Xavier, Providence, and Marquette sit fairly clear at the top of the Big East table about a third of the way through the season. They’ve played a combined total of 19 games and won 18 of them; only the matchup between Marquette and Providence - which went into two overtimes - necessarily marred the otherwise unblemished record of the top three.
Xavier comes into this game on a ten-game winning streak, having not lost since falling to Gonzaga on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. They’ve used a high-octane offense to plow through whatever opponent is in their path, ranking in the top ten in the nation in both offensive efficiency and tempo in that time. There is no hotter team in the country.
If Marquette is behind Xavier, it’s only by half a step. They’ve lost four times all season; at the end of regulation in those games, they trailed by 5, 3, 0, and 0. The only game in which they were down by multiple possessions was at Purdue, where the Boilermakers dropped a 17-2 run after the U8 in the second half and still had to hold off a spirited charge from Marquette. This team, I regret to inform you, is really good.
Someone is going to snag a landmark win in this game. Both teams are looking to solidify their claim as a top contender in the league. Preseason favorite UConn lurks a couple of games back for whomever stumbles.
Marquette is the most efficient offense in the league and second only to Purdue in the nation. They shoot 60% from inside the arc, which is easily first nationally and in the Big East. They shoot 66% at the rim, a number eclipsed by fewer than a dozen high-majors. It’s a mistake to think that this is all down to getting out and shooting uncontested shots off of transition; they actually get a lower percentage of their shots in transition than Xavier does, with both teams lingering just inside the top 100. That’s not to say they don’t get out and run; they’re 13th in the country in offensive pace. They are elite in ball security and have become less frequent but more efficient three-point shooters in league play, making about 37% of their attempts from deep as a team. They don’t rebound or get to the line, though they don’t really need to.
Their defense is solid but not spectacular. What they do at an elite level is force turnovers. They’re 38th in the nation and 1st in the Big East in that department. Despite that focus, they had done very well in non-conference play in keeping teams off the line, but it has become a bit of an issue in league play. They are 9th in the league in defensive EFG% and 11th in DReb%. Forcing a turnover is their defensive plan A; plan B seems to be conceding and trusting the offense to make up for it. They’re not dissimilar to Xavier in that regard.
|Tyler Kolek||Point Guard||Souley Boum|
|6'3", 190||Measurements||6'3", 175|
|This is a really good matchup between two disparate takes on the modern point guard position. Boum scores a lot from all over and sets his teammates up by making opponents respect his threat. Kolek doesn't score as much, but he has an uncanny ability to distribute the ball at an unbelievably high level. Kolek gets into the passing lanes pretty well while Boum has a little traffic cone in him, but both of them are the straws that stir their team's respective drinks. I'm interested to watch this one develop.|
|Stevie Mitchell||Shooting Guard||Adam Kunkel|
|6'2", 195||Measurements||6'4", 185|
|Mitchell knows his role on the offensive end for Marquette. He takes the shots that come to him, but he's not out there hunting them. He's an excellent defender and I wouldn't be surprised to see him spend some time on Boum. He doesn't distribute much or do a lot of work on the glass, but his work on the defensive end is key to this team. He's 2nd in the league in offensive efficiency in Big East games, but he only shoots about 5 times a game.|
|Kam Jones||Small Forward||Colby Jones|
|6'4", 195||Measurements||6'6", 205|
|Jones is a modern scorer in that he has played 18 games and taken 14 mid-range shots. He's either getting to the rim - where he is an elite finisher - or lifting threes. He is absolutely option one on offense for the Golden Eagles. He's not as pesky on defense as the other guards, but he gets his work in. He's not as big a body as Colby is; the Xavier forward is going to have to be there on the catch and trust his strength to make life difficult for his opposite number on the drive. On the other end, Colby can use his size and savvy in the lane to put Marquette's defense into rotation out of this matchup.|
|Olivier-Maxence Prosper||Power Forward||Zach Freemantle|
|6'8", 230||Measurements||6'9", 225|
|Prosper is wired to score and not much else. He's 10th in the league in offensive efficiency, so he can be forgiven for not being dynamic in other areas. He's not a great rebounder for a man his size and he doesn't have much of a statistical impact on defense. On the other hand, he's second in the league in EFG% and 20-25 (80%) from the line in Big East games. He isn't the guy the offense runs through, but blink and he'll drop 29 on 13 shots the way he did against St. John's two weeks ago.|
|Oso Ighodaro||Center||Jack Nunge|
|6'9", 215||Measurements||7'0" 245|
|This guy dunks really hard. It's probably not the top line of his scouting report, but he has a ton of bounce and will crush it on a defender if he's given a step or two. It's not all dunks; he's a superb finisher in all regards, but he also shoots 50% in fairly high volume from the mid-range. He's a solid but not elite rim protector and only okay on the glass. I have to imagine part of Xavier's offensive game plan will be to move him out of the lane with whichever big man he's tasked with guarding.|
Marquette is not a deep team, getting only 28.3% of their minutes from the reserves. It basically boils down to the following three dudes.
