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Game Preview: Marquette Golden Eagles

Two red-hot teams collide at the Pavilion.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Marquette Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Riding a six-game winning streak, Villanova plays back-to-back home games for the first time all year Wednesday night when they host Marquette (12-6, 4-3).

Marquette has quickly recovered from an 0-3 start in the Big East by winning four-straight games. The game can be seen on CBS Sports Network at 8 p.m. I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll be seeing our old friend Steve Lappas on the call. Let’s dive in for what else to look for.

Out with the Woj and in with the Havoc

Villanova blew out Marquette twice last season with a 17-point road win in December followed by a 32-point thrashing at the Pavilion in February. However, Marquette fired Steve Wojciechowski in March and brought in Wisconsin native Shaka Smart from Texas. Smart has completely revamped the program, both in terms of personnel and style.

All five starters from last year’s Marquette team are gone. Justin Lewis, one of the lone holdovers from the Wojo era, has been elevated from a reserve role to Marquette’s primary option offensively. The highly-recruited sophomore from Baltimore is 6-foot-7, 245 pounds and uses his size and strength to try to bully his way to the rim. Surrounding Lewis in the starting lineup are four transfers: point guard Tyler Kolek from George Mason, 6-8 wing Olivier-Maxence Prosper from Clemson, center Kur Kuath from Oklahoma, and reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Darryl Morsell from Maryland.

I grew up as a Maryland fan and still moonlight as a follower of that program. Morsell was one of my favorite players to watch there and he has really come into his own for Marquette. As happy as I am for him that he has reached his potential, I’ve been dreading Villanova’s two matchups with him ever since he announced his commitment to Marquette. Morsell is a perfect fit as the head of the snake of Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” pressure defense. He’s a fearless defender who takes every matchup personally. At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and nearly 23 years old, Morsell is going to enjoy getting his shot at neutralizing Villanova’s physical and star-studded backcourt.

Morsell partners with Lewis and Kolek as the primary initiators of the Golden Eagles’ offense. Whether in transition or in the half-court, they are intent on attacking the paint, and then looking to distribute. Neither Lewis or Kolek have been strong shooting the ball from deep, and Morsell’s current 39% is significantly better than anything he did at Maryland. They rely on players like Greg Elliott and Kam Jones to spot up and knock down perimeter jumpers. During their current four game winning streak, the Golden Eagles are shooting a scorching 43% from deep. That’s 14% better than they shot in the four game losing streak that immediately preceded it.

An interesting debate right now is who the second-best team in the Big East is. Providence is currently 2nd in the standings, Xavier is the 2nd best team in computer metrics, and UConn and Seton Hall have both looked the part at different points this season. It’s very difficult to figure out right now. But if I had to pick a Big East team with the second highest one game ceiling, it might be Marquette. As they’ve shown so far this month, when they’re knocking down jump shots, it puts points on the board but also allows them to set up their pressure defense, and they can look elite. Look no further than their 32 point win against Providence to know what they’re capable of.

A Legend Returns

Villanova will retire 2017 First Team All-American and 2016 National Champion Josh Hart’s jersey on Wednesday night. The current New Orleans Pelican from Silver Spring, Maryland was one of Nova Nation’s favorites during his time on the Main Line and continues to be a great ambassador for the program.

For this trip down memory lane, I had some tough choices on which of Hart’s highlights to include. I decided on these three:

1. Best Game - 37 Points, 10 Rebounds vs. Notre Dame, 12/10/16. An absolutely monster effort that put the country on notice that Villanova was going nowhere after the 2016 championship, and that in 2017, it wasn’t going to be as much of a group effort. The Cats had a super-duper star.

2. Best Play – Put Back And 1 to defeat Seton Hall in the 2017 Big East Semifinals. Hart willed his team to a grind out, 55-53 win to avenge their 2016 defeat to Seton Hall in the same building. A day later, Hart would capture his second Big East Tournament Championship and second Big East Tournament MVP of his career.

3. Best Moment – 2016 Tournament Highlights. While teammates Ryan Arcidacono, Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson, and Phil Booth all shot 50% or better from 3 during the tournament, Josh Hart did all the dirty work to help the Cats capture their first national title in over 30 years. Offensive rebounds, tough buckets in transition, and clutch free throws highlight this video as Hart was named First Team All NCAA Tournament.

Trying to Keep the Momentum Going

It’s been pointed out both locally and nationally that after Villanova escaped with a win at Xavier last week, that they had a golden opportunity to close out January undefeated and put some distance between themselves and the rest of the league. That hypothesis looked right on the money on Sunday as Villanova blew out Butler at home by 40. With three more home games and a short trip to Georgetown left this month, the path to a 9-0 January is there.

That being said, Marquette is just as hot and Villanova will need to continue to play well to keep their streak alive. Sunday represented the first game since December 7th that Villanova made double digit 3s, but they were strong across the board. They generated great looks at the basket off of ball movement following ball screens, and were impressive at selectively choosing opportunities to push in transition.

But the key on Wednesday will be on the defensive end. Villanova is coming off of two straight home games where they kept their opponents to 42 points or less, which is an astonishing accomplishment. They’ve been aggressive on the ball, they’ve stayed well connected through switches, and they’ve gang rebounded on the defensive glass. As mentioned above, Marquette’s ability to score has trickle down effects as it also allows them to set up their pressure defense. If Villanova can stymy Marquette’s half court offense in the way that it has other Big East opponents, it will help them on both ends of the floor.

A good comparison would be the two games against St. John’s last year, another pressing team. On the road in January, St. John’s was able to score consistently, and dictated the tempo of the game, forcing 17 turnovers in an upset win over Villanova. In the rematch, Villanova’s defense stepped up, St. John’s was ice cold, and the game was effectively over by halftime. The recipe should be the same Wednesday night*.

(*Assuming this doesn’t become a whistle-fest like the games at DePaul and Xavier)