PREVIEW: Men’s basketball opens BIG EAST Tournament play against No. 16 Seton Hall

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Photo by Jordan Johnson

Sacar Anim (2) attempts a shot in Marquette’s loss Saturday. He scored 13 points.

There’s something special about Madison Square Garden, and every BIG EAST coach knows it.

“There’s no greater tournament in America than the BIG EAST Tournament held in March,” Providence’s Ed Cooley said. “The nostalgia of it, the history of it, the coaching in it, the players in it, the excitement around it … the bright lights playing on that stage, there’s nothing greater.”

Known as the world’s most famous arena, MSG has been the home of the BIG EAST Tournament for 37 years.

“I don’t know if any conference tournament has that in the country where you’re on Broadway, you’re in the Mecca, you’re in The Garden, the world’s greatest arena, with the history of a tournament that has been played in the same place every year for close to 40 years and has the greatest players,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “It’s an experience as a basketball player that you never forget. … It matches the vibe and uniqueness of the NCAA Tournament.”

Since 1983, the BIG EAST has held its tournament at MSG, and it is the longest-running postseason championship at the same location in all of college basketball. In 2018, the league extended its partnership with MSG until 2028.

“Having it in Madison Square Garden for so long has allowed teams, players, programs, fan bases and the city of New York to understand and add to the essence of the tournament year in and year out,” DePaul head coach Dave Leitao said. “People really, really look forward to spending a week in New York cheering their teams on, seeing great basketball and most importantly, seeing memories be made.”

There’s no doubt memories will be made in the 9:30 p.m. quarterfinal game as the conference’s top scorers face off: 2019 BIG EAST Player of the Year Markus Howard’s Golden Eagles will be up against 2020 BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year Myles Powell’s Pirates.

Both players were unanimous selections for the All-BIG EAST First Team. The conference will announce the BIG EAST Player of the Year Wednesday.

Howard has surpassed numerous BIG EAST records this year, including becoming the league’s top scorer with 1,587 points. Cooley said Howard gives him nightmares because of his ability to score.

The Chandler, Arizona, native is 21st on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list with 2,761 career points, ranking first among active NCAA players. He sits seventh in NCAA history with 434 3-pointers and owns 68 career games scoring more than 20 points. He is the only player in the last 20 seasons with multiple 50-point games.

“His body control is really elite,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. “Frankly I’m not sure that he receives the national credit that he deserves. He’s one of the best scorers to ever play in college basketball, in my opinion.”

He ranks in the top five in 10 career categories as a Golden Eagle.

“Markus has been incredible,” Marquette associate head coach Stan Johnson said. “You look at him statistically almost in every category, he’s gotten better. … You’re looking at somebody who truly walks the walk and embodies what it means to be a student-athlete. He’s left a legacy here.”

Powell leads SHU with 21 points per game and was named to the final 15 for the Wooden Award trophy and Wooden Award All-America team Saturday. He was also a unanimous selection for that award. The Trenton, New Jersey, native is just the second Pirate to make the All-BIG EAST First Team two consecutive years.

“He’s been such a key part of our program for so long,” Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said. “To see him get unanimous decision was tremendous, and I appreciate the coaches recognizing all that he does for our program.”

Seton Hall’s center Romaro Gill was named the 2020 BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year and the 2020 BIG EAST Most Improved Player. The 7-foot-2 senior is the third student-athlete in the league to win both awards and the second to win them in the same season. The St. Thomas, Jamaica, native is just the third player to earn each award for the Pirates.

“Extremely proud of Romaro. He’s had such a great attitude and unbelievable work ethic,” Willard said. “He anchors our defense for us down low.”

Along with Gill, Seton Hall’s sophomore Ike Obigu is also a 7-foot-2 center, making the Pirates one of nine teams with multiple 7-foot players. They also lead Division I in center height and rank second in average height.

“Those guys have terrific size, and it’s one of the things that make them obviously very, very elite defensively,” Johnson said. “When you get in the paint, you can’t afford to take bad shots at the rim. … It’s not only the shots that Seton Hall blocks, it’s the shots they alter or the bad shots they force you into. Collectively, our whole thing has been being very smart and having ‘paint intelligence’ is what we call it when you get in there and make the right play.”

Coming into the matchup, Seton Hall is on a two-game losing streak ,and after dropping a 77-60 decision in Omaha Saturday, the Pirates have fallen eight spots to No. 16 in the latest Associated Press Poll. According to the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) team sheet, Seton Hall’s NET ranking is 15, and the Pirates have gone 10-7 against Quadrant One opponents.

