Who’s ready for Story Time?
On Wednesday, I had some free time, and I said to myself, “Self, now would be a very good time to write the preview for this weekend’s Marquette women’s basketball games. It goes up on Friday morning and this way you don’t have to worry about it tomorrow.” And so I started writing this, and started the way I normally do: putting together the infoblurbs at the top of each opponent section.
When I pulled up the Villanova schedule page to make sure I was getting the live stats information straight from their athletic department, I was reminded that I should probably hold off on writing this preview until Thursday morning. Why? Because not only was Villanova playing on Wednesday night, but they were also playing UConn, the other team that Marquette will face this weekend. Quite honestly, holding off on writing all together until after a game between the two sides just makes sense if for no other reason than that way the stats I’m pulling are as accurate as I can get them. Writing all of this on Wednesday and then going back through to carefully check all the stats is just making me write it twice.
WELLLLLL LET ME TELL YOU WHAT: IT REALLY WORKED OUT IN MY FAVOR THAT I DIDN’T WRITE ANYTHING AT ALL ON WEDNESDAY.
YEAH. UCONN LOST TO VILLANOVA ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Not only is it the first time a Big East team beat UConn in 169 consecutive games, it’s also UConn’s first regular season loss to any conference opponent since March 4, 2013 (shouts to Notre Dame) as they won every single game during their sabbatical in the AAC and went without a loss last season in the Big East. It’s UConn’s first regulation loss in regular season conference play since January 5, 2013, as that Notre Dame loss was in triple overtime. It’s the first time someone not named Notre Dame has beaten the Huskies in regular season conference action since St. John’s won in Storrs on February 18, 2012. Seriously, it’s been nearly 10 years since a current member of the Big East won a regular season conference game against UConn.
So that changes the tenor of all of the conversations that we’re having about Marquette facing both of these teams this weekend. How will Villanova react to their biggest win of the season, especially as they defend their home court against a team that they beat on the road? How will UConn react to their loss, especially when they have to host a very good DePaul team on Friday before making their way to Milwaukee. Is there something about what Villanova did to beat them that Marquette (and sure, I guess, DePaul) use to snag a win as well? The door is officially cracked open to UConn not winning the regular season title right now, and it’s up to the Huskies to shove it back closed again.
To focus this a little bit better on Marquette, let’s ask the question of How Much Does MU Need To Go At Least 1-1 This Weekend? And the answer is pretty badly. There’s the issue of Big East conference standings and seeding for the league tournament, of course, as Marquette is currently tied for third by way of winning percentage with Villanova, just a shade behind DePaul and just a shade in front of Creighton. Beating the Wildcats is somewhat crucial at this juncture just to get the season split and shift the tiebreakers off to something else. Of course, Nova’s win over UConn might end up being the tiebreaker anyway, so maybe that doesn’t matter.
Friday’s game against Villanova is a top 100 NET game for Marquette, so it’s pretty important that they don’t put another loss in the Quadrant 3 bin along with their loss earlier this season to the Wildcats. (Yes, the NCAA doesn’t weight home/neutral/road games for the NET for women’s basketball, it’s garbage, but this is the system they’re using.) Sunday’s home game is a chance for Marquette to get a top 25 win for the first time this season as they are currently 0-1 in that department after losing badly to Georgia down in Daytona Beach earlier this season. Why does all of this matter, other than the normal NCAA profile reasons? As of Tuesday morning, ESPN’s Charlie Creme has the Golden Eagles as the last team into the 68 team field. Yes, that means a First Four game, and it also means that Marquette’s shot at a program record fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance is very much at risk. Sure, merely playing a team that beat UConn as well as playing UConn themselves will help a little bit. Heck, MU’s NET ranking went up two spots on Thursday — up to 58 from 60 on Wednesday — just because they have a game in hand against Villanova.
It’s a big weekend to say the least, and now it’s even bigger than it was on Wednesday morning.
Big East Game #14: at Villanova Wildcats (16-6, 10-3 Big East)
Marquette is 17-11 all time against Villanova. Even after the Wildcats won at the McGuire Center earlier this season, MU has still won 10 of the last 12 meetings between the two teams.
How did Villanova beat Marquette in the McGuire Center earlier this season? They fought back from an early Marquette 13-5 lead, built a 54-44 lead midway through the fourth, and held on from there. MU had a chance to tie it at the horn, but the Golden Eagles couldn’t get a three-pointer to fall. That’s a notable flaw on this year’s MU team, and there’s nothing that’s going to suddenly and dramatically change. The big game-long way they beat Marquette? The Wildcats took away MU’s offensive rebounds. Without shooters to rely on, the Golden Eagles maximize their offensive efficiency by ranking #18 in the country according to Her Hoop Stats in offensive rebounding rate at nearly 39%. Against Villanova? 11%. Just three total second chances in the whole game, and just one in the first half.
