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2023-24 Marquette Women’s Basketball Season Preview: Three Questions

There’s probably more than three for the Golden Eagles as Megan Duffy’s fifth season gets started, but we’ll try to keep this short.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 Big East Women’s Tournament - Marquette v Depaul
Megan Duffy enters her fifth season at the helm at Marquette.
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hello and welcome to the final Friday of the off-season!

Marquette women’s basketball starts off the 2023-24 season on Monday afternoon (yes, matinee start for the opener against UT Martin), so let’s make use of the final free moments that we have to look at the Big Questions facing the Golden Eagles this winter.

QUESTION #1: Who’s going to start?

We can get 40% of the way home on this one pretty quickly: If Jordan King and Liza Karlen are healthy and not starting every night, something has gotten very weird at the McGuire Center. I feel very strongly that we get all the way to 60% home with Rose Nkumu once again joining King in the back court, but the fact of the matter is that head coach Megan Duffy didn’t even make that realization herself coming out of preseason training last year. It seems obvious now after we watched that team for 32 games, but it’s up to Duffy and her staff — which includes two new assistant coaches and thus two brand new perspectives — to make that call.

That leaves two spots in the starting lineup to fill for sure. It’s the spot left open by the end of Chloe Marotta’s eligibility and the spot left open by Emily La Chapell’s transfer to Belmont in June. Based on the roster, I think that the two most likely answers to the question are, in order, Frannie Hottinger and Kenzie Hare. Hottinger’s style of play seems to fit in line with what Marotta brought to the team the closest, while Hare fits in at the three better than anyone else right now. Mix in the fact that Hottinger is in Milwaukee on her bonus year of eligibility after four seasons at Lehigh, and you have to figure that Duffy and the staff are going to give her every chance to prove that she doesn’t deserve to be starting.

I’m not as 100% sold on Hare getting the starting spot. She has to be a much more reliable offensive threat to make that work, and according to Hoop Explorer, MU’s defense was a slight bit better with her on the bench. Maybe that’s more about being a freshman than anything else, so we’ll see. Claire Kaifes is a more reliable shooting option, or at least more proven at this level, so it wouldn’t be odd to see her build on the two starts that she picked up last year. Is Lee Volker ready to step up from the bench role that she had in her time at Duke? What about freshman Halle Vice or JUCO transfer Abbey Cracknell? When it comes to Nkumu’s spot in the lineup, where does Central Michigan transfer Bridget Utberg factor into the decision process?

QUESTION #2: Is the offense going to get better, and if so, how?

Three things that are true about the 2022-23 season:

  1. Marquette was an elite defensive team, ranking #24 in the country in Her Hoop Stats’ defensive metric.
  2. Marquette played at the slowest pace since Megan Duffy took over as head coach, averaging just 68.6 possessions per 40 minutes, putting the Golden Eagles in the bottom third in tempo in the country according to HHS.
  3. Marquette ranked #81 in the country in HHS’ Offensive Rating.

I suspect #1 and #3 combined to explain #2. If you know you can get stops better than almost every single team you play, then why not grind the game down to sludge, trust that your defense will hold, and play it out from there?

Here’s the problem with that: You can’t trust it to work perfectly again.

Credit where credit is due to Megan Duffy and her staff last season, as they knew they had a crummy three-point shooting team. The Golden Eagles hit just 30.8% of their long range attempts as a team, and that was juuuuust about tipped over into being in the bottom half of the country. MU also didn’t want to shoot three-pointers, ranking in the bottom fifth of the country in attempt rate. This is fine management of the pieces you have.

It is not, however, how basketball is played here in 2023 and soon to be in 2024. As much as Marquette might be built to do some work inside with Liza Karlen and Frannie Hottinger mixed in with drives from Jordan King, the fact of the matter is that things will get much, much, much easier for all of that inside work if the Golden Eagles can be a reliable threat from outside. Look at the men’s team and how their free flowing and cutting “we’re going to either dunk it or shoot behind the arc” offense works. The effectiveness of each thing makes the other one work a little bit better, and they harmonize to become a lethal threat.

That means Kenzie Hare has to do better than 31%. That means Liza Karlen has to do better than 29% if she’s going to shoot more than once a game. That means Rose Nkumu has to do much better than 19%. Frannie Hottinger’s 27% at Lehigh last year? Not good enough.

Other things Marquette can do:

  • Figure out a way to get to the line more. They were one of the 30 most accurate free throw shooting teams in the country last year.... and ranked in the bottom 70 in attempt rate. You’d think a team doing so much work inside would find a way to get more calls, and yet here we are.
  • The offensive rebounding has to get better. Last season was the worst offensive rebounding rate in Megan Duffy’s tenure, falling below 36% for the first time all the way down to 33.5% of their misses coming back for a second chance. That was still a top 100 rate according to Her Hoop Stats, but you can bet your sweet bippy that a lack of second chances wasn’t doing MU any favors in the offensive efficiency department.
  • Maybe a slightly deeper rotation will work out for Marquette? The Golden Eagles went just seven deep in their NCAA tournament loss to South Florida, ignoring the 27 seconds of action for the now-transferred-out Makiyah Williams. If Duffy and her staff can trust a few more people to pull in a positive direction, maybe that’s a little bit fresher set of legs on everyone and thus a little bit better standard of play on both ends of the floor?

QUESTION #3: Is this an NCAA tournament team?

The simple answer is, of course, if you win enough games, anyone can be an NCAA tournament team.

Last year, Marquette got into the field as a #9 seed. That sounds like they were in the field pretty cleanly, right? Not really. Both of the First Four games were contested for the last two #11 seeds, which means that MU could have been just seven spots away from the First Four and 11 spots away from the last team in the field. They got there as the #42 team in the NET, which means that the selection committee liked them better than the computers did, as #42 would be a #11 seed. They got there even though they had two top 11 wins on Selection Sunday, beating UConn in Milwaukee and Texas in the Bahamas. Part of the reason why that was the case? They only had three top 50 wins, going oh-fer against Creighton and Villanova in the regular season, falling to UConn in Storrs and in the conference tournament, losing to UCLA in overtime in the title game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, and getting absolutely smashed at home by Colorado.

2024 UConn isn’t going to be as vulnerable as 2023 UConn. Marquette’s not going to play Texas, Gonzaga, and UCLA in their Feast Week event. This year’s non-con schedule is maaaaybe a little bit edged towards making up for that, based on how last year’s NET turned out. Playing at #88 Illinois State could be a benefit if MU wins, but at #177 IUPUI is bad news if it’s a loss. Bringing #41 Illinois and #66 Memphis to the McGuire Center will be helpful, and in terms of NCAA resume alone, I would imagine the Golden Eagles would prefer to follow up #87 Boston College in the Fort Myers Tip Off with #48 Arkansas and not #110 Wisconsin. Remember: As long as the NCAA doesn’t do home/road/neutral splits for NET sorting for women’s basketball, anything outside the top 100 is essentially useless to determining how good your resume is.

Last year, Marquette went a perfect 13-0 against teams outside the top 65. Losses at #55 St. John’s and #64 Seton Hall might have put MU’s NCAA hopes at risk if they didn’t have those UConn and Texas wins to lean on. If they don’t get a tippy top win this year, Marquette can’t afford to meander through league play with slightly troubling losses, much less actually troubling losses. Looking at you, sub-100 Georgetown, Butler, Providence, and Xavier.

If Megan Duffy gets this team to come together the way that she’s gotten teams to come together in the past at Marquette, yeah, this is a tournament team. Is there too much up in the air right now to feel comfortable saying that’s the case right now? Yep, absolutely.