushed by a high caliber defensive squad like this right before Big East play starts is a pretty smart thing to do.
Let’s wrap up with a visual look at how the schedule lays out for Marquette.
The game days are marked with green, although I marked both November 17th and 18th as game days since that Gavitt Tipoff Games contest remains unconfirmed right now. It’s a pretty busy month of November and first week of December that quiets down in a hurry after that. The Oklahoma State/Wisconsin stretch will be very interesting for Marquette, as finals are currently scheduled for December 2nd through December 9th. It’s an unusual setup for Marquette provoked by coronavirus concerns, so that’s not helping things anyway. Still, head coach Steve Wojciechowski has previously shown a refusal to schedule a game on the Saturday following finals in a traditional year, but here his team will play a game in the middle of finals week. It’s weird to say the least, but what part of the last three months hasn’t been weird?
It may look like the non-conference schedule is wrapping up earlier than it normally does, and that’s true. However, with the addition of Connecticut to the Big East and thus an expansion to a 20 game league schedule, the conference needs more space to get those games in. As such, I think it’s safe to say that Marquette will open league play somewhere in the December 21-23 stretch. I would doubt that there would be another game before the 27th, but hey: If the guys aren’t going home for Thanksgiving, then maybe they won’t be going home for Christmas, either. We’ll have to wait and see what happens when the league announces the full schedule in early September.