It’s been more than a few minutes since we knew that Marquette men’s basketball would be participating in the 2020 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun Casino this coming fall. It’s been nearly two years since Ben Steele of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dropped that multi-team event info on us, so when Marquette announced their schedule for the tournament on Monday, it wasn’t news that it was happening.
However, it was not confirmed as to who exactly Marquette would be playing in the event. I think we knew that Rhode Island, Minnesota, and UCF would be involved, but I can’t prove that. Anywho, it’s official that the Golden Eagles will open the event at the Mohegan Sun Casino against Rhode Island on Saturday, November 21st. UCF vs Minnesota will be the other semifinal in the tournament, with the winners and the losers of each game pairing off for the championship or the consolation game on Sunday, November 22nd.
In addition to those games in Connecticut, Marquette will also be playing a home game as part of the event. On Saturday, November 14, MU will play host to Albany. The Great Danes will also be headed to Uncasville for a four-team event on the 21st and 22nd — The Springfield Bracket as opposed to MU’s Naismith Bracket — and their tournament will also include Long Island, Quinnipiac, and Lehigh.
Let’s stop for a moment to talk about what we know about Marquette’s schedule so far, and then we’ll dive into what we know about MU’s opponents in each game.
Here’s what the calendar looks like in terms of confirmed dates so far.
We just explained the 14th, the 21st, and the 22nd. The December 12th game is the road trip to UCLA in the front half of the home-and-home set with the Bruins as announced last August. That’s all we know for sure right now for dates. Deputy Athletic Director Mike Broeker did provide a little guidance in terms of what the schedule will look like in early May, noting a home game against Wisconsin Badgers, a road game in the Gavitt Tipoff Games, and what I presume to be a home game against Big 12 opponent in The Challenge. However, none of that included dates for any of those games, so we can’t mark them on the ol’ calendar there. I’ve blocked out Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day in red, as well as the day before and after Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas. Between when MU has games scheduled, the academic calendar, and the likely availability of opponents, it seems obvious that there won’t be games on those days. The first nine days of November is blocked out because that’s before the NCAA allows you to play a game. There’s more than a few questions to be answered about when the above mentioned games will be fit into the schedule based on what we see now, but that’s stuff to worry about later.
And so, let’s learn a thing or two about the teams that we know MU will see in 2020-21, as well as the possibilities for the second game in Uncasville.
2019-20 Record: 14-18
2019-20 Final KenPom.com Rank: #282
2020-21 T-Rank Preseason Rank: #260
Head Coach: Will Brown, entering his 20th season at Albany, 20th in Division 1, and 23rd overall as a head coach.
All-Time Series: This will be the first ever meeting.
The last couple of years for Will Brown at Albany have been a bit of a downturn. From 2010-11 through 2017-18, the Great Danes finished with a winning record in league play and won at least 20 games in five of those eight seasons. By way of three straight America East tournament titles, Albany reached the NCAA tournament in three straight seasons from 2013-2015. Pretty good stuff! That hasn’t been the case the last two years, as the Danes have gone 7-9 in AE play. As such, it’s been a big drop off in quality in terms of KenPom rankings, going from a consistent top 200 team and often a top 150 team into the back end of the 200s the past two seasons.
Replacing leading scorer and leading assists man Ahmad Clark will be a big deal for Albany in 2020-21. 16.7 points per game is a lot, and so is 4.2 assists per game. In terms of assist rate, that was top 50 in the country, so while the Great Danes struggled to put wins together, Clark was still finding open guys on the regular. Seniors Romani Hansen and Kendall Lauderdale were reliable bench options for Brown last year, but didn’t make a major impact on the stat sheet. Still, filling the roles on the team is a big deal.
Rising juniors Cameron Healy (14.2 points, 4.0 rebounds) and Antonio Rizzuto (7.7 points, 2.4 rebounds) will be the primary names to watch for Marquette’s defense. Both guys shot over 35% from long range last season with over 160 attempts each, so they’ll be ready to fling it again. Fellow rising junior Brent Hank stands 6’10”, which is a very solid big man for an AE squad, but he only averaged 13.1 minutes per game while starting in 24 of his 28 appearances. He didn’t score much (2.0 points per game) or even rebound much (2.7 rebounds per game), so it will be interesting to see what the Golden Eagles freshman bigs will be able to do against him.
2019-20 Record: 21-9
2019-20 Final KenPom.com Rank: #65
2020-21 T-Rank Preseason Rank: #115
Head Coach: David Cox, entering his third season at URI and third overall as a head coach.
All-Time Series: Rhode Island leads, 1-0
If you wondered if Marquette is favored to win the Tip-Off Tournament, well, let me point you at this article about transfer rules from the Providence Journal when it comes to their first game. And I quote:
URI currently has three players who would be forced to sit out the 2020-21 season — Makhi Mitchell (Maryland), Makhel Mitchell (Maryland) and Malik Martin (Charlotte). The Rams have just seven eligible players available as of [April 29th], including a pair of incoming freshmen.
