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Is Marquette’s defense for real?

Coming into the season, if I told you Marquette would have a top-50 defense this year, you’d punch me in the face for wasting your time. The questions being asked weren’t how good can it be, but simply, will it get better?

So to have this Marquette team sitting at 39th in Ken Pom’s Adjusted Defense rankings almost 3/4 of the way into the season is truly mind boggling. I thought this team could sneak into the top 100, but even that would require an 82-spot jump from where the 2018 squad finished. It defies what is seemingly possible over the course of a year with almost the same staff and only a few different players.

Again, I am not saying I expected, let alone predicted this was in the realm of possibility, but I was adamant that the simple subtraction of Andrew Rowsey in P&R defense would make a night and day difference defensively.

Through 604 possessions, Marquette hasn’t been elite in defending P&R by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been more than adequate. It’s currently giving up .834 PPP against the P&R (including spot up shots from passes), in the 63rd percentile for all D1 teams and 3rd in the Big East. Seeing as 29.6% of opponent’s possessions have come via P&R, you can see how a small personnel change makes a big difference.

And yet, despite ranking 2nd in BEast play for defensive efficiency, it seems like opposing coaches are not yet buying in to the improvements made under Wojo and co. this season.

I do agree that there is a hard ceiling for this defense, and that’s by design. Due to the genetic limitations of some of the players (height and athleticism, specifically), this isn’t a team that will harass you for 90+ feet and can turn you over on a whim. So Wojo has decided to trade steals for positioning, decreasing the gambles taken but contesting more shots. Marquette currently ranks 292nd in Steal %, but 21st in eFG%. There are more factors than just saying don’t steal the ball involved in getting to both numbers, but it’s clear what the gameplan defensively has been all season.

So I can definitely see the first sentence being acceptable, if not a tad disingenuous. The rest seems to me to be a lot of projection, rather than fact-based analysis.

Using Synergy individual defensive data, which has plenty of caveats and asterisks on its own, we can get a pretty decent comparison at a macro level, of how effective any particular player has been. And it turns out Markus Howard and Sam Hauser, the focus of most of that coach’s comments, have been pretty decent. Great even.

In fact, of the Big East players who have logged 200 individual defensive possessions, Sam ranks first and Markus second. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they are the top-2 defenders in the Big East, they aren’t even the top 2 defenders on their team. I believe Sacar Anim and Theo John are clearly superior defenders and are just tasked with more difficult assignments (Anim the opponent’s top player and John anyone within 12 feet of the rim). I am not letting cherry-picked data blindly contradict what I have seen.

However, I do think the overall sentiment expressed by that anonymous coach is widespread, and I also think the data shows it is wildly inaccurate. If opposing teams wanted to key in on Sam and Markus each game, they would have no trouble doing so. Each has played 85% of minutes in conference play and there is almost always one of them on the court in non-blowout situations.

And teams have attacked them, as both have faced more defensive possessions than anyone else on Marquette and are in the top-10 in the Big East. But with such a large sample, it’s hard to say the results back up the strategy. If 40% of your team is such a defensive liability, you probably shouldn’t have the 2nd best defense in the Big East.

Instead, this particular coach, and some national writers, have let a few particularly poor performances dominate their thought process. I think this is particularly true of Markus Howard. He came in to the year with the reputation of being a lousy defender with poor measurables, and seeing as he didn’t hit a post-pubescent growth spurt, remained much the same height as previous years.

But he is most definitely not that player. Here are Howard’s year by year defensive metrics, per Synergy

PPP Poss %ile
2019 0.697 218 88%
2018 0.912 238 35%
2017 1 177 13%

He is not just no longer a liability, he’s a legitimate asset. I think this portion of his growth has been completely overshadowed by the historic numbers he’s been putting up offensively. Like these:

But overall, he has a great understanding of how the possession is unfolding and where he should be, when he’s off the ball. When he’s on the ball, he does a great job moving laterally and hasn’t been a revolving door allowing penetration at will.

That is not to say that in late game situations, he can be relied on to lock down an opponent and get the stop. It was his poor timing that resulted in Phil Booth having an opening to drive on the final possession of the Villanova. But over the course of the game, having Markus out there defensively is not hurting the team. He is part of a well conditioned defensive front that knows where its strength lies.

Capture.JPG

As the shooting data from TRank shows, Marquette is holding teams to the lowest percentages in the last 4 years for dunks, shots at the rim and threes. That can’t be solely attributed to any one player, but it does show that this is not the defense we have seen in the recent past.

It may not reach elite status this season, but with the offensive weapons at its disposal, it may not have to be for Marquette to make a run deep into March.

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