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RV Marquette Basketball Big East Preview Primer: at Villanova Wildcats

Can the Golden Eagles win at the Finn for a second straight season?

Big East Mens Basketball Tournament - St. John’s v Villanova
Didn’t realize that the Nova mascot was one of the Young Bucks.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

RV Marquette Golden Eagles (10-4, 2-1 Big East) at Villanova Wildcats (7-6, 1-1 Big East)

Date: Saturday, December 31, 2022
Time: 1pm Central
Location: Finneran Pavilion, Villanova, Pennsylvania

Marquette Stats Leaders

Points: Kam Jones, 16.2 ppg
Rebounds: Oso Ighodaro, 7.0 rpg
Assists: Tyler Kolek, 7.5 apg

Villanova Stats Leaders

Points: Eric Dixon, 16.1 ppg
Rebounds: Cam Whitmore, 6.2 rpg
Assists: Caleb Daniels, 3.5 apg Rankings

Marquette: #23
Villanova: #50
Game Projection: It’s currently a 50/50 split, but it must be 50.1%/49.9% favoring the Wildcats, as Villanova is projected as the winner in a 75-74 game.

This Year So Far: Villanova has effectively had two different seasons in their first 13 games. There’s the first seven games where they started out 2-1 with a road loss to Temple followed by four straight losses. That’s at Michigan State in the Gavitt Tipoff Games and then all three contests in the Phil Knight event out in Oregon, and yes, that includes an 83-71 loss to Portland out of the West Coast Conference.

That was Season #1. Season #2 started on December 3rd when top 25 freshman Cam Whitmore made his season debut after an injury suffered in preseason training. Villanova escaped with a 70-66 home win over Oklahoma in his first game to start off a five game winning streak, including a neutral site W over Boston College and a road jaunt against Saint Joseph’s. That streak came to a halt in Hartford on Wednesday night in a 74-66 loss to #2 Connecticut, but hey, that was a back-and-forth tilt for the first 25 minutes and the Huskies are one of the best teams in the country.

Tempo Free Fun: Obviously we have to start any conversation about Villanova with the differences between what they were without Cam Whitmore and what they are now with him. Thankfully, we have for this, and thus we discover that Villanova was legitimately terrible on defense without Whitmore. Terrible as in “bottom 50 in the country in adjusted efficiency” bad. You’re not going to win a lot of basketball games as one of the worst defensive teams in the country, and this was proven because they were #40 in offensive efficiency! They could score really well, and WOMP WOMP, 2-5, including having to rally from a 12-2 deficit out of the gate against Delaware State, the worst team on their schedule this season.

With Whitmore in the lineup..... well, they’re still not good on the defensive end. #100 in defensive efficiency isn’t fooling anyone into thinking they’re a good basketball team, but it is still a massive improvement merely by adding a very talented large person (Whitmore is 6’7”, 232 lbs.) to the rotation. They’re pretty good at defending your shots and really good at not letting you get to the free throw line, but they’re not great at turning you over (18% of possessions, which is #212 in the country since Whitmore joined the lineup) and their aversion to offensive rebounding stretches out to the defensive end as well. New head coach Kyle Neptune appears to be a big proponent of “I think we should make all our shots, so when it goes up, get back on D to get stops!” as a tactic, so for the entire season, Nova ranks #326 in the country per in offensive rebounding rate. When Whitmore has been playing for them, the Wildcats rank just #122 in defensive rebounding rate. That’s probably going a long way towards making their defensive efficiency suffer even if it’s not objectively awful.

It appears that Kyle Neptune is a big fan of very small rotations as well. While he seemed to be going nine deep before Whitmore was healthy enough to play, minutes have dried up nearly entirely for Trey Patterson and Brendan Hausen over the past six games, and Angelo Brizzi has played just three minutes in one game since Whitmore made his debut. Against UConn on Wednesday night, Villanova effectively played just seven guys for the full 40 minutes. Given that the Wildcats have been forced north of 70 possessions in regulation just once this season, this is probably a fine way to play, and it’s generally speaking what we’ve seen from Jay Wright Villanova for the last several years anyway. It doesn’t help the chances of playing time when Brizzi and Patterson have turnover rates north of 33%, by the way. If for some reason Marquette sees them on the court on Saturday, I think the move by Shaka Smart is to immediately shove Chase Ross into the game and tell him and Stevie Mitchell to attack them until Neptune changes something.