Forward David Joplin is averaging 10.2/3.4/0.7 off the bench. He’s an absolute chucker; nobody on the team comes close to his 32% shots percentage in league play. He has hit hard times in conference play a bit, shooting .388/.290/.800 in that time. He’s still shooting .438/.395/.862 overall, but he has only hit double figures once in regulation since December began. He’s also a meh defender who can be pretty foul prone. He’s 6’7”, 220 but plays smaller.
The exact opposite of that is Sean Jones. He’s a 5’10” freshman guard with a 5% steal rate in league play; 7 of his 14 steals on the year have come in the last three games. He’s averaging 5.2/0.8/1.3 on .434/.355/.615 shooting on the year. His ball security has been impeccable for a freshman, but he’s not distributing much.
Slotting neatly between those two in size and production is Chase Ross. He’s a 6’4”, 195-pound guard who plays off the ball. He averages 5.5/1.9/0.6 on .529/.379/.800 shooting. Couple that with excellent ball security and you’ve got a guy with an ORtg of 120 overall and 135 in league play. His three-point shooting is all off the catch and he’s a good finisher who stays out of the mid-range. He’s also posting an excellent 4.7% steal rate on the year. I have a feeling we’re going to be happy to see this kid graduate before it’s all over.
If Shaka Smart needs to go big, he brings on 6’11”, 220-pound freshman Ben Gold, who gets about 7 minutes per game. As you might expect, he blocks a ton of shots. As you might not expect, he doesn’t foul often, is almost entirely absent on the glass, and is 5-10 from deep in the Big East.
-Who will get stops? On the face of it, probably nobody. These are two top-ten offenses in the nation and defenses number 8 (Xavier) and 6 (Marquette) in the league. Buckets will be had, almost undoubtedly in large volume. The game might be won by the team that can string together a handful of timely stops.
-How does the point guard matchup shake out? Boum is a modern scoring point, who makes plays for himself and others with the ball in his hands. Across the way, Tyler Kolek is an almost pure distributor. It’s not clear that either team would benefit from having either team would benefit from having their point guard assigned to defend his opposite number, but both players are too integral to their team’s strategies to not draw serious attention. These are two high-level guys who will need to be at their best(s).
-Is this a Des Claude game? There might come a point at which Xavier needs to jam up either Kam Jones or Tyler Kolek. If/when that happens, Des Claude has shown that he has - or is growing into - the defensive prowess to be a menace on that end. For that to be viable for Xavier, he has to be able to at least hold his own on offense. He was menacing in transition against Creighton and has fought his TO% down to 18% in Big East games. It’s worth pointing out that his EFG% of 40.8% and his FT% of 47.1% are both alarming. Despite that, I think there’s a big part for him to play in this one.
-Ball security. Marquette cannot get stops if they don’t force turnovers. Souley Boum has an elite TO rate, but Adam Kunkel and Colby Jones have both been weirdly profligate this season. Kunkel has shown a tendency to try to do a bit more than the moment allows and Colby has just had some really head-scratching giveaways. Both of these things can be remedied with a little additional sharpness, and Xavier needs them to be finely honed against the Golden Eagles.
-Dominate the glass. Big Sack Jack Nunge sonned pretender to the Big East big man throne Ryan Kalkbrenner in the mid-week fixture, ripping down 8 offensive rebounds on his own and helping put the game on ice by keeping chances alive for Xavier down the stretch. Marquette will get themselves some extra possessions with turnovers; Xavier needs to get them back and then some on the boards.
-Pound the paint. Marquette can be fairly permissive from behind the arc, rankings 7th in the Big East in defensive 3P% and 9th in defensive 3P rate, but it’s the paint where Xavier should attack. Marquette is 11th in defensive 2P%, which is as bad as you can be in this league. Mississippi State beat Marquette by locking them down; the other three teams to come out on top did so by pulverizing their interior defense. I know which one seems more likely for Xavier.