The Bullish 2022-’23 Marquette Preview

Last month, I went heavy on the sour for what pitfalls may await Marquette’s 2023 season. But it was intentionally dour. 

So for this preview, I’m chugging the whole blue and gold keg to make the case why Marquette is being wildly underrated both locally and nationally, and will not only contend for an NCAA Tournament bid once more, but improve upon last season’s results. 

Defensive Improvement

It all starts with defense.

Despite making a 28-spot jump in the KenPom defensive rankings, from 83 in 2021 to 55 in 2022, Marquette’s defense wasn’t what drove the overperformance on the whole last season. But it did drive the dream-like January run.   

Looking at the Bart Torvik’s month by month splits for adjusted Offensive and Defensive ratings, it’s super easy to find the anomaly.

Chart, scatter chart

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While February’s offense was actually better than January’s, the defense fell off a cliff, and so did the results. Why am I bringing up this painful memory on what is supposed to be a blue and gold colored preview? There is so much more room for improvement on that side of the court.

In fact, looking at Shaka’s trajectory, we should not just hope for improvement, but nearly expect it. 

In his first 13 seasons as a head coach across VCU, Texas and Marquette, Shaka Smart has coached 11 top-40 defensive teams, per KenPom’s rankings. The only 3 that didn’t hit that threshold? The first 2 seasons at VCU and last year with MU. In fact, during that 10-year streak of top-40 defenses, the average rank was 24.5. This wasn’t just skimming the top-40 and me cherry picking data. 

A 10-year run across two very different schools in very different conferences is more than just players or program, it is significantly about the coach himself. And although Marquette finished outside the top-40, the best rated defense since 2013 was done with a group that had played almost no time together and had only a brief summer to learn the violent concepts. 

Let me repeat myself, the defense in 2022, which I have just described as being significantly below Shaka’s average level, posted the best KenPom defensive rating (96.2) since Marquette last won an NCAA Tournament game in 2013. 

This matters in projections like KenPom’s because he isn’t factoring in for coaching changes in his preseason algorithm, rather taking a look at the program’s historic performance. So even though his projection put Marquette as only the 71st ranked D, it is using a lot of historic Wojo data, not Shaka-specific data. 

If you aren’t swayed by coaching trajectories, can I interest you in a core that only allowed 84.9 points per 100 adjusted possessions against top-100 teams in 180 trips down the floor? A number that would have rated as the best defense in the country?

Per Hoop-Explorer, when Oso Ighodaro, OMax Prosper and Tyler Kolek, which look to be the spine of the upcoming season, were on the court together against top-100 teams, Marquette’s defense was 11.8 points better (per 100 possessions) than when they weren’t on the court together. These 3 were the best defenders at their position, and an increase in time spent together will bolster the defensive end of the court. 

Add in the versatility of Zach Wrightsil, a bulldog in Stevie Mitchell, and a flash of a defender in Sean Jones (per Shaka’s own words) and you have the makeup of a suffocating defense that will be able to switch just about everything and should be much more disruptive than at any point last season.

And having focused a few thousand words on the disappointment that was the transition defense last year, this is also a good place to note the team’s makeup should yield much better results in that aspect.  

(And while we’re on the kool-aid, though I do not have a good explanation for it, Marquette’s defense was actually better with Darryl Morsell off the court than when he was on, by a not insignificant 6.1 points in 369 possessions. That isn’t to say that he was a bad defender, there are a host of causes and correlations, just simply pointing out that unlike with Justin Lewis, losing Darryl doesn’t seem to be a huge detriment this season. Numbers lie and on/off stats don’t tell the whole story, but…) 

Volume vs Efficiency

Of course, having the best defense in the world is only as helpful so long as you can outscore the opposition, and as we detailed at length, a tremendous amount of shooting (and scoring) volume walked out the door with Lewis and Morsell. Specifically, The Almanac, a full D1 preview guide from The Field of 68 specifically noted that no returning player averaged over 8 points a game. 

But what if I told you that coming into last season, almost every prognostication (including my own) had Marquette’s offensive load lost as a key indicator why expectations should be, and stay low.  

Marquette had lost basically a whole roster, but two of its most prominent pieces, Dawson Garcia and DJ Carton, had combined to score 26 points in 60.8 minutes per game. Both had usage over 21 percent and were on the floor over 70% of Marquette’s available minutes. By any measure, they were incredible losses that would be very difficult to replace.

Now check out what Lewis and Morsell are taking with them. 30.2 points in 62 minutes a game, a slightly higher number that’s skewed a bit by the additional 3.5 possessions played each game in Shaka’s faster pace. Both had minutes played percentages in the 70s with usage in the mid 20s. Sounds very familiar.

And the big thing I think all pundits are missing, it’s not like Lewis and Morsell were proven scorers. Neither had cracked an ORtg of 97 the year prior, hadn’t averaged double figures in scoring, and in Lewis’ case, didn’t even play 22 minutes a game. Neither were on any national top-100 player lists and didn’t merit a mention in the Big East’s All-Preseason teams. It was nowhere near obvious that these two would or could step up to be volume scorers.

Now add in the fact that despite robust production volume, neither was tremendously efficient, and you start to wonder if the offense won’t be quite the hole to fill as we initially thought. This isn’t to downplay their production. Lewis had an NBA caliber year and Morsell proved he could be more than a defensive stopper, but with ORatings of 101.9 and 97.7, the slightly above or below average efficiency numbers are not Markus-like irreplaceable figures.

We’ve heard whispers about David Joplin bursting out against Missouri in secret, while seeing a bit of Kam Jones time in practices and scrimmages, but as Nevada Smith told us and Shaka has reiterated, it will be a much more balanced approach. So if those 7 to 10 excess possessions get split up evenly between Kolek, Oso, OMax, Kam, Stevie and whoever else steps up, you won’t necessarily need a breakout star to get the offense to the levels it performed at last year.

Kam Jones Time

I’ve already gone deep on Kam. But his time is nearly here. You’ve been warned.

Rebounding No Matta

This isn’t exactly true and I’ll be the first one yelling at my TV and on Twitter when we can’t grab an defensive board, but looking at the past two seasons of Ken Pom data, the R^2 of KenPom’s Opponent’s Offensive Rebounding % with Adjusted Defensive Efficiency is 0.1142 (with correlation near 1 implying more causation). That tells us there isn’t an inherent cause an effect present here. Better defensive teams aren’t always (or usually) the best DReb% teams. Better DReb% teams aren’t always (or usually) the best defensive teams.

If we focus just on Shakas’ career, since we’ve gone on at length about the 10-year run of top-40 defenses, Shaka’s teams didn’t finish in the top half of the country for DReb% twice, and neither were in the top 140. In fact in 2020 when Texas was 24th on D, its DReb% ranked 330th.

All of this is to say, even chugging all this kool-aid, I’m not going to say this team will be a good rebounding team, but even being a poor one, the defensive parts should still be there to force misses off of 2nd chances and not impact the defensive efficiency more than a bit.


It’s fine to not be bought in on this team. I’m personally lower than most.

The national consensus seems to be settling around mid 60s, so just outside the bubble.

It won’t take much offensive improvement to marry the defensive gains and prove to the nation Shaka’s first season wasn’t a fluke.

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