Villanova’s win over Marquette last time around is an interesting inflection point for Villanova’s season in general. The win moved the Wildcats to 9-6 overall and 3-3 in the league. They haven’t lost since. Four straight home wins, Providence, Creighton, Butler, Xavier, all of them no-doubters at the end. 24 point road win over St. John’s, then back home to smash Georgetown by 19, and then Wednesday night against UConn. Even if they had taken the L against the Huskies to snap their streak at seven straight, it would have been an impressive run to put them into the top half of the Big East. Now, with the Huskies W? They’re in the top 80 of the RPI, but there aren’t many teams out there that have a better win than at Connecticut this season.
It shouldn’t be a shock to you that Villanova’s entire deal circles around Maddie Siegrist. Just stopping the 6’1” junior from putting a double-double on you is an accomplishment as she’s averaging 25.1 points and 9.7 rebounds this season, both team highs. In her free time, she hands out two assists, comes up with a steal, and blocks a shot, too. Siegrist is a passable three-point shooter at 33.7%, which is just enough to make her a threat to shoot or drive. She does most of her work inside the arc — 13.5 of her nearly 19 shots per game are twos — but you have to respect her jumper. Lior Garzon adds 14.5 per game to the scoreboard, and Brianna Herlihy gives them 10.8 per night while being Siegrist’s back up on the boards at 8.6 per game and leading the team at 3.0 assists per game.
Actually, the assists thing is kind of fascinating. Herlihy is the leader at only 3.0 per game, but there are four more Wildcats, including Siegrist, who average at least two per game. All of this sharing the sugar leads Villanova to the ninth best assist rate in the country as a team. The fact that they do it as a team is particularly fascinating, especially with such a dominant primary scorer like Siegrist.
Big East Game #15: vs #8 Connecticut Huskies (15-5, 9-1 Big East)
Marquette is 0-12 all time against Connecticut. This is probably not surprising news. The Huskies took all three meetings last season, including a 63-53 contest in the regular season finale and a 73-39 romping in the Big East tournament title game.
I don’t think I’m stepping on any toes when I say that the 2021-22 iteration of UConn women’s basketball is not up to the standards of the monolithic ideal of UCONN WOMEN’S BASKETBALL. There was a chance that was already true this season when they got clonked in the head by South Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game, but things have gone off the rails in a way that Huskies fans are not used to seeing.
It is, mostly speaking, an injury problem for UConn. Losing Paige Bueckers to a leg injury that required surgery threw their entire deal into disarray, because that’s what happens when you lose your national player of the year contender who does so much all over the floor for your squad. But it’s not just Bueckers only playing in six games this season that’s caused them problems. Only two women — Aaliyah Edwards and Evina Westbrook — have played in all 20 of Connecticut’s games this season, and even those two haven’t started every single game. Heck, at 11 starts on the year, Edwards barely qualifies as starting in most of UConn’s games.
Without taking anything away from what Villanova did on Wednesday night — and head coach Geno Auriemma will be the first one to tell you that Villanova deserved to win the game more than his team did — we have to acknowledge the fact that UConn was an absolute mess from a roster perspective on Wednesday, and that means we don’t know what kind of UConn team is showing up in Milwaukee on Sunday. Just six Huskies played on Wednesday, with regulars Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Caroline Ducharme coming in as the most notable absences. Ducharme missed a second straight game on Wednesday with what’s labeled as a head injury but is officially not a diagnosed concussion.
Geno on Caroline Ducharme: "Caroline's day-to-day. Every day she tries to make some progress and hopefully tomorrow she'll be better than she was today."— Daniel Connolly (@DanielVConnolly) February 10, 2022
Nelson-Ododa is a different story. Wednesday night’s game was the first one that she missed all season, and she was actually put into the scorebook as a starter, just like she was for the first 19 games of the season. Something happened after that, and she was scratched from the lineup.
Geno Auriemma says Caroline Ducharme is day-to-day.— Charlotte Carroll (@charlottecrrll) February 10, 2022
Oliva Nelson-Ododa let coaches know once they put starting five in the book that she wasn't going to be able to play today
That ended up leaving Christyn Williams and Azzi Fudd to do the heavy lifting on offense for UConn. That pairing took 35 of the team’s 56 shots against Villanova, and honestly, that worked pretty well. They both shot over 50% overall and at least 50% from behind the arc on at least five attempts each, so that’s a pretty good way to deal with having only six players that you trust to play available. Of course, that didn’t stop Villanova from leading by as many as 19 points in the third quarter.
With Bueckers sidelined, Williams has been UConn’s top scorer this season at 15.2 per game, and Fudd, when available, has been #2 at 12.7 a night. Fudd has only played in nine of UConn’s 20 games, which kind of means that Ducharme has been the real #2 scoring threat at 12.6 per game in her 17 appearances.
If Nelson-Ododa continues to be unavailable through the weekend, that’s a notable advantage for Marquette. She’s UConn’s leading rebounder at over eight per game, and if MU doesn’t have to worry about her vacuuming up misses, that makes it a lot easier for the Golden Eagles to do what they do best. Without her, 6’5” forward Dorka Juhasz is the best Huskies rebounder at 6.1 per game as well as one of just two rotation players who averages more than four per game. Obviously Juhasz’s pure size will make her a formidable matchup for the Golden Eagles who top out at 6’2” in the every night rotation and only have little used sophomore forward Julianna Okosun at 6’4”.