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#25 Marquette Men’s Basketball Big East Preview Primer: at #12 Xavier

The Golden Eagles head to Cincinnati to face an eerily similar Musketeers team.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 02 Butler at Xavier Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

#25 Marquette Golden Eagles (14-4, 6-1 Big East) at #12 Xavier Musketeers (14-3, 6-0 Big East)

Date: Sunday, January 15, 2023
Time: 11am Central
Location: Cintas Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

Marquette Stats Leaders

Points: Kam Jones, 16.1 ppg
Rebounds: Oso Ighodaro, 6.3 rpg
Assists: Tyler Kolek, 8.0 apg

Xavier Stats Leaders

Points: Souley Boum, 17.7 ppg
Rebounds: Zach Freemantle, 8.1 rpg
Assists: Colby Jones, 5.5 apg Rankings

Marquette: #12
Xavier: #20
Game Projection: Xavier has a 57% chance of victory, with a predicted score of 85-83.

So Far This Season: Things started a little bit on the shaky side for Xavier, and honestly, that shaky start doesn’t look quite as good in retrospect. After winning three buy games in relatively easy fashion, they got clipped, 81-79, at home to then-#12 Indiana in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Then they headed out to Oregon for their Phil Knight branded event/tournament where the Musketeers went 1-2. They won their first game against Florida, then fell by 7 to then-#8 Duke, and then by 4 to then-#6 Gonzaga.

That’s 4-3 on the season with losses in three of the four high major games you played. It’s not great, if we’re being honest about it, and it looks worse now. The Hoosiers have lost six of their last nine and have tumbled out of the AP poll and won’t even be earning votes next week anymore. The Blue Devils aren’t on quite that much of a dive, but they’re getting effectively nothing from two of their five-star freshmen and need to beat first place Clemson on the road in order to stay ranked on Monday. Gonzaga’s fine, so that loss still doesn’t look too bad.

All of that is setup to point out that Xavier hasn’t lost since the trip to Portland. 10 straight wins, and as of Friday morning, that was the 5th longest winning streak in America. Since taking that loss to the Zags, Xavier has been playing like the 11th best team in the country according to’s fantastic filtering process. That means they’ve been better, as you’d expect, as T-Rank’s full season measurement has them at #18.

They are 6-0 in Big East play as you can see, including handing UConn their first loss of the season overall back on New Year’s Eve and beating Villanova at Finneran Pavilion. That makes XU head coach Sean Miller just the second Big East coach to win at the Finn since February of 2017. The other one is, of course, Shaka Smart, who is now 2-0 in that building.

Tempo Free Fun: You often times hear games explained/previewed/described/whatevered as “which ever team imposes their will gets the win.” This seems like a pretty strong idea to run with for this game, as it certainly looks like, at least from a statistical standpoint, this game is the Pointing Spider-Mans meme.

Marquette is an elite offense (#2 in the country per KenPom) that is top five in the country in either two-point or three-point shooting percentage; Xavier is an elite offense (#7 in the country) that is top five in the country in either two-point or three-point shooting percentage.

Marquette’s defense (#83) doesn’t quite measure up to the elite play of their offense; Xavier’s defense (#90) doesn’t quite measure up to the elite play of their offense.

Xavier loves to play at a white hot tempo (#16 in the country); Marquette (#67) is more than happy to fly around the floor with you.

Xavier’s offense is devoted to scoring off the pass, ranking #3 in the country in assist rate according to KenPom; Marquette’s Tyler Kolek is #8 in the country in individual assist rate as well as #3 in raw assist average and #7 in assist to turnover ratio... oh, and the team ranks #34 in assist rate, too.

You get the idea here.

While there are many striking similarities between the two teams, there are some things that make you stop and say “hey, I see an advantage for Marquette here.” The biggest one for me is the differences in what the two teams’ questionable defenses are good at. You’re not going to be surprised to find out that Marquette’s defensive specialty is forcing turnovers. When you’re trying to get to 32 deflections per game — and averaging north of that according to Shaka Smart’s appearance on his weekly radio show last week — obviously you’re going to be generating a lot of turnovers. 22.3% of defensive possessions — 38th best in the country — end with MU possessing the ball without a shot going up. That’s great news because MU is shaky at defending shots and letting teams get to the line, and are objectively the worst defensive rebounding team in the Big East during league play. But none of those things matter if the other team doesn’t shoot. Where this works out really well for the Golden Eagles is that Xavier is kind of shaky at holding onto the ball. It’s not a legitimate problem for their offense, but they do turn it over on nearly 19% of their possessions so far this season. They’ve been better in Big East play, but that’s as a team. Adam Kunkel and Colby Jones both have turnover rates north of 25% in individually. Both of those guys start and play over 30 minutes per game in league contests, so if Marquette’s pressure and activity on the defense end can get to them and fluster them into three or four turnovers each, that’s one easy way to slow down Xavier’s potent offense.

