What’s the best Marquette frontcourt combo?

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

I was effusive in the frontcourt’s praise during my midterm grades post in December. Theo has been a rock. Justin has been a revelation. Dawson has been a bucket.

Individually or collectively, I think it’s still safe to say Marquette’s frontcourt is by far this team’s biggest strength.

But in doing some light digging on Hoop-Explorer, one of the best websites you’ve probably never visited, there were a couple findings in the advanced stats that really stood out.

Justin Needs More Playing Time

Justin Lewis is usually the first player off the bench, and regularly gets “core player” minutes but he’s only topped 25 minutes 3 times in Big East play and is playing less than 60% of minutes in conference play.

Without looking at stats, I would have to say this has a lot to do with some very visible defensive lapses and extremely cold streak from 3 kind of limiting his offensive game (2-17 in Big East play).

But looking at the Hoop-Explorer stats tells us less about him individually and more about the team with him on the floor. And against top-200 teams, he’s been the best player on the team. I’m not kidding.

Lewis has been on the court for 446 possessions against top-200 teams. When he’s on, Marquette is a team-high 9.5 points better than when he’s off (adjusted for opponent strength and normalized for 100 possessions). But even on D, where he can and does struggle, Marquette has been 4.5 points better with Lewis on the court than when he’s off.

For comparison Dawson is a net -4.9 and Theo is a net -9.1. That’s not to say that they are clearly worse players, its just noting that of the 3 standout frontcourt players, Marquette has been a better team with Justin on the floor.

As is the case when we talk about +/- stats, the sample size makes a huge difference and has to be noted. Dawson has played 160 more possessions and Theo has 98 more. There isn’t a guarantee that if Justin had played an even amount of possessions, particularly against starters at all times, that his net rating wouldn’t look just like his frontcourt partners’ usually does.

But I am willing to take that chance. Of the 3, Justin has the highest ceiling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating against Theo or Dawson individually, just trying to get a more balanced allocation of minutes to see if the net rating stabilizes or if Justin indeed makes a bigger impact than the box score might indicate.

What Tandem of Bigs Has Been the Best?

With all of that in mind, I wanted to not just isolate individual +/- but see what those duos look like. And the results shocked me.

If this chart is a bit confusing, it’s simply measuring the per 100 possession stats for offense and defense, depending on whether the two players listed were both on the court (On) or not (Off), separated by offense (blue) and defense (gray). Then we add those numbers up to say how many net points better or worse Marquette is with these players on the court.

And yes, you are reading this right. Marquette’s most used frontcourt is also its least successful, by far. When Dawson and Theo are on the court together, MU is a total 12.4 points worse against top-200 teams than when they are off. Again, the high sample size and fact they are usually going against opponents top lineups factors in, but there is no denying that the results are negative.

And yet, the other two options actually add up to more possessions, so the sample size is healthy and are both in the green for net rating. The freshmen tandem in particular has been lethal, outscoring opponents by 11.1 points every 100 trips down the court.

So what does that mean going forward? The starting lineup is pretty set in stone at this time and I don’t think many (any) will argue that the team’s leading scorer and rebounder makes sense, so I would actually do something very uncomfortable and bring Theo off the bench. No, this isn’t a demotion in that Theo has been playing poorly, but rather a way to both optimize the most efficient lineups right away and preserve some of the customary fouls John has tended to pick up early in his career.

But I know this isn’t happening. Theo is the defensive rock, and no matter what numbers are saying, his presence on the court does make a difference. So the other alternative is to simply to switch up the subsitution patterns.

Right now, a combination of 2 of these 3 players has been on the floor 96.4% of available possessions with the following breakdown:
Dawson/Theo: 42.6%
Dawson/Justin: 30.9%
Justin/Theo: 23.0%

Multiplying by the Adj Net Rating of each tandem and normalizing for 100 possessions, that adds up to a -0.4 Net Rating every 100 possessions. Negatives are not good. Duh.

Without getting too deep into foul trouble of specific matchups, I’d aim to have a 33% of possessions split for each tandem:
Dawson/Theo: 33%
Dawson/Justin: 33%
Justin/Theo: 33%

Assuming the net ratings don’t change at all, the Net Rating every 100 possessions now bumps up to a positive 1.6 per 100 possessions. This isn’t a world beater by any chance, but a simple reallocation of minutes bumping you up by 2 points every 100 possessions is something that should move the needle.

Of course, basketball isn’t played on paper and these frontcourt tandems would see their efficiency change with a different set of minutes. It might not even be for the good.

But I’d at least be willing to give it a shot.

Last season, riding Bailey and Theo late in the season when the analytics were screaming that there were better options cost the team dearly, and contributed to a 1-6 finish down the stretch. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, sure, but Marquette’s computer numbers are middling and it isn’t like the current run of play is all that impressive.

Marquette should be adjusting rotations now, with the schedule opening up a bit in terms of opponent quality, rather than in February when the opponent quality ratchets back up.

(Bonus, when Dawson and Justin are playing together, it should be with McEwen at the 3 and Elliott on the floor over Cain. The D/J lineup with Cain is a +1.2 in 86 possessions while the D/J lineup with Elliott in for Cain is a +33.3 in 38 possessions.)


I believe it’s time to give Justin more minutes and play him and Dawson together more. The minute distribution should be more equitable among those 3, and the Dawson/Theo pairing minimized.

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