A goal for any coach is to have their team peaking at the right time. For college basketball, that means March.
Where is Marquette? The Golden Eagles began the season 10-0 but then lost four of six. The problem in those games? Defense. To begin that stretch of losses Marquette gave up more than a point per possession in four of five games.
After they dominated St. Johns in early January they seemed to right the ship and tighten up the defense. Over the next 16 games (leading up to the NCAA tourney) the Golden Eagles only surrendered more than a point per possession 6 times.
Then came the real test – the NCAA tournament.
In the opening round Marquette held BYU to 68 points in a 79 possession game. On a per-possession basis, that matched BYU’s 2nd worst offensive game of the season. If you only pay attention to the final scores, 68 points seems like a reasonable amount. But keep in mind that the BYU vs Marquette game featured 20% more possessions than the typical college game. Of course they’re going to score more points. Since each team gets the ball the same number of times, what matters is how much each team scores per possession. In this case, it was 0.86 points for BYU.
Then in the round of 32 Marquette completely smothered Murray State, giving up only 53 points in 72 possessions. Not only was this Murray State’s worst offensive game since December, 2008, but it was the 3rd most dominating performance by any Marquette defense against a decent team in the past decade.
That’s pretty good. But does a solid 16 games to end the season and then two great games to begin the tournament make a trend?
On Thursday, Marquette gets Florida. As I discussed last night, the Gators have the 3rd best offense in the nation. So this should be a true test of the Marquette defense. Are they really playing inspired hoops right now, or has it been a fluke?
Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.
After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.
Video credit: Wyoming Athletics
Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.
Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.
Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.
Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.
Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.
But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.