Xavier, on the other hand, props up their defense with rebounding and keeping you off the free throw line. KenPom has them ranked in the top 90 in the country in both departments, and in the more important area — rebounding, obviously — they’re in the top 65. Bad news for Xavier: Marquette’s bad at offensive rebounding and getting to the free throw line. The Golden Eagles are ranked somewhere below #240 in the country in both departments, and in league play, their rankings are #8 in offensive rebounding and #10 in free throw rate. You’d think that the best two point shooting percentage offense in the country would be a lot better at drawing fouls, but maybe this is one of those “the offense is designed to get clean looks, no matter where the looks are” thing, and so MU keeps getting clean layups and dunks and teams don’t bother fouling.

In any case, Xavier’s a passable two-point shooting defense and are legitimately awful at three-point shooting defense. I suspect this is because they’re actually really good at chasing teams off the three-point line — #79 in the country — so when teams do get looks from long range, they’re wide open and thus more of them go in. Bad news for Xavier: Marquette’s entire offense is designed to do exactly that. This is where you get two things butting heads, though. Xavier wants to take away what Marquette is trying to do, and that includes passing to hit the open man for any kind of a bucket. Can the Golden Eagles find ways to get the Xavier defense scuffling and hit cutters for good looks?

Part of the answer to that question is solving the riddle of Jack Nunge. Xavier’s 6’11” center is averaging 14.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this season in addition to a team high 1.4 blocks per game. Analytically speaking, he’s in the top 200 in the country in block rate, so Marquette is going to have to figure out how to score around him. I would imagine that whatever adjustments they made on Wednesday against UConn and Donovan Clingan are going to come in handy here. This is also where Oso Ighodaro’s versatility is useful as Nunge is going to have to chase him around a little bit and if Ighodaro can pull Nunge away from the rim, that’s going to lead to quality looks for drivers like Tyler Kolek, Kam Jones, and OMax Prosper.

The other thing to keep in mind about Nunge is he’s shooting over 40% from behind the arc this season on nearly three attempts per game. Marquette has to take him seriously when he drifts out there on offense. In fact, Marquette has to take the entire Xavier starting five seriously behind the arc:

  • Souley Boum: 47%
  • Colby Jones: 45%
  • Zach Freemantle: 65% (!!) (on just 14 attempts, but still)
  • Jack Nunge, 41%
  • Adam Kunkel: 40%

No one’s really coasting on an early season hot streak, as Jones’ 37% in Big East play on 19 attempts is the “worst” amongst that group. Here’s the catch: Marquette has to take each and every single one of them seriously...... but they don’t need to worry about it. Xavier hates shooting three-pointers. They rank #322 in the country in that department per KenPom, with just barely over 30% of their overall attempts coming from behind the arc. They’re actually shooting fewer threes in league play, just slightly, and have only shot more than 20 three-pointers in a Big East game just once. That was in a 54% shooting performance as XU squeeked out a 102-89 victory over Georgetown on the road. Xavier will most likely limit their attempts on their own. It’s going to be up to Marquette to make sure that they don’t get good looks in the first place.

Stat Watch: Tyler Kolek is one assist away from tying and two away from passing Dwyane Wade for the 10th most assists by a Marquette junior. Yes, that’s Final Four Year Dwyane Wade. Yes, Kolek is averaging eight assists per game. He’s also six assists away from Kevin Johnson in 9th place and 10 away from Dominic James in 8th place. Heck, since he did have a 15 assist game last week, I’ll point out that he’s 14 away from Tony Smith and 15 away from Lloyd Walton.

Marquette Last 10 Games: 8-2 with wins in the last five games and eight of the last nine.

Xavier Last 10 Games: 10-0 on a 10 game winning streak dating back to November 30th.

All Time Series: Marquette leads, 55-26.

Current Streak: Marquette and Xavier split the series last season, as well as the year before. MU did win the most recent encounter at home in Milwaukee in a game that was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end for then-head coach Travis Steele. In the last eight encounters, Marquette is 6-2 against the Musketeers.

Follow Along on Twitter

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