The analytics think this is going to be a tight game. has Villanova just barely favored. While T-Rank in general favors Marquette much more heavily (71% chance of victory!), if you filter the season to just when Whitmore has been on the floor, things tilt back to Nova just a scootch ahead. With that in mind, it seems that Villanova’s general defensive profile is incredibly beneficial for Marquette. The Golden Eagles want to shoot a lot of three-pointers and they want to do that by way of kicking to the open man for an assisted bucket. MU is #102 in the country in three-point rate and #45 in the country at getting an assist on their makes. Villanova seems devoted to just letting you shoot whatever three-pointers you want and if that comes from hitting the open man, so be it. For the whole season all put together, VU ranks #335 in the country in both of those departments. If Marquette can get things moving and shaking on the offensive end and hit their threes with reasonable effectiveness, that’s a clear pathway to victory for the Golden Eagles.

As always, Oso Ighdaro is a key to victory for Marquette, but in this case, his role in the game is very interesting. His primary defensive assignment is going to be Eric Dixon, the 6’8”, 255 pound junior big man. He’s VU’s leading scorer this season, edging out Caleb Daniels by less than half a point per game, and Dixon is just 0.1 rebounds per game behind Whitmore for the team lead there. However, Dixon is very much a prototypical 21st century big man, and that’s where the challenge for Ighodaro comes in. Dixon has gone from “yes, well, if I am open out here, I shall shoot this three-pointer and make about half of them” last year to “hello, I am third on the team in attempts and I was second before Cam Whitmore got healthy” this year. He’s canning 39% of his 4.1 attempts per game, and oh, for fun, Dixon is coming up on two assists per game, too. Taking him away, or at least limiting him to 75% effectiveness is going to be a crucial component of trying to win at the Finn for the second time in program history.

One of the reasons why Villanova can afford to play at the pace that they do is because they’re not making mistakes that go the other way that often. The Wildcats rank 13th in the country per KenPom in turnover rate, with just 15% of their possessions ending with the other guys holding the ball. Amongst their core group of seven players that Neptune has been leaning on, Jordan Longino (18.4%) is the only one with a turnover rate north of 16%. It’s going to be hard for Marquette to disrupt their offensive flow, and it’s been especially hard to do since Whitmore got into the action. They’ve had a turnover rate north of 15% just twice since the start of December, but both games are notable. Saint Joseph’s got them to over 19%, and the Wildcats needed a 23-5 second half run to take an 11 point lead on their way to a 71-64 win. The other one was Wednesday against Connecticut when Nova posted their worst offensive turnover rate of the season at 25.8%. The Huskies are just a touch better at forcing turnovers than Marquette is so far this season, so it will be interesting to see what lessons Shaka Smart and his staff can glean from UConn generating 18 turnovers in a 70 possession game with short notice before Saturday afternoon.

Marquette Last 10 Games: 7-3, with wins in four of the last five and seven of the last nine.

Villanova Last 10 Games: 5-5, with Wednesday’s loss to #2 Connecticut breaking up a five game winning streak.

All-Time Series: Villanova leads, 27-14.

Current Streak: Marquette swept the season series last year, so that’s two straight in MU’s favor right now. There has only been one three game winning streak for Marquette in series history, and that came from 2007 through 2009.

Follow Along on Twitter

@AnonymousEagle - Hey, that’s us!
@MarquetteMBB - Official MU account
@NovaMBB - Official Villanova account
@VUhoops - our SB Nation friends who follow Villanova
@BenSteeleMJS - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel MU beat writer