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Villanova Basketball Game Preview: Wildcats Welcome Big East Leaders in ‘Must-Win’ Showdown

The struggling Wildcats return to the Pavilion knowing that a loss to Marquette all but eliminates them from hoisting the Big East regular season crown.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Marquette Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Villanova Wildcats have wadded into dangerous waters. Following a disappointing second half effort against Xavier, the Wildcats have now dropped three straight, a losing streak no player on the current roster has endured. On Wednesday, that losing streak could stretch to four against the Big East leading Marquette Golden Eagles. With a loss, Marquette will almost certainly wrap up a Big East title.

Marquette comes into Wednesday’s 9:00 P.M. ET showdown with a 23-4 record, 12-2 in the Big East. The Golden Eagles have won 12 of their last 13 and four straight, a mini streak that started with a narrow 66-65 victory at home against the Wildcats. During the streak, Marquette has been lights out from the floor, shooting 51.8% from the field and 42.7% from 3PT range.

Marquette Team Stats

Season PTS/G Opp PTS/G FG% 3P% FT%
Season PTS/G Opp PTS/G FG% 3P% FT%
2018-19 78.9 68.6 46.8% 39.9% 77.0%
Conference Rank 2 2 1 1 1
NCAA Rank 48 105 65 6 11

Unlike previous Marquette squads, Coach Steve Wojciechowski has put together a well-balanced team this season, one that can win games by outscoring its opponent or smothering them defensively. Offensively, the Golden Eagles are a sharp-shooting bunch, ranking 28th in efficient field goal percentage – fifth in 3PT FG% -- and capable of punishing opponents at the free throw line where they are ranked 12th in the NCAA.

On the defensive side of the ball, Marquette makes life hard on opponents by contesting 3PT shots and funneling drivers into shot blockers. The Golden Eagles rank 17th in 2PT FG% and 75th in 3PT FG% allowed, adding up to the 17th best defensive eFG% in the nation. They’re also among the nation’s best at blocking shots, swatting 4.7 per game, which ranks 55th best.

The offensive engine for Marquette is none other than National Player of the Year candidate Markus Howard. Howard is averaging 25.3 points per game while shooting 43.9% from the floor and 43.6% from three, chipping in 4.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. According to KenPom, Marquette’s junior guard is 8th in the NCAA in the percentage of the offensive possessions he uses. With those possessions, Howard is not only scoring efficiently but also creating plays for teammates and putting tremendous pressure on his opponents. Howard ranks 139th in assist rate, as well as 31st in fouls drawn per 40 minutes.

Behind Howard is a group that compliments his strengths almost perfectly. Sam and Joey Hauser are the team’s next two leading scorers, averaging 15.2 and 10.0 points per game, and each is shooting better than 40.0% from three and ranks in the top 150 in true shooting percentage.

The Hauser brothers are long and athletic, capable of defending wings and forwards, but their biggest impact comes on the offensive end. The defensive stars for the Golden Eagles are junior Sacar Anim and sophomore Theo John. John, a 6’9” forward, averages just 5.9 points but blocks 2.3 shots per game in just 20.1 minutes. His presence on the interior provides an element of rim protection that is essential for Marquette, but his inability to limit his fouls contribute to his low minute totals.

Anim, meanwhile, is an athletic and switchable swingman. Like John, he’s not being asked to do much on the offensive end besides hit threes, something he does at an impressive 39.9% rate. Anim makes his impact on defense, frequently guarding the opposition’s most challenging assignment while chipping in nearly a steal per game. Both Anim and John, and to a lesser extent the Hauser brothers, help to provide a defensive foundation for Marquette that limits Marcus Howard’s exposure and keeps him focused on his offensive strength.

Undoubtedly this is the toughest matchup remaining on the schedule for ‘Nova, but it’s a game the Wildcats can win with a complete effort. In their first meeting, Villanova had a chance to win on the road and maybe should have if it weren’t for some dodgy refereeing (I’m not still salty about this) and a botched final possession. The Wildcats held UM’s weapons in check that afternoon, limiting Sam and Joey Hauser to a combined 2-10 from the floor. Theo John, meanwhile, struggled with foul trouble and ultimately fouled out after just 16 minutes.

The ‘Cats shot extremely poorly from beyond the arc, going just 9-29, but made up for it by hitting the offensive glass, grabbing 10 extra possessions, and creating 9 steals on the defensive end while turning it over just 8 times. Without a Herculean effort from Howard, who had 38 in the game, Villanova likely would have come away with the victory.

This Wednesday, Villanova will have to recreate the defensive strategy that held Marquette to just 66 points at home. The likes of Phil Booth and Collin Gillespie will have to do what they can to slow Howard down, but if Eric Paschall, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree can shut down the Hausers and put Theo John under pressure, Marquette will once again be heavily reliant on Marcus Howard to get them a win.

Getting to the free throw line and keeping Marquette off it again (UM only made 10 trips in the first contest) will be a way for Villanova to keep the game close. Most importantly, the Wildcats will need to create extra possessions like they did in their first meeting given their offensive struggles.

Expect to see a motivated Villanova group on Wednesday in front of a electric home crowd. In what amounts to a Big East must-win, this game should come down to the wire.