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Men’s basketball’s post defense shows improvement despite challenging schedule

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Men’s basketball’s post defense shows improvement despite challenging schedule

Photo by Tom Hillmeyer

Photo by Tom Hillmeyer

Photo by Tom Hillmeyer

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With 35 seconds remaining against Wisconsin two weeks ago, redshirt junior Ed Morrow made possibly the play of the year, leaping to reject an otherwise-easy floater attempt from Wisconsin star center Ethan Happ to send the game into overtime.

“I like to find the ball,” Morrow said regarding his shot-blocking. “If I have the opportunity to block a shot, I’m going to contest it.”

Marquette is making more plays like Morrow’s following two subpar seasons on the defensive end, helping Marquette earn a national ranking in the Associated Press Poll in consecutive weeks for the first time since 2003.

Entering this season, it was clear Marquette needed to improve its defense. The Golden Eagles ranked 182nd in adjusted defensive efficiency last season and 165th in 2016-’17, per KenPom.

Now the Golden Eagles are 45th in adjusted defensive efficiency, the highest mark in the BIG EAST. Much of the difference can be attributed to more defensive-focused personnel on the roster.

At the guard position, instead of starting two players shorter than six feet, head coach Steve Wojciechowski has junior Markus Howard, 5-foot-11, matched with 6-foot-5 redshirt junior Sacar Anim.

As a result, opponents have gone from shooting 35.9 percent from the perimeter to 29.3 percent from the perimeter. Marquette’s opponents’ effective field goal percentage has also dropped almost 10 percent.

When an opposing guard like Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice or Kansas State’s Dean Wade gets past Howard or Anim, a bolstered frontcourt serves as a second line of defense.

“Part of our defense is help the helper,” Howard said earlier this month. “You’re not going to be able to stay in front of a guy every time, but that’s the point of defense.”

Additions of freshman forward Joey Hauser and Morrow and the progression of sophomore Theo John have given Wojciechowski more options than previous years.

This is the first season in the Wojciechowski era with seven scholarship players listed at or above 6-foot-7. No other season had more than five players.

“Our bigs are starting to find their rhythm,” junior forward Sam Hauser said. “It’s really helping our team, and it’s really helping on the defensive end.”

Morrow played less than 15 minutes in five of Marquette’s six games, but he has played more than 15 minutes in the last five games.

“I’m getting more confident in what our game plan is and just being here at Marquette,” Morrow said. “As the season progresses, I’m just sticking with it.”

Most recently, Morrow had eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals against North Dakota. He also added an offensive threat, scoring 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting.

“He just keeps on getting more and more comfortable on the floor,” Wojciechowski said. “The he better plays, the better we’re going to be.”

Wojciechowski has heavily relied on Joey Hauser, who has started in the last eight games to fill in some of the defensive holes as well.

“Joey is not a freshman,” Howard said. “I call him just a basketball player. He plays beyond his years. Just to see the poise he has, game in and game out, is unbelievable.”

The verticality rule has also helped Marquette’s post players. The rule states that as long as a defender jumps straight up in a vertical position without any horizontal movement, it’s not a defensive foul.

“We’re doing a much better job of taking advantage of the verticality rule,” Wojciechowski said. “We’re not giving up nearly as many points at the rim as we have in the past.”

There’s still plenty of work to be done for Marquette in reducing foul calls. John went from 8.5 fouls per 40 minutes in 2017-’18 to 8.8 fouls in 2018-’19. The sophomore ranks dead last in the BIG EAST in fouls per 40 minutes, per KenPom.

Morrow is in slightly better territory, drawing 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes, but it still lurks far behind other centers.

Across the BIG EAST, other centers have been far more disciplined than Marquette’s duo. DePaul post player Max Strus commits only 3.3 fouls per 40 minutes, and Georgetown big man Jessie Govan, who picked up a spot on the Preseason All-BIG EAST First Team, commits only 2.72 fouls per 40 minutes.

Marquette’s reformed defense has not had an easy road so far this season. The Golden Eagles have already hosted then-No. 12 Kansas State and then-No. 12 Wisconsin this month.

Marquette’s defense has another important test Friday evening, hosting No. 14 Buffalo.

“They’re very good offensively and defensively. It’s going to be a challenge,” Wojciechowski said. “I’d like to think we’re a program on a mission too.”

The Bulls, ranked 24th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, return seniors C.J. Massinburg and Nick Perkins, the same one-two punch that took Buffalo to its first NCAA Tournament Second Round game in program history.

“Obviously Massinburg is a great player, but they have a number of great players,” Wojciechowski said. “That’s why they’re ranked where they’re ranked. … They have a lot of guys that can hurt you in different ways, and they present a lot of defensive challenges.”

Buffalo is also one of the quicker offenses in the country, averaging 14.8 seconds per offensive possession, per KenPom. The average for a Division I team is 17.1 seconds.

“They push the tempo at every opportunity,” Wojciechowski said. “Transition defense is going to be a key, but they’re also a very good half-court team. … We’ll have to be at our best to beat them.”

It’s safe to say Marquette is embracing its third ranked opponent in a three-week period.

“You want to challenge your team, and I think you do that by playing really good teams,” Wojciechowski said. “Certainly we’ve done that so far this season. … We want our team to be challenged so we can get a realistic picture of where we’re at heading into the BIG EAST.”

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About the Writer
John Steppe, Executive Sports Editor

John Steppe is the executive sports editor for the Marquette Wire. He is a junior majoring in journalism and double-minoring in digital media and Spanish....

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