Notes on a season-defining win over Xavier

The season is faaaaar from over, so I would agree with you if you think that labeling any win to date a “season-defining” win is way too premature. But the way Marquette beat Xavier on Wednesday night embodies what makes this team different than any we’ve seen the last decade in Milwaukee.

If you told me before the game Marquette would only score 69 points against a poor defensive team missing a starter and two bench pieces while getting a combined 4/21 shooting from Kam and OMax, I would have asked if we kept the loss to single digits. Luckily for me, that simple framework takes away about 45% of what makes this team special.

Abysmal Shooting

Let’s start with the bad. At 1.01 points per possession against a mediocre to bad defense, it translated into the 2nd worst offensive performance in Big East play for Marquette, adjusted for opponent quality, behind only the Butler game. Here’s a nice visual representation from TRank:

And why was the offense so bad? It simply could not hit any shots. Per Synergy, Marquette went 1/7 on unguarded spot up 3s, a .429 PPP when Marquette has averaged 1.18 PPP this season. Not changing anything and just having MU shoot its average on those 7 unguarded spot ups would have given Marquette an additional 5 points last night. So even though X played some good interior defense, those open misses were killers for MU.

And of course, MU missed lots of other types of shots as well. Look at that screenshot again and find the one red cell on the column furthest right.

Marquette is an elite eFG% team, ranking in the top-5 on KenPom for over a month now. It had its worst game of the season last night by this measure, with an eFG% of only 41.9%, 14.8 points below its AVERAGE and worst in Big East play by 6.6 points. Set aside everything else, when you shoot that poorly, it’s almost unheard of to come away with a W.

And there are stats for that.

Since 2008, per TRank, Marquette had only won 6 out of 27 Big East games when being held to an eFG% under 42. It’s just so rare to be that inefficient from the field and still come out on top. Make that 7-28 now (Shaka 1-1, Wojo 2-8, Buzz 3-14, Crean 1-3).

Usually, a team is able to overcome those shooting woes by forcing opponents into missing everything as well. That was definitely not the case last night. Xavier finished with an eFG% of 59.8%, which is not only ridiculously good, it’s the 2nd best mark an opponent has put up against MU in Big East play. Going back to the other 34 games we referenced, Marquette had gone 0-19 in games where it had an eFG% below 42% and opponents were above 45%.

This isn’t even a case of cherrypicking limits to make the record look crazier. The 17.9 percentage point gap between Marquette and Xavier is just so huge it makes it difficult to comprehend. Here are the scores of the previous times the eFG% gap was over 15% against Marquette in these games.

L 86-79
L 76-59
L 58-51
L 71-57
L 70-51
L 74-59
L 71-51

To reiterate once more, it isn’t just that recent Marquette teams don’t win with these kinds of splits, there have been 121 games in Big East history (since 2008) where a team posts an eFG% under 42% while its opponent puts up an eFG% of 57% or better. Before last night, the teams with the low mark were 0-120.

Those teams are now 1-120. We saw Big East history last night.

Grit and Grind

So now the question becomes, how in the world did Marquette win that game?

Choose your favored coaching cliche and it probably applies. Tenacity? Sure. Hunger? Definitely. Resiliency? You betcha.

But outside of the effort quotient, it won thanks to turnovers and rebounding.

We’ll start with turnovers because that is an area where Marquette has excelled this season, pressuring teams into sloppy giveaways. It’s not just that MU has been very good at this, it has been the best at it since the Big East reformation this season in conference play.

In that regard it wasn’t exactly a shock to see that Xavier coughed it up 17 times in 68 possessions, a 24.9% TO rate that was Xavier’s 2nd highest this season. Those 17 turnovers resulted in 21 points, almost a third of Marquette’s total

But it wasn’t just the volume of turnovers, it was the timing as well. Down 3 and without the ball, KenPom had Marquette’s win probability at 14.6% when this screenshot below is taken. It wasn’t simply that Xavier gave the ball up (thought there was some of that) Marquette’s trapping and pressure put a fatigued team in spots like the one below and forced the issue.

But simply forcing turnovers wasn’t the reason Marquette was able to overcome such a disparity in eFG rates. The offensive glass, something this team is not really known for, proved to be the tipping point, both literally and figuratively.

Marquette grabbed 15 rebounds on its 43 misses, a whopping 34.9% of them, the 3rd highest rate in Big East play. The 15 total were also the most Marquette has had in a game this season, so it was both a volume and rate stat. And those 15 boards resulted in 15 points.

In the postgame, Shaka said point blank the only reason this was close was because of the work on the glass, and he’s spot on. When the shots weren’t falling, it was Marquette’s grit and grind that kept them in it.

Stevie Mitchell

And those qualities were so perfectly embodied by Stevie Mitchell all night. The 17 points were all necessary, particularly on a cold shooting night from basically everyone else, but it was the non-scoring aspects that once again deserve so much praise for the do-it-all 5th man in the lineup.

His 6 steals were tied for 2nd most in a game since 2011 by a Marquette player and there were plenty of possessions where we was able to get a hand on the ball without getting the full steal. He was matched on Souley Boum most of the night, and though Boum had a fantastic night, Stevie personally picked his pocket 4 separate times, including a crucial one with under 40 seconds to go.

Of course, Stevie wasn’t just a pest defensively, he also corralled a career high 3 offensive rebounds on the night, keeping a few others alive as well.

I think former Marquette player Joe Chapman summarized it best.

Overcoming Adversity

Did I mention Marquette could barely hit shots? No one had a tougher night from the field than Kam Jones who only made 2 of his 14 shots and joined a small club of Marquette players to have that many misses coupled with so few makes.

Kam was historically poor shooting and still impressed me down to the last second. Why?

Despite being 2-13 at the time he still had the confidence to take that final shot. Imagine being 1-13 and having the balls to want the shot, the brain to attack the paint and the ability to cross over a dude full speed. The result was a miss, of course, but his on the fly creation opened a lane for OMax to crash through.

I love this view from the corner because you can see the was Kam’s speed and agility going right disrupts the entire defensive shell, forcing Nunge to collapse.

Which brings up OMax himself. He couldn’t get anything to fall on the night but still had the tenacity to crash the boards and get the ball in the hoop no matter the cost.

When Shaka and the team talk about culture and togetherness, it’s easy to gloss over as coach speak that every program has. But performances like last night’s are the embodiment of it. OMax kept attacking the glass all night, kept giving max effort, kept getting to the line. He didn’t let the results impact his effort, and the team has the inside draw to a Big East championship because of it.


Now watch that clip again and revel in the noise.

The announced attendance for last night was 16,041, officially a weeknight record for MU at Fiserv. In the 4 years its been open, only 2 other games have even cracked 15K on a weeknight, Purdue in the 2020 season and Connecticut earlier this year. The athletics staff deserves a lot of credit for that, it doesn’t just happen on its own.

But so do the fans. This wasn’t just a lot of people in a small space sitting and watching together. They had a tangible influence on the game.

With Marquette down 19-6 and having just completed 5 consecutive empty possession, listen to the crowd here.

This isn’t standard fare. The fans realized the team needed additional support and instead of getting antsy, or worse, silent, got up and got loud, coaxing the team to play up to its ability. I’m not going to say the crowd gets the credit for Marquette going on an 18-7 run the next 7 minutes to get back in the game, but Shaka mentioned in the postgame that the fans were able to give his team additional support when they needed it most.

Only a handful of programs across the country can muster 16K+ on a weeknight, and most of them are not in a pro market like MU is with the Bucks.

The program is special.

The fans are special.

And this team proved that it is special on a night it had no business winning.

It’s not the end of the journey, but when we look back on it in a few months and again in a few years, it will be this night that helped define the season.

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Categories: Analysis


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