Well, that’s a whole thing. The Rams have lost three players to transfer since the 2019-20 season ended, and two players from their recruiting class have made changes to their future plans. That’s not particularly great news for David Cox, and it definitely helps explain why T-Rank sees Rhody taking a bit of a step back from last season.
Either because they were seniors or because they transferred, Rhode Island is losing three of their four double digit scorers from this past season. That leaves a big gap between rising senior Fatts Russell at 18.8 per game, which led URI last season, and Jermaine Harris at 5.3 points per game. Cox is going to have to figure out how to get guys to embrace much bigger roles this season, and if he wants to have success in this preseason event, he’s going to have to do it pretty quickly out of the gate.
While Dan Hurley built the Rams into an NCAA tournament in his final two seasons and was a top 100 KenPom team in each of his final four campaigns, the history of URI since the start of the millenium is much more up and down, and those NCAA appearances aren’t exactly popping up regularly. In fact, Hurley’s trip in 2017 was their first since 1999, so it’s reasonable to wonder if these last two seasons is just a return to the status quo for the Rams: Reasonably good, and that’s about it. With a rough year on tap with just seven eligible players and very few with a wealth of reliable experience, things aren’t looking super great for 2020-21.
2019-20 Record: 15-16
2019-20 Final KenPom.com Rank: #27
2020-21 T-Rank Preseason Rank: #68
Head Coach: Richard Pitino, entering his eighth season at Minnesota and ninth overall as a head coach.
All-Time Series: Minnesota leads, 19-14.
I’m not going to lie to you: I really want to see Marquette play Minnesota in the championship game of the event. I think it’ll be a real hoot to watch Richard Pitino have to watch noted Minnesota native Dawson Garcia dunk on various Gophers over and over and over. Remember, after Garcia committed, MU head coach Steve Wojciechowski went on the radio and said, without naming names, that Minnesota didn’t try hard enough to recruit Garcia, or at least not as hard as Marquette did.
Anyway, it appears that Minnesota was a pretty good team that had the unfortunate luck of playing in a conference that had 10 teams better than them, or at the very least 10 teams with much better NCAA tournament profiles than them. They went 8-12 in Big Ten play and picked up five league wins against top 30 KenPom teams. The second half of that sentence is pretty good! The first half, not so much.
Things may not be better for the Gophers in 2020-21. Super sophomore Daniel Oturu (20.1 points, 11.3 rebounds) is staying in the NBA Draft, and as things stand right now, classmate Marcus Carr (15.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists) is on the draft early entry list with the option to withdraw. That’s Minnesota’s top two scorers last season, leaving Gabe Kalscheur (11.6 points, 2.7 rebounds) as their best guaranteed returning scorer. The 6’4” Kalscheur was primarily a shooter last year, with about 70% of his attempts coming from behind the arc. Worse, he only connected on 34% of those.
If they get Carr back, that will likely be incredibly beneficial to a squad that looks to have no returning seniors with Payton Willis transferring to Charleston. Their recruiting class is underwhelming (#46 in the country, #8 in the Big Ten, no top 120 prospects), so I don’t know if they can expect anything from those guys. Grad transfer Brandon Johnson comes from Western Michigan after averaging 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds, so it seems like he would go a long way towards filling the void left behind by Oturu.
2019-20 Record: 16-14
2019-20 Final KenPom.com Rank: #117
2020-21 T-Rank Preseason Rank: #88
Head Coach: Johnny Dawkins, entering his fifth season at UCF and 13th overall as a head coach.
All-Time Series: Marquette leads, 1-0
The Knights closed the 2019-20 season on a 7-12 spree after opening up 9-2 on the year. Their non-conference schedule was fine, to be honest, and they got nicked by one point on the road against Oklahoma in late December. From there, they opened up 0-4 in AAC play, and it was pretty much all down hill from there. Still, at 16-14, it was the fourth straight winning season for head coach Johnny Dawkins, and that’s something that hasn’t happened in Orlando since Kirk Speraw pulled that off from 2002-2005 and took the Knights to two straight NCAA tournaments in that time. Of course, this was also back when UCF was in the Atlantic Sun conference, so there’s that.
Rising senior Collin Smith led the squad with 12.6 points per game in 2019-20, and the 6’11” Florida native also chipped in 6.3 rebounds and nearly two assists per game. One way or another, if MU ends up facing UCF, he’ll provide an interesting challenge for Marquette..... as long as he withdraws from the NBA Draft. Second leading scorer Darin Green already withdrew from the draft, and he set a UCF freshman record for three-pointers made last year. Green led the AAC in three-point percentage at nearly 42%, so he’ll be a challenging cover for Marquette, especially if Dawkins starts letting him shoot it more than five times per game on average.
Dawkins’ UCF teams have been generally slow paced over the last four years. They’ve also been fairly defensively minded, with three top 40 KenPom defensive rankings in his first three campaigns. Last season was a major departure, as their ranking dipped allllllllll the way down to #98, and they weren’t even a top 150 offense to boot. Both of those things will need to turn around if Dawkins wants to get another NCAA tournament bid on the board.