Postseason statistical primer: Marquette defense

Derrick Wilson arguably has been one of Marquette's best defenders this year. Check the numbers inside. (USA Today)

Derrick Wilson arguably has been one of Marquette’s best defenders this year. Check the numbers inside. (USA Today)

The general consensus was that, following the departure of Jae Crowder, the Marquette defense would have trouble matching last year’s numbers.

And while according to KenPom.com, Marquette’s offense (No. 16) has outplayed its defense (No. 49) and its defense this season has been worse statistically than it was a year ago with Crowder (No. 14), there’s no denying the Golden Eagles have won a few games on this side of the ball.

If the regular season taught us anything it’s that Marquette has its most athletic team in Buzz Williams’ tenure, and that being able to go 10-deep on any night has helped his team stay fresh defensively — the added size doesn’t hurt either.

But what about the bigger trends? After all, defense wins championships, right?

Let’s jump into the Synergy numbers.

– The end of the “OxTule” frontcourt?

Buzz Williams had been practicing with a frontcourt of Davante Gardner and Chris Otule for weeks before unleashing it on Big East opponents in late February. The concept seemed perfect–a 6-foot-8 immovable force in Gardner and a 6-foot-11 shot blocking specialist in Otule down low–but how did it fare for Marquette statistically?

We found four games (vs. Pitt, at Villanova, vs. Syracuse, vs. Notre Dame) where Marquette deployed its “Oxtule” lineup, totaling 18 minutes, 20 seconds:

Marquette defense vs. Pitt, at Villanova, vs. Syracuse, vs. ND
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The thought that tossing his two biggest defenders into a 2-3 zone would help his defensive numbers didn’t come to fruition. Sure, they forced more turnovers and allowed fewer points per possession, but the field goal percentage was far too high to justify continuing using the lineup. And that has happened, seeing as Williams did not use the two big men together against Rutgers or St. John’s.

We may see the lineup if Marquette plays Notre Dame’s talented frontcourt, but just know it isn’t as lock-down defensively as it seems on the surface.

– Davante Gardner’s improving post defense

The two seasons prior to this one, Buzz Williams was forced to substitute out Davante Gardner handfuls of times every game. The 290-pound forward simply couldn’t handle more than a half dozen possessions up and down the court before tiring out. He’s seen his minutes increase in 2012-’13, up more than two minutes per game this season, and part of that–along with his necessary offensive spark–is because of his improved defense.

Here are Gardner’s defensive numbers from the last three seasons, looking at possessions that ended with his man shooting and the percentage of time the offense scored when he guarded the scorer (field goal or free throws/% Score):

Davante Gardner’s defensive numbers by season
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Along with simply playing more possessions against ball handlers and shooters, Gardner is allowing fewer points per possessions and opponents’ field goal percentage are down more than 6.5 percentage points from a year ago. We knew Gardner was better defensively this year, but these numbers are eye-opening.

– Who is Marquette’s best on-ball defender?

This year’s Marquette team has won on team defense. Moving past the cliche, it’s true; the Golden Eagles play extremely tough help defense, and it’s one of Buzz Williams’ favorite drills in practice.

But when it comes down to it, who is the best one-on-one defender on the team? When squared up against an opponent (different from an isolation; see later), who holds that player to the fewest amount of points per possession? The lowest field goal percentage? Here’s what we found:

Marquette’s individual on-ball defensive numbers
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Derrick Wilson, although playing 13.3 minutes per game, is both Marquette’s best on-ball defender in terms of points per possession allowed and field goal percentage defense. Talk all you want about his ugly offensive numbers (1.3 points, 1.8 assists), but his defense is getting it done for the Golden Eagles. Note that these numbers include both man and zone defenses.

Also of note, many on Twitter have wondered and asked why Todd Mayo continues to be forced out of the rotation. Granted he wasn’t able to feast on an easier non-conference schedule, but his defensive numbers are, by far, the worst on the team. He wasn’t able to get into a rhythm early in the season and it’s hurting him down the stretch. Don’t expect a larger role for him in 2013.

– Going one-on-one with Trent Lockett

Now that we’ve got those numbers out of the way, what about the one-on-one clear-outs Marquette has seen this season? Surely in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments star players will be on full display and in takeover mode, meaning plenty of isolation situations. Who’s the best man for the job if Marquette needs a lock-down defender in open space? None other than Trent Lockett.

Marquette’s defensive isolation numbers 
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Lockett has also been put in the most isolation situations this season (31), more than Blue (25), Jamil Wilson (22) and Cadougan (20). Lockett hasn’t been the best defender this year (fourth in PPP defense, see above), but he’s shown he’s able to use his size, athleticism and length when opponents try and shake him in one-on-one situations.

–Marquette defense playing bigger…and slower?

It’s well-documented (on this website and others) that Marquette, with Chris Otule, Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson, Juan Anderson and Steve Taylor, are playing a “bigger” lineup than in years’ past. According to KenPom, Marquette’s rotation is its “tallest” since 2006-’07, when Pomeroy last kept the statistic.

So while that can mean positive results in halfcourt sets when teams attack the basket or take contested jumpers, what does it mean in transition defense, when Marquette has three forwards in the game instead of three quicker guards?

Transition team defense statistics
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Marquette allows fewer transition attempts than the average Big East team, but its defense in those situations arguably has been the worst in the conference. We highlighted Notre Dame’s 12.8 percent mark because of the potential matchup Thursday, but the takeaway here is that Marquette, while efficient in halfcourt setting, is getting beat far too often on fast-break attempts.

– What it all means

Marquette plays man-to-man defense 85.2 percent of the time, playing some variation (almost always a 2-3 zone) of a zone defense the other 14.8 percent. The Golden Eagles certainly have the talent, athleticism and coaching to succeed on the defensive end, but there are holes, like any team, that opponents can exploit (fast-break, solid outside shooting).

An underrated aspect of their defense is Williams’ substitution patterns between Junior Cadougan and Derrick Wilson, Davante Gardner and Steve Taylor Jr. with Chris Otule, and even Jamil Wilson with Juan Anderson. Williams has put his team in position to succeed all year long, and playing the percentages, as seen here, can make the difference between a good and great defense.

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