Marquette picked up its first Big East win of the year in a 66-56 win over DePaul, and tonight they look to win a second straight game for the first time in three weeks when they take on Xavier in Cincinnati.
The Musketeers have won seven straight after dropping three straight in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend. That win streak has included wins over Cincinnati, Alabama, St. John’s and Butler, the last two of which have them atop the Big East standings at 2-0.
With the Golden Eagles’ uninspiring non-conference results, tonight’s game looms large as one of the handful they’ll need come Selection Sunday. RPI Forecast has the Musketeers ranked 36th, and they’re likely to finish in the top-50 by season’s end. A road, conference and quality win is at stake, and it’s up to Buzz Williams’ group to get it done as four-point underdogs.
For starters, they’ll need to get past Semaj Christon, the ultra-talented sophomore guard who may give Doug McDermott a run for his money at conference player of the year. Through 15 games, Christon is averaging 14.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists in better than 33 minutes per game. He’s got some range and makes his mark as a penetrator and one who gets to the line — his 105 free throws are tied for 51st in the country.
Junior center Matt Stainbrook, an Ohio native and Western Michigan transfer, is producing almost identically as he was as a sophomore on the offensive end, but his rebounds and blocks are both up. He’s shooting 55 percent on nearly nine attempts per game, averaging a higher percentage of shots on the court than even Christon. Marquette has struggled with bigs this season, and Stainbrook will prove another challenge.
On the perimeter, freshman Myles Davis (cue it!) has made 28 3-pointers at a 43 percent clip. After sitting out last season for academic reasons while at Notre Dame Prep, Davis has come on strong in his first season. He has struggled of late, shooting 2-for-12 with zero 3-pointers in his last three games, but has the ability to go off from deep — he has three or more 3-pointers in four games.
Wing Justin Martin and forward Isaiah Philmore are other significant contributors. Martin is shooting just 39 percent this season, while Philmore is the team’s third leading rebounder shooting 50 percent from the field. James Farr is averaging 5.7 rebounds in just 15.7 minutes, while junior Dee Davis has been consistent at the point, averaging 4.0 assists per game.
WHAT THE MUSKETEERS DO WELL
— Seven players average at least seven points, giving the Musketeers multiple options at any given time. Christon leads the charge, with Stainbrook and Philmore providing an inside presence. Christon most recently went for 20 points and eight assists in a win over Butler, and his star power allows the team a go-to scorer down the stretch. It will be interesting to see who gets the first shot at guarding Christon. Just know that there’s other options out there who can hurt Marquette.
— Xavier’s defensive efficiency ranks 30th in the country, and the Musketeers have allowed 70 or more points just four times, and one of those came in overtime. When they’re playing their brand of basketball, it’s tough to beat them. Christon, Stainbrook and Dee Davis are all plus defenders looking to shut down Marquette’s offense.
— Opponents are shooting 61.3 percent at the free throw line, the third best defense in the country. Yes, that’s true. Yes, that was a joke. Let’s move on.
WHERE THE MUSKETEERS STRUGGLE
— Chris Mack’s group is taking care of the ball thus far in Big East play, but on the year their 18.9 percent turnover rate is middle of the pack in the country. Dee Davis’ assists are nice, but he’s also averaging 2.2 turnovers per game. While playing at a slower pace to the national average, the Musketeers still commit 13 turnovers per game. Marquette may be able to get the tempo going with some steals.
THREE KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Relax on the road
In Marquette’s last road contest, Creighton, the Golden Eagles were down 21-9 midway through the first half. New Mexico led 9-2 and the Golden Eagles made two of their first seven shots against Wisconsin. Simply put, Marquette needs to get off to better starts away from the Bradley Center. This mean touches inside to Chris Otule, finding Jamil Wilson at the free throw line and getting Jake Thomas open looks. If it doesn’t happen, Xavier may run away with this one, given its stout defense.
2. Stay efficient, Mr. Mayo
We detailed earlier in the week how Todd Mayo has been far more efficient in his last six games back from suspension than his first seven game. Now he’ll need to keep that up in a matchup that figures to be low on possessions. If he’s able to knock down a few early shots, it could go a long way toward the bench providing a little something extra in the point department. As always, they’ll need it tonight.
3. Show of that defense
The offense has overshadowed it some, but Marquette’s defense has been extraordinary in 2013-14. They rank 20th in efficiency, per Ken Pom, they slowed down Creighton and, aside from some hot shooting early by DePaul, limited the Blue Demons entirely. Xavier isn’t stellar on offense, but they’ve got real players in Christon and Stainbrook. In a tough road environment, another great defensive performance (and win) could be a statement to the rest of the Big East.