Following two wins over Colgate and Southeastern Louisiana, Marquette heads to Hawaii to take part in the Maui Invitational this week, beginning with a first round matchup with the Butler Bulldogs.
Last year Marquette won its preseason tournament, the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, by defeating Winthrop and Ole Miss handily, and hanging on to beat Kyle O’Quinn and Norfolk State in the championship game.
Two years ago, Marquette lost to Duke in the semifinals of the O’Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic and lost the third-place game to No. 17 Gonzaga.
The year before that, Williams’ bunch beat Xavier, upset No. 15 Michigan and lost a late lead to Florida State to finish runner-up in the Old Spice Classic.
Williams’ first tournament as Marquette head coach was the Chicago Invitational Challenge, where the No. 15 Golden Eagles beat Northern Iowa before being upset by Dayton in the final game in Hoffman Estates.
But this week will the most talented field and highest-profile tournament Marquette has played in under Williams. With Butler, North Carolina, Texas and Illinois involved, winning this week’s tournament would be an impressive feat.
Its first opponent, Butler, suffered a major loss when Brad Stevens dismissed junior guard Chrishawn Hopkins, a returning starter who averaged 9.1 points and 2.4 rebounds a year ago, before the season began. He was expected to lead the Bulldogs following the graduation of Ronald Nored.
That left the main scoring load to incoming transfer Rotnei Clarke, one of the best 3-point shooters in the country. At Arkansas, the 6-foot sharpshooter made 274 shots from beyond the arc in three seasons before transferring. He’s made 6-of-17 from 3 through two games, including five makes in the opener against Elon. He also handed out five assists in a loss to Xavier as the point guard-by-default, but his impact will be felt from beyond the arc.
Another newcomer, freshman Kellen Dunham, has been impressive through two games as well. He has averaged a team-high 14.5 points off the bench, been to the line eight times and made four 3-pointers in those games, and at 6-foot-6 will be a tough matchup on both ends.
Marquette faced two undersized centers in wins over Colgate and Southeastern Louisiana, but that won’t the case Monday. 6-foot-11 Andrew Smith averaged 10.9 points and 5.2 rebounds in 26.4 minutes last year, and has the experience of two Final Four appearances under his belt. He’s efficient, gets to the line and plays good defense. Chris Otule and Davante Gardner will have their work cut out for them. He even made 19 3-pointers last year, and has one in 2012.
The Bulldogs’ two starting forwards, junior Khyle Marshall and sophomore Roosevelt Jones aren’t outside threats but are both scrappy on the interior and rebound well, especially Jones. Marshall is more of an offensive threat who took the second most shots on the team last year, behind only Smith.
Shooting guard Chase Stigall has failed to produce much, but the senior has been thrust into a starting role without Nored. He’s the weak link in the lineup, as he averaged just 5.2 points on 30 percent shooting as a junior. He does provide some stability on the outside (1.4 3’s per game last year).
Forwards Kameron Woods and Erick Fromm, both 6-foot-8 power forwards, provide interior depth on defense off the bench, and may see extended runs if Gardner gets hot early.
What the Bulldogs do well
— A Brad Stevens team will always lock down defensively. Butler allowed just 60.9 points per game last year, and won an astonishing six games while scoring 57 points of less. That being said, Nored was one of the country’s best defenders that led last year’s team, but with Smith in the middle and plenty of returning experience, points will be hard to come by in what should be a slow-paced game.
— A solid, experienced frontcourt has made the Bulldogs a top defensive rebounding unit. Last year Butler allowed opponents just a 28.1 defensive rebounding rate, 37th best in the country. Through two games this year, they’ve been just as good. Opponents have grabbed just eight offensive rebounds on 55 missed shots (the ninth allowed came on a missed free throw).
Where the Bulldogs can be beat
— Outside of Clarke, who is a legitimate 3-point threat, the Bulldogs have little else to show on the perimeter. Dunham has proved to be a contributor from beyond the arc in two games, but Butler shot just 27.1 percent from 3 last year, the fourth worst mark in the country. They are improved from last year, but it’s still a weak point of an altogether average offense.
— The lack of a true point guard is an issue. Butler assisted on just nine of 19 made baskets in a 47-point effort against Xavier, and 16 of 29 in its win over Elon. That 52.1 percent assist rate is 177th in the country through two games, but it’ll be even tougher against Marquette, whose guards should make life difficult initiating offense.
Three keys to the game
1. Get Clarke off the arc
Clarke has averaged 103 2-pointers per year while averaging 32.4 minutes per game over his four-year career. That’s a minuscule number, as his 6-foot frame would show. He’s going to get his 3-point attempts, but going over screens and forcing him inside where he’s not as comfortable (or as good a passer) would go a long way toward shutting down the Butler offense.
2. Find ways around Smith
The Bulldogs’ interior is their strong suit defensively, and it all starts with Smith. Gardner’s strength the past two years has been getting bigs into foul trouble, and doing so against the 6-foot-11 Smith will help. Woods and Fromm are no slouches either, so it will be interesting to see how Gardner attacks all three. It’s a must for an offense whose backcourt struggled to score through two games.
3. Find a go-to scorer this week
Two games against inferior opponents where playing time is divided equally between starters and reserves isn’t really a determinant on whether or not Marquette has found its go-to scorer. But by Wednesday, Williams should have his answer. We’ll learn a lot about the rotation going forward, and someone is going to step up into a true scoring role. It may be Gardner, as it was the first two games, or it may be someone else in the backcourt. Only time will tell.