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Analyzing Marquette in late-game situations

Marquette's defense has struggled in late-game situations. (USA Today)

Marquette’s defense has struggled in late-game situations. (USA Today)

Marquette has played some of the best defense in the country this season. Ken Pom ranks the Golden Eagles as the 42nd most efficient defensive group, their 0.785 PPP-against entering Thursday ranked in the 92nd percentile nationally and opponents are making just 42 percent of their 2-pointers, the 20th best mark in the nation. Thanks to Jamil Wilson, Chris Otule and Derrick Wilson, Marquette’s stifling man-to-man defense (which they’ve played nearly 93 percent of the time) is among the country’s best.

Until crunch time, apparently.

Marquette has played seven games this season where the score was within six points in the final six minutes of regulation. The Golden Eagles are 2-5 in those matchups (wins: New Hampshire, DePaul; losses: Arizona State, San Diego State, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Xavier), most recently falling to the Musketeers, 86-79, Thursday night after trailing by one, 68-64, with 5:47 to play before a Jamil Wilson 3-pointer.

The Musketeers, behind the ridiculous shooting of guard Semaj Christon, went 3-for-5 in the final six minutes, and made 10 of 14 free throws down the stretch to finish with 18 points in their final 13 possessions. That topped the Marquette offense, which shot 6-for-13 and scored 15 points on those same 13 trips.

And numbers such as those have been a trend with the Golden Eagles this season. In five of seven “close games,” Marquette has allowed more points per possession than it has scored. That may not mean much, considering they were losing in those five games so free throws down the stretch increased its opponents’ PPP, but field goal percentage defense tells the same, and more accurate, story.

In those seven games, opponents are shooting 21-for-39 (53.8 percent) in the final six minutes. They’ve defended as well as 2-for-8 at Arizona State (though Marquette’s own offensive struggles resulted in a loss) and as poor as 5-for-7 against New Mexico, when the Lobos outscored the Golden Eagles 16-8 to end the game.

Here’s a table that shows Marquette’s defense when the score is within six points inside six minutes (Note: Not every game includes six minutes worth of data; numbers are only compiled from when the score was within six points to the rest of the game):

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 3.59.28 AM

Consider that 21-for-39 mark, and that in all other instances opponents are shooting just 37.9 percent. The defense has been good, without question, but down the stretch in close games the defense is failing Buzz Williams. At the beginning of the project I considered taking points per possession into the equation. That seems somewhat unfair since by the time Marquette was trailing and the game came down solely to free throws, points per possession increase in a huge way.

Still, if you’d like to consider Marquette trailing as its own fault, that 1.3 points per possession-against is a problem. Again, in all other instances the Golden Eagles are allowing 0.819 PPP-against. These late-game struggles have been the main reason for Marquette’s losses in close games, especially with an offense that has been average to date.

But what about that other end of the floor?

In those same situations, the Golden Eagles are shooting 23-for-52 (44.2 percent). They’ve been as good as the loss to Wisconsin, when they scored 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting in the final eight possessions of the game. They’ve been as bad as Arizona State, where they shot 3-for-12 in their final nine possessions, scoring just six points — against DePaul they also scored a remarkable 20 points in the final 11 possessions of the game while shooting 4 of 5 with a pair of three-point plays, a Todd Mayo 3-pointer, a Davante Gardner layup and made 9 of 12 free throws to ice the game.

Here’s how the Marquette offense has fared in close games down the stretch:

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 4.14.42 AM

That 44.2 percent from the field is solid, but it’s slightly below the 45.6 percent they’re shooting in all other scenarios. They have been solid from beyond the arc thanks to Jamil Wilson, Jake Thomas and even Davante Gardner (against Wisconsin), but they’ve also made just 20 of 30 free throws. That 66.7 percent is the exact same mark they’re shooting in all other instances (234-for-351), which has been a below-average mark.

So the offense is performing similar down the stretch as they are any time else — the 1.17 points per possession is better than its 0.931 PPP in other situations, but again, free throws at the end of games help that. What about individually? One of Marquette’s supposed biggest problems is lacking a go-to player in crunch time. Let’s see if that holds true (Note: The possessions are greater than Marquette’s 65 because of offensive rebounds, when multiple players tallied possessions):

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 4.32.57 AM

(Note: John Dawson missed a last-second 3-pointer against Xavier with the deficit at seven, so he wasn’t included in the graphic. Jajuan Johnson was 0-for-1, but admittedly I missed him in the analysis and don’t want to re-do all the numbers.)

There’s lots to digest here. First off, Jamil Wilson is clearly Marquette’s go-to guy. Whether he’s done it well is up for debate, but he’s still the player Williams goes to in a pinch. He was 1-for-2 with a 3-pointer against Xavier before fouling out. His 26 possessions are double that of Gardner’s, and his 1.0 points per possession are solid. He scored eight points on 3-for-5 shooting late against Wisconsin and made all five of his free throws late in a win over DePaul, though four came with the game out of reach.

Gardner, as usual, is a force. It’s not as easy to get him the ball late, but when he does down the stretch is generates positives more times than not. Thomas’ eight attempts all came from beyond the arc, and his low percentage is more the product of him having to force shots late than anything else. Mayo has done well getting to the line, reaffirming our constant writing that he’s better off staying aggressive.

So there you have it. The defense must improve down the stretch, and 16 games combined with years of watching Williams’ teams play have shown that Marquette will be in close games down the stretch. The defense must improve in those instances, and Gardner must continue getting the ball. Jamil Wilson’s numbers aren’t poor — despite the field goal percentage — and it’s clear he’ll have the ball in his hands late.

It’s time for Marquette to step up in the clutch.

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