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Howard leads Marquette into more competitive BIG EAST season

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Howard leads Marquette into more competitive BIG EAST season

Photo by Tom Hillmeyer

Photo by Tom Hillmeyer

Photo by Tom Hillmeyer

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As Marquette starts BIG EAST play Tuesday evening at St. John’s, the team is in an unfamiliar spot: an unofficial BIG EAST favorite.

The Golden Eagles have never been the highest-ranked BIG EAST team in the AP Poll until this season. While Villanova was ahead of Marquette in the BIG EAST Preseason Poll, the Wildcats have fallen out of the rankings with blemishes on their resume against Furman and Penn.

This ranking has garnered plenty of respect from other BIG EAST coaches.

“Marquette is maybe one of the most underrated teams in the country,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. “Defensively they have really improved. They’ve always been a good offensive team.”

The rise of Marquette coincides with down years for usual BIG EAST stalwarts. Villanova had four players picked in the NBA Draft, and Xavier and Seton Hall also lost significant hauls via graduation.

“The league definitely is not as strong as it was last year by any stretch of the imagination,” Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said.

“The league lost a lot of veteran players,” Cooley said. “When you lose that many players across the board, there is going to be a dip in experience.”

Junior guard Markus Howard has been at the heart of the team’s rise. Howard scored at least 21 points in the Golden Eagles’ last six games, which included two 45-point performances against top-15 teams.

“Watching tape on him, I was having nightmares,” Southern head coach Sean Woods said. “A lot of coaches in the country are going to have nightmares about him. I think he is going to own the BIG EAST.”

In his last six games, Howard averaged 31.7 points per game. He averaged only 2.8 assists per game in that same time period.

“When he gets going like that, obviously we just get out of the way,” redshirt junior Sacar Anim said. “He’s already a terrific (isolation) player. We let him do his thing.”

When Howard is on the floor, he accounts for 35.1 percent of the team’s shots, per KenPom, a prominent college basketball analytics site.

“They give him the ball, and the other guys swallow their ego and let him make the plays and get him open,” Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber said last month.

Frequent screens from post players Ed Morrow and Theo John have allowed Howard to get more space.

“It’s great to have guys like Ed and Theo who are more than willing to set screens for me,” Howard said. “Sam and Joey look for me as well but also make the game easier for me. … I’m really fortunate to have teammates that are OK with me doing what I do.”

Weber is not the only opposing coach Howard has befuddled. Howard scored 23 points in his first 11 minutes on the floor against Southern.

Outside of Howard’s statlines, he has assumed a larger leadership role along with junior forward Sam Hauser and senior center Matt Heldt.

“The thing I’m most proud of is his leadership,” Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “He’s been an everyday guy. … Beyond his shooting, his leadership has been terrific.”

Howard was complimentary of the improvement he has seen from many of the newcomers. Freshman Joey Hauser started the last 10 games, and redshirt junior Ed Morrow has added an offensive element to his game recently.

“It’s still a learning process each and every day, but the new and young guys are taking initiative,” Howard said.

His message for the newcomers heading into their first BIG EAST season is simple.

“No moment is too big,” Howard said. “Treat it like any other game. Of course the stakes are higher being in conference play, but continue to do what they’ve done. It’s worked pretty well for us up to this point.”

Howard said he hopes his hot shooting continues longer although team success is his top priority.

“I don’t want to jinx anything, but hopeful (it will last) as long as it can,” Howard said. “As long as our team is winning, that’s all I care about. If that’s me putting up big numbers, then so be it.”

Marotta has the challenge of guarding the 5-foot-11 star in practice.

“He’s been on fire lately, so I’ve seen a lot of his shots go in on me,” Marotta said. “It was good to see one (of mine) go in (against Southern).”

Howard might be able to relate better to Marotta after Tuesday’s game against St. John’s. Red Storm junior guard Shamorie Ponds averages 18.7 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting.

“He’s really playing the game at an NBA level,” Willard said. “He’s not forcing shots. He’s getting everybody involved. … He right now is by far one of the elite players in college basketball.”

Ponds also has 79 assists, compared to 24 turnovers. That assist-to-turnover ratio is fifth-best among players in the six major college basketball conferences.

“He puts great pressure on the defense with his ability to break you down off the dribble,” Wojciechowski said. “It’s not just his scoring that scares you. It’s his ability to make the players around him better as well.”

Ponds won’t be the only challenge Marquette faces looking ahead at BIG EAST play. Even with a down year, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected six of 10 BIG EAST teams to earn March Madness bids in his latest bracketology.

“All these league teams are as tough as hell,” Cooley said. “Everybody’s hands are full this year.”

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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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