UNGER: MUBB’s numbers against Vanderbilt sign for optimism


Photo by Mike Carpenter

Jajuan Johnson snagged six steals in Marquette’s victory against Vanderbilt.

Let me preface this column by reminding Marquette men’s basketball fans that the victory over Vanderbilt last Friday was just one game. It was one battle in the long war that is the five-month NCAA season.

With that context in mind, it would be imprudent for someone to make sweeping assumptions based on one sample. However, after watching the first game of the 2016-’17 season, it is fair to make one assumption: this team is drastically different than last years. Those differences showed in every facet of the game against Vanderbilt.

The obvious takeaway from the Golden Eagles’ victory over the Commodores was the prolific shooting. Pick a statistic. Marquette shot 52.7 percent from the field. They shot 41.9 percent from behind the arc on 32 shots. Six players shot 50 percent or better (limit of six shots or more). No matter which way you slice it, Marquette was outstanding offensively.

Better shooting was expected with a smaller, guard-heavy lineup. And while the shooting performance is encouraging, it is not replicable night-in and night-out. For reference, Marquette posted a sky high 61.5 percent effective field goal percentage, which takes into account twos and threes. Last season, Indiana led the nation with a 58.7 percent effective field goal rate.

Clearly this shooting average is not sustainable over the course of a 31-game season. There will be nights when Marquette cannot buy a basket. When those nights come, which they inevitably will, the Golden Eagles will have to protect the ball and play defense. Luckily for the Golden Eagles, there were positive signs on both fronts Friday.

Marquette turned the ball over on just 15.3 percent of possessions. Five of their twelve turnovers were due to offensive fouls. Four of those offensive fouls were illegal screens, including two from sophomore Matt Heldt. This is a fairly easy problem to correct.

Last year, Wojciechowski’s team turned the rock over on one out of five possessions, which ranked 292nd in the nation. Keep in mind Marquette had an average of 0.84 years of college experience last season. Only seven teams in the entire country had a lower experience level. With the addition of two transfers and the aging of their core, the Golden Eagles now boast an average roster age of 1.90 years (84th in Division I men’s basketball).

Combine the smaller, guard-heavy lineup with a more experienced roster and it is easy to see why Marquette took care of the ball Friday evening. Sophomore Traci Carter’s performance was also a highlight. The pure point guard assisted on five baskets and did not turn the ball over once.

Marquette’s defense was also something to note in the victory. When Marquette hired Wojciechowski in 2014, it was expected that the first-year coach would implement a man-to-man defensive scheme similar to one he had helped coach at Duke. Due to roster issues, he was unable to fully implement this style during his first two years. This season, Marquette can go 10 or 11 deep on the roster.

The roster depth on this team is a luxury that Wojciechowski has yet to experience while here in Milwaukee, and it is clear he is going to utilize the advantage. During Friday’s victory, he subbed early and often, keeping fresh legs on the floor. Nine players tallied double-digit minutes.

With fresh legs on the floor, the Golden Eagles were able to force the Commodores into 19 turnovers. Six of those were forced by senior Jajuan Johnson, who looked tenacious on the defensive side of the floor.

They also held Vanderbilt to a 46.6 percent effective field goal percentage, two percentage points better than their 2015-’16 season average. This statistic probably would have been higher if Marquette wasn’t leading by 27 points with more than seven minutes remaining in the game.

Once again, this was only one game against an opponent whose quality is yet to be determined. And yes, shooting trends tend to vary game-to-game. However, turnover rates and defensive efficiency are generally more stable throughout a season. If Marquette is able to keep this up, even without Division I leading shooting numbers, they should be OK.

While the Vanderbilt win is a nice start to a tournament resume, the 2016-’17 Golden Eagles have a long way to go. Marquette will play Michigan and either SMU or Pittsburgh this week, two games that could be crucial to their postseason tournament aspirations.