PREVIEW: Marquette prepares for BIG EAST Tournament opener against Creighton

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Photo by Collin Nawrocki

Redshirt first-year forward Justin Lewis (10) in Marquette men’s basketball’s 85-77 win over St. John’s March 5.

NEW YORK – Marquette men’s basketball is set to open the BIG EAST Tournament Thursday afternoon as they face No. 4 seed Creighton inside Madison Square Garden.

The Golden Eagles are coming off a 85-77 win over the St. John’s Red Storm last Saturday at Fiserv Forum. With the win, Marquette clinched the No. 5 seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

Alongside his 28 points on 9-for-20 shooting (4-for-7 from the 3-point line), Lewis finished with seven rebounds and two blocks to lead the Golden Eagles.

Darryl Morsell added 20 points on an efficient 8-for-14 shooting to go along with six rebounds and four assists. Kur Kuath was the only other Marquette player to finish in double figure scoring, posting 12 points and collecting seven rebounds on the night. 

Lewis was named the BIG EAST Most Improved Player on Sunday after averaging 17.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game this season. In his first year season in 2020-21, Lewis averaged 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in 21 games. 

“His growth as a player is intimately tied to his growth as a person,” Smart said.

Thursday’s quarterfinals will be the seventh time that men’s basketball head coach Shaka Smart will coach inside The Garden but the first leading the Golden Eagles.

“It’s a different feeling there,” Smart said. “Part of it is the history of who’s played there and what they’ve done. And then part of it is being in New York City, a place that is filled with excitement and great basketball fans. And then, my first time being in the BIG EAST Tournament.”

Thursday’s game will serve as a full circle moment for Kam Jones, a unanimous selection to the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team.

“Funny thing is, when I was thinking about coming to Marquette and getting recruited here, I was looking at some of the BIG EAST games and thought it would be pretty cool to play in,” Jones said. “It’s kind of crazy I’m playing in it right now.”

Smart said having the first-round bye provided the team with a “great opportunity” and chance to regroup after a “long” regular season.

“When you hit the postseason, there’s definitely a kind of a second wind that guys get in terms of just energy,” Smart said. “We’re just trying to go one game at a time and you can’t advance to the next game unless you win the game you’re in. So put everything we have into Thursday.”

Heading into round three with Creighton, Marquette will not have to prepare for BIG EAST Freshman of the Year Ryan Nembhard as he is out with a season-ending wrist injury.

Despite a 1-2 record since the loss of Nembhard Feb. 23, Smart said Creighton has been playing “really well.”

“The best thing about their season, in terms of attributes that they control, is the resiliency that they’ve shown,” Smart said. “The way they’ve responded has been phenomenal…They haven’t really missed a beat.”

With Nembhard out of the lineup, Trey Alexander has moved into the starting point guard spot. Over the last three-game, Alexander has averaged 11.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

“He’s been terrific at point guard,” Smart said.

Another Bluejay who has “stepped up” in Nembhard’s absence has been Arthur Kaluma. The BIG EAST All-Freshman Team honoree, missed out on Creighton’s 83-82 win over Marquette Feb. 20 due to a knee injury.

“Getting Paluma back after he was out, has been huge for them because he’s as talented of a young player as there is in our league,” Smart said.

Smart said the game plan changes in “more of the personnel” than it does “style of play or trying to understand what they (Creighton) do(es)” this time around against the Bluejays.

In order to defeat Creighton and move onto the quarterfinals, Lewis said Marquette will have to come out strong defensively.

“(Have to) take away what they do best,” Lewis said. “Not letting Cockburn get 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds). We just need to lock in defensively, take away things they want to do and offensively just do the things that we want to do and just play.”

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Marquette has the fourth best betting odds with +800 as the No. 5 seed to win the BIG EAST Tournament. Outside of earning a potential automatic bid by winning its first conference title, Marquette’s performance in the Big Apple can either help or hurt its NCAA Tournament seeding.

ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Marquette projected as a No. 7 seed in his latest version.

“Don’t get caught up in that,” Smart said. “Our next game, our next opportunity is in Madison Square Garden in the BIG EAST Tournament. To be focused on anything other than that, would be insane to me.”

Thursday’s game will be broadcasted on FS1, tipping off at 1:30 p.m. CST. It can also be heard on Marquette Radio, with coverage beginning at 1:25 p.m. CST.

This article was written by John Leuzzi. He can be reached at john.leuzzi@marquette.edu or on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.