MUBB Nuggets: Five things to watch for in season opener against Radford

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Photo by Alex DeBuhr

Marquette men’s basketball finished 19-13, 11-8 Big East in its first season under head coach Shaka Smart last year.

Coming off a year where they exceeded preseason expectations in its first season under Shaka Smart, the Marquette men’s basketball season kicks off Monday night at 7:30 p.m. CST inside Fiserv Forum against Radford.

“We’ve really been emphasizing a lot with our guys focusing on the low-hanging fruit and controlling the things we can control to put ourselves in the best position to go after winning,” Smart said. “This is a different team, a new year. But our goal is for every guy on our team to take on a defensive identity.”

How to Watch the Game? 

Along with the other seven Big East games going on Monday night, the Golden Eagles vs. the Highlanders will be streaming in its entirety on the FOX Sports App and FoxSports.com. 

How to Listen to the Game? 

Marquette University Radio will have the call starting at 7:30 p.m. CST on marquettewire.org/mur. Executive Sports Producer Kristin Parisi is on play-by-play and men’s basketball beat reporter Ben Schultz will do the color commentary. 

Who to Follow for Live Updates? 

Follow @JohnLeuzziMU, @JacksonGrossMU and @MUWireSports on Twitter. 

Projected Starters: 

No. 11 Tyler Kolek (6-3 Jr., G): The Cumberland native led the Big East with 5.9 assists per game last season, which also ranked eighth nationally.

No. 1 Kam Jones (6-4, So., G): Jones was a reliable 3-point shooter in his first season at Marquette last year, connecting on 39.2% of his 143 attempts from deep. 

No. 4 Stevie Mitchell (6-2, So., G): Mitchell provided a spark of energy off the bench last year. During preseason camp, Mitchell has shown the possibility of being an X-factor for Smart.   

No. 12 Olivier-Maxence Prosper (6-8, Jr., F): The Montreal native flashed his talents last season becoming a stalwart on the defensive end for Marquette. He finished fifth on the team in defensive rebounds. 

No. 13 Oso Ighodaro (6-9, Jr., F): The longest-tenured Golden Eagle found a role off the bench last season on both ends of the ball. He ranked second in the Big East and No. 26 in the country in 2-point field goal percentage (67.6) and will have an extended role this year.

Reserves: 

No. 2 Emarion Ellis (6-5, So., G): Ellis underwent surgery on his patella in April. Smart said the plan is for Ellis to redshirt this season as he is still rehabbing. 

No. 5 Chase Ross (6-4, Fr., G): Ross is a 6-foot-4 guard out of Texas whose athleticism can cause trouble for opponents in transition. 

No. 10 Zach Wrightsil (6-7, Sr. transfer, F): Wrightsil was the NAIA Player of the Year last season at Loyola-New Orleans. His veteran presence and defensive mentality will bring value to the Golden Eagles and should make him a crucial part of Smart’s rotation off the bench. 

No. 21 Ben Gold (6-11, Fr., F): Gold is the first New Zealand native from the NBA Global Academy in Australia to sign with a Division I program. He brings versatility and maturity to Smart’s squad but it could take time adjusting to a different style of basketball. 

No. 22 Sean Jones (5-10, Fr., G): Jones is a 5-foot-10 speedy and savvy shooter out of Ohio that has great ability to create separation on the floor and hit shots. Smart has called Jones the fastest player he has ever coached.

No. 23 David Joplin (6-7, So., F): Joplin has been one player Smart and staff have raved about in regards to his growth over the offseason and should be poised for a breakout season in year two with his physical tools.

No. 25 Caleb Kozinski (6-1, Fr., G): Walk-on from Milwaukee who played at IMG Academy.

No. 40 Keeyan Itejere (6-9, So., F.): Itejere redshirted the 2021-22 season for development. He will get opportunities early on in the season to earn some minutes. 

No. 41 Jonah Lucas (6-1, Fr., F): Lucas hit two 3-pointers in the Blue and Gold Scrimmage Oct. 8 at the Al McGuire Center for the gold team.

No. 42 Michael Kennedy (6-6, Sr., F): Kennedy has played in nine career games over three seasons as a walk-on. 

No. 51 RJ Walson (6-0, So., G): Walk-on who played at Perspectives Math & Science Academy in Chicago. 

No. 55 Cameron Brown (6-1, So., G): Second-year walk-on played who played high school basketball at John Paul II High School in Texas. 

Here are five things to watch out for heading into the Golden Eagles’ season tip-off:

Can Joplin make a big jump this season? 

The pathway for more playing time and a bigger role is there for the Brookfield Central product. 

The 6-foot-7 forward has a smooth shot and confidence to shoot but if he sees more time on the court it will come from his presence defensively.

“He’s always been a scorer but his biggest area of growth has to be on the defensive end,” Kolek said. “He didn’t play as much as he wanted to last season because of defense. 

“He wasn’t at the standard that we needed him to be at so he has really taken a pride with that and take on the challenge of being a two-way player in this league.” 

Joplin finished 10th on the team in minutes last season while averaging 2.8 points and 0.9 rebounds in 32 games. 

Smart said Joplin’s role will increase this season but it’s up to Joplin himself for how much it will increase from a season ago.  

“He’s a guy that is capable of some day leading this conference in scoring someday. He has to decide when that day is,” Smart said. “He has more to give, he has more in there to pull out. He’s definitely pulled more out of himself this year so far than he did last year but he’s still got way more in there.” 

How much will Ighoardo handle the ball