The good: Justin Moore is back.
The bad: After a tough loss to Providence, it doesn’t get any easier for the Villanova Wildcats. Their grueling February slate begins with a midwest road trip and their first stop is at Marquette.
Villanova heads to Milwaukee with a 10-11 record and a 4-6 mark in Big East play.
The Golden Eagles are riding with a three-game winning streak. They’re 17-5 overall and 9-2 in Big East play, which puts them in a three-way tie along with Xavier and Providence atop the conference standings entering Tuesday.
It’ll be both team’s first look at each other. Last season, the Golden Eagles swept the regular season series. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Odds will be available via DraftKings.
When Villanova got swept by the Golden Eagles last season, it came when Marquette was playing its best basketball, a red-hot January surge that spilled into the early days of February, before the Golden Eagles sputtered out of control down the stretch and lost five of their last nine games, never enjoying back-to-back wins again.
Their Big East Tournament came to an abrupt halt by a Creighton team that finished as runner-up, then they were chased off the court in the NCAA Tournament opening round in what eventually was an amazing run to the finals by eight-seed North Carolina.
This season, despite being tabbed seventh in the preseason Big East coaches’ poll, not only have the Golden Eagles proved people wrong, but they’ve also found greater consistency. They haven’t been completely immune to the chaos, but they haven’t lost back-to-back games and they cracked the AP top 15 for the first time since 2019.
Unlike that 2018-19 season though, the Golden Eagles hope for a much better ending. That year, they choked away a Big East regular season title, lost four straight to end the regular season, got eliminated by Seton Hall in a crazy Big East Tournament semifinal, then got obliterated by Murray State and a Ja Morant triple-double effort.
While Shaka Smart is best known for his defensive schematics, it’s the Golden Eagle offense that’s been most impressive. Marquette ranks No. 1 in the country in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, while still remaining a defensive stalwart at No. 68 in defensive efficiency.
Strength in numbers
It’s hard to pinpoint one single catalyst for the Golden Eagles’ success, because they have a balanced lineup, which coincides with all of their key players taking massive leaps in Smart’s second year at Marquette.
Kam Jones went from a role player that mostly played off the bench to exploding as Marquette’s leading scorer, doubling his output in scoring (16.0 points per game), rebounding (3.5 boards per game) and generating steals (1.6 per game), all while shooting an improved 49.1% overall and a respectable 37.1% from deep.
Lengthy forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper won’t be sneaking up on anyone now. He’s also doubled his scoring output, chipping in 14.0 points per game, with 4.8 rebounds. He’s mostly an interior scorer and is pretty efficient (55.2% overall), but can take-and-make the three when left open, developing more confidence at the perimeter, where he’s knocking them down at a 35.4% rate.
Oso Ighodaro is another player that’s relished in a much bigger role, averaging 12.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.1 steals per game, all of which are nearly doubled from last season. He’s a bit of a liability at the free throw line, but he’s efficient inside, knocking down his shots at a 68.2% clip. Ighodaro has improved his playmaking from the post and has become a more well-rounded player this season.
Tyler Kolek’s evolution as a playmaker and scorer has also been big. While he was a solid facilitator last season, he’s stepped it up even higher, and can now contribute on the scoring end too. Kolek is coming off of a near triple-double performance against DePaul, where he tallied 24 points, nine boards and 10 assists, with three steals. This season, he’s averaging 10.8 points, 4.3 boards, and 8.0 assists — which is the third-highest assisting average in the country.
Philadelphia native Stevie Mitchell rounds out the starting five, and while he isn’t a big scorer, he’s solid defensively and can chip in baskets from time-to-time. Although he’s struggled from deep, he can score inside the arc. He scored 19 points on Villanova last season, so the ‘Cats won’t take him lightly.
Last and definitely not least, watch out for David Joplin, who went from scouting report afterthought and someone low on the depth chart, to becoming one of the Golden Eagles’ go-to guys off the bench. After averaging just 2.8 points over 6.9 minutes per game last season, he’s now contributing 10.5 points per game and plays nearly 20 minutes a night. He’s also emerged as one of Marquette’s top three-point scoring threats, shooting 41.5% from beyond the arc.
The new-look ‘Cats
The return of Justin Moore has certainly changed the dynamic of the team and as he readjusts himself to the full speed of game day, Villanova hopes it’ll start leading to more wins too.
This game is going to take much more than Justin Moore though. It’ll have to be all hands on deck. The Wildcats will be pushed the hardest they have been on the defensive side of the ball, an area that hasn’t been the sharpest this season. There are plenty of weapons to cover and with a playmaker like Kolek, there won’t be time to take plays off or have any mental lapses off-ball.
Marquette’s top-ranked offense is backed up by the best two-point shooting team in the country, converting at a 61.0% mark inside the arc. They also have the second highest effective field goal percentage in the country at 57.8%. The Golden Eagles have also cut down on turnovers from last season, boasting the 24th-lowest turnover rate in the country at 15.7%. As dangerous as Marquette is inside, the Golden Eagles are dangerous enough from the perimeter that teams cannot simply pack it in.
The ‘Cats will have to try to dictate the pace and not get frazzled on the road, an aspect where hopefully Moore can help relieve now that he’s back on the court. Marquette still generates turnovers at a high rate, so ball security will be vital and the ‘Cats can’t afford to give up free possessions.
The Golden Eagles aren’t perfect though. They’re one of the worst rebounding teams on both sides of the ball, and it’s likely to get out and get set in transition to maintain their faster pace of play. Villanova did a good job of not getting manhandled on the glass by a great rebounding Providence team, going toe-to-toe with them on the glass.
Second-chance opportunities can be an area to capitalize on, assertiveness will go a long way. Winning the offensive glass was one of the reasons why Xavier was able to beat Marquette, 80-76, on Jan. 15. The Musketeers racked up 17 offensive rebounds in that win. Providence posted similar numbers in its double-overtime win against Marquette in late December.
Also, Havoc is mostly predicated on being disruptive and pressuring the opponent into mistakes and turnovers. While this Marquette team is all-around better than last season, its defensive shooting percentages allowed are all worse than last season. Marquette allows opponents to post a collective 50.9 effective field goal percentage, which ranks 201st in the country. Teams are shooting 50.7% inside the arc against them (209th) and 34.1% from deep (188th).