When Xavier first took the floor on November 8th to face Gardner-Webb, the Big East tournament seemed a long way off, with Madison Square Garden hanging like a mirage afar off. At that point, Xavier was picked to finish seventh in their new conference and the Golden Eagles of Marquette were nationally ranked in both media polls. As the season wore on though, things began to change. Xavier stormed out of the gate, stumbled briefly, but then ripped off seven more wins in a row. Marquette staggered into Big East play looking like a shell of the team that were projected to be.
The third Big East game for each team was a meeting at the Cintas Center. Xavier took an eight point lead in the first half but, well, tell me if this sounds familiar "Xavier ended up needing a hero because Marquette did something they hadn't all year, buried outside shots. The Golden Eagles entered the game shooting 30.5% from behind the arc and proceeded to knock down 11-27 from deep. Jake Thomas served notice by making two threes in the first two minutes on his way to going 5-11 for the game."
Marquette bombed their way back into the game before eventually tying it with only five minutes to play. Thankfully, Semaj Christon took the game over, canning two straight three pointers on his own on the way to pouring in 28 points and icing the game for the Musketeers. The game ended oddly, with both teams applying a full court press in the final seconds for reasons best known to the coaches.
By the time the second game between the teams rolled around, it was Xavier that was struggling and Marquette that was trying to fight its way back into the Big East picture. Jake Thomas went 6-10 from deep, taking only one obligatory field goal that wasn't a three, and torched Xavier for 18 points. For the game, the Golden Eagles were 9-18 from deep. At that point teams were scoring 35.1% of their points against the Musketeers from behind the arc, a number that is both terribly alarming and the entire story of that game, all in one.
Justin Martin went for 20/7/1 for the Musketeers in that contest, but it wasn't enough as Xavier allowed 81 points to a team that had just lost to Butler. Davante Gardner went for 16, but it was Jake Thomas who was again the story, draining six of the ten three pointers he attempted. Xavier committed 19 turnovers and 20 fouls and just in general played a dreadful game to lose. That left both teams at 7-5 and trailing the leaders in the conference.
By season's end, Xavier had sewn up the third spot and Marquette had sputtered their way into sixth. That leaves us with these two teams that split the season series facing each other in the quarterfinals. Marquette needs a Big East tournament championship to make the big dance, while Xavier needs at least one more win. By sometime around midnight on Thursday night, someone's fate will be sealed.
- Seriously, Jake Thomas? Thomas offensive efficiency rating for the year is 109. Against Xavier he has a 138 and a 175, has scored 18 points in each game, and is shooting 52.3% from deep against the Musketeers despite shooting only 38% on the year. In short, Xavier has done a terrible job on Jake Thomas. Part of that comes down to gameplanning, Thomas has taken double digit three point attempts in only four games this year, two of those have come against the Musketeers. Coach Mack said that Thomas takes shots that he doesn't normally take when facing Xavier. That's also part of the issue, in that Thomas has taken only 35 two point attempts all year. All he ever does is shoot from deep. If Thomas gets off 10 or more threes in the flow of offense, Xavier is in deep trouble.
- Who will guard Davante Gardner? Gardner is Marquette's best player, has a higher usage rate than anyone but Deonte Burton, is relentless on the glass on both ends, gets fouled a ton and shoots 78% from the line. In short, stopping Gardner is no easy ask. With Matt Stainbrook now out, that leaves some combination of Jalen Reynolds, Isaiah Philmore, Erik Stenger, and James Farr to guard Gardner. Farr
couldn't guard me struggles defensively, so that probably rules him out. Stenger is too light to be a consistent fix, but his activity will definitely earn him some time on the big man. That leaves Philmore and Reynolds. Reynolds is still averaging eight fouls per 40 minutes and Gardner is 47th in the nation in drawing fouls. That would seem to make Philmore the only choice, but Jalen is much quicker and much longer. It's going to be a balancing act all game long.
- Who has something left in the tank? Both teams enter this game having lost their last one. Xavier played valiantly but was profligate against Nova and went down 77-70. Marquette lost in double overtime to St. John's and lost their chance at a better seed in the Big East. The Golden Eagles have to win because as soon as they lose, they head to the NIT or worse. Xavier needs to win to feel a little bit better about their tenuous stance on the bubble and give their big man Matt Stainbrook a reason to keep desperately trying to rehab his MCL injury.
Keys to the game:
- Stop Jake Thomas: That's utterly absurd to type, but it has to happen.
- Extend the packline: Davante Gardner is probably going to get his, but he's not winning this game completely on his own. If Xavier pushes out just that extra foot that they have recently and forces Marquette inside, this game becomes much more manageable.
- Get bench production: James Farr has totally vanished, Myles Davis has a .361/.360/.667 shooting line, and Brandon Randolph has managed double digit minutes just three times in the last 12 games. Jalen Reynolds is starting now, so someone from this group needs to actually do something.
- Step up the pace: Marquette is slow because their bigs like to play that way. With the exception of Isaiah Philmore, who is still far more mobile than Chris Otule, Xavier has no one to slow them down now. Only DePaul has scored more than 75 points against Marquette this year and lost.