The Pirates lost Saturday 77-60 at then-No. 11 Creighton. Guards Powell and Quincy McKnight scored 15 points each, but a 13-1 run for the Bluejays helped Creighton beat Seton Hall. Powell also had five assists. Jared Rhoden recorded in double figures with 12 points. The Pirates allowed Creighton to shoot 55% from the field and 54% from 3-point range.

“We have to rebound the basketball better against (Marquette). They’ve hurt us on rebounding. Theo John has done a good job against us rebounding,” Willard said. “It’s going to be a great contest.”

Meanwhile, Marquette lost its third straight game at St. John’s Saturday. The Golden Eagles have now lost six of their last seven games and finished under .500 in conference play for the third time in Steve Wojciechowski’s tenure. Howard led MU with 30 points, and Sacar Anim added 16. Greg Elliott recorded a career-high 13 points. The Golden Eagles trailed 47-28 at the half but couldn’t complete the comeback, falling 88-86 at MSG.

“I always expect our guys to bounce back,” Johnson said. “We all understand that we’re in a new season, and some of the adversity that we’ve hit will be things we can use moving forward. … Everybody entering this tournament is now 0-0.”

Fun Facts

  • Seton Hall ended league play 13-5 and is on a two-game losing streak after falling at Villanova March 4 and at Creighton March 7.
  • The Pirates were chosen to win the conference in the BIG EAST Preseason Coaches’ Poll for the first time since 1993, and their selection ended Villanova’s five-year streak of being the league favorite.
  • SHU won 10 games straight from Dec. 19-Jan. 29 before falling to Xavier at home Feb. 1.
  • The Pirates have received a top-three seed in the BIG EAST Tournament for three consecutive seasons and four times in the past five years.
  • Seton Hall leads the conference with 5.8 blocks per game. The Pirates have 174 total blocks in 30 games. Marquette is at 155 total blocks in 30 games, averaging 4.23 per game.
  • SHU leads the nation with seven Quadrant One road wins. That is also a program-best for conference road wins.

A Look Back

  • Marquette leads the all-time series 19-11. Seton Hall leads the series 3-2 in the BIG EAST Tournament.
  • The Pirates have won four consecutive games against the Golden Eagles.
  • The last time Marquette beat Seton Hall was Jan. 12, 2019, when the Golden Eagles downed the Pirates 70-66 at Fiserv Forum.
  • This will be the teams’ fifth time meeting in a BIG EAST Tournament. MU won in the 2008 Quarterfinals and in the first round in 2015, while SHU won in the 2017 Quarterfinals and the 2018 Semifinals.
  • Wojciechowski is 6-9 all-time against Seton Hall. The Pirates are 10-12 against the Golden Eagles under Willard.

Key Players

  • Powell paces Seton Hall’s offense with 21 points per game, which is 18th-best in the nation. The unanimous All-BIG EAST First Team selection averaged 25.8 points in the Pirates’ nine conference road games, helping the team to a 7-2 record in those games.
  • Gill ranks No. 1 in the BIG EAST and third in the country with 3.2 blocks per game. He averaged 3.4 blocks in 18 conference games, and his 95 blocks are fourth-most in SHU’s single-season history. He totals 129 career blocks, which is seventh all-time.
  • Quincy McKnight finds himself at No. 2 in assists per game behind DPU’s Charlie Moore averaging 5.37 per game. In last year’s BIG EAST Tournament Semifinal, the All-BIG EAST Honorable Mention honoree held Howard to 1-for-15 shooting.
  • Sandro Mamukelashvili has returned from his right wrist fracture, and against Marquette Feb. 29 he recorded 26 points on 10-for-13 shooting, making three 3-pointers, grabbing nine rebounds and contributing three assists in a team-high 35 minutes. Wojciechowski said he played like an NBA player in that game.
  • Howard leads nation with 27.8 points per game, and he set a BIG EAST season-long record of 28.7 points per game during conference play. He has reached the 30-point mark 15 times this season, including 10 times in league games.

Keys to the Game

  • Marquette: Win through 3-point shooting and offensive boards. The Golden Eagles are second in conference with 787 threes and shooting 38.2% from beyond the arc, while they rank first for rebounding offense.
  • Seton Hall: Win through stout defense. The Pirates rank 26th for defensive efficiency rankings according to KenPom and are seventh in the country for shot blocking.

This story was written by Zoe Comerford. She can be reached at isabel.comerford@marquette.edu or on Twitter @zoe_comerford.