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2023 Big East Men’s Basketball Championship Preview: #1 Marquette vs #2 Xavier

The conference tournament shook out the way the standings did, with the top two teams facing off for the trophy.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 21 Georgetown at Xavier Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2023 Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament


#1 Marquette Golden Eagles (27-6, 17-3 Big East) vs #2 Xavier Musketeers (25-8, 15-5 Big East)

Date: Saturday, March 11, 2023
Time: 5:30pm Central
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York, New York

Season Series: Split 1-1, with both teams winning at home
All-Time Series: Marquette leads, 56-27
Current Streak: Marquette won the meeting in Milwaukee in mid-February to hold the scant advantage in the series. No one has won two straight in this series since MU swept it in 2020.

Your #1 seed in the Big East tournament is YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles, and they arrive in Saturday’s championship game by way of a quarterfinal win over #8 St. John’s and a semifinal win over #4 Connecticut. The St. John’s game was, from a certain point of view, a bigger test of the Golden Eagles than the UConn game. There’s an argument to be made that Marquette never should have let the Red Storm get into that game, and get into it they did by way of a 21-2 run in the first half that left them leading 32-18. Marquette ripped off two big runs in the second half to seize control at least for a little while, but the Johnnies kept coming in their secondary home of Madison Square Garden and force the thing to an extra session. Marquette’s defense is what mattered though, as the Golden Eagles held St. John’s to just seven field goals in the second half and overtime, including absolutely none at all in the extra five minutes, and Tyler Kolek, the 2023 Big East Player of the Year made several big plays when it mattered in extra time to push the Golden Eagles along to the semifinals.

The UConn game was exactly what you want to get in the Big East semifinals. Two titans, two teams who have showed at the very least flashes of being national championship contenders at some point this season, if not long stretches, just throwing haymakers at each other for 40 minutes. It was an instant classic of a game if there ever was one, and once again, it was Marquette’s defense that came up big when they needed it to. The Golden Eagles held UConn scoreless for the final 2:38 of the game, making five consecutive stops to end the game. That’s important, because MU was held scoreless themselves for the final 3:42, but the Golden Eagles were already used to having to dig deep to win, as Kolek, Oso Ighodaro, and David Joplin were all hobbled by foul trouble for most of the second half.

Through about the first seven minutes of the semifinals, it looked like Xavier was destined to have a very similar path to the title game as Marquette. In the quarterfinals, the Musketeers took every single punch that DePaul had after the #10 seeded Blue Demons had knocked off #7 Seton Hall in the first round. With about four minutes to play, it was DePaul in control and up five, 80-75. The Musketeers closed that game on a 14-4 run from there and hit their free throws in the final 30 seconds to end with the W.

On Friday night, it was 13-12 Xavier in the early going, and you could see how maybe the #2 and #3 seeds in the tournament were going to treat the MSG crowd to a quality clash much like the first game of the night. Aaaaand then the X-Men ripped off a 16-3 run. Xavier 29, Creighton 15. The Musketeers were up 14 at the break and never led by less than 13 on their way to an 82-60 victory.

Now, that might make you think that Xavier’s going to be evvvvvvver so slightly more rested than Marquette heading into Saturday night, and considering that XU had the late game and thus a shorter turnaround than Marquette, that’s a notable advantage. However, Xavier head coach Sean Miller, a veteran of the Big East tournament from his playing days at Pitt, was not fooling around with his lineups, not even with Xavier up by 20 for the first time with 8:16 to play. All-Big East First Teamer Souley Boum played 37 minutes on Friday night, starting backcourt mate Colby Jones went 35 minutes, and the other three starters all played 30 minutes, all right about on their average for the season.

I don’t know if I have any deep analysis for you on this game as far as the matchup goes. The fact of the matter is that the two regular season meetings between the two teams came down to the final minute, and in fact they were decided on Marquette’s final possession. Okay, perhaps not literally for the game in Cincinnati, but what else am I supposed to call Olivier-Maxence Prosper shooting a four footer in the paint with 34 seconds left? Yes, there were free throws involved in the final 30 seconds after some fouling, but let’s be honest: Souley Boum hit a mid-range J to put Xavier up 74-72, OMax’s attempt missed, Xavier won.

When the series flipped to Milwaukee, the Musketeers found themselves without Zach Freemantle — who is now out for the season, by the way — as well as Desmond Claude, but there we were, Xavier up 64-61 with less than two minutes to go. Steal by Stevie Mitchell, layup by OMax Prosper, Xavier threw the ball out of bounds, two free throws from Oso Ighodaro, a pick and roll layup by Jack Nunge.... and then this:

OMax again, OMax in the lane again, this time he got closer, this time it went in.

These are two of the 10 best offenses in the country, and the two best in regular season conference play. Marquette has the edge on the defensive end, coming in at #63 in the country in efficiency per against #80 in the country for the Musketeers, and that fractional edge stands up from the 20 game league schedule as well. Keep it simple: Whichever side manages to figure out how to take away more of the other team’s offensive abilities is going to win. Neither team is going to lock down the other for 40 minutes, but a few stops in a row here and there could easily be the difference for the Big East tournament title and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Is Marquette’s ferocious attitude towards turnovers — and then very easy buckets on the other end as a result — the thing that can tilt this one? Or is it Xavier’s much better rebounding on both ends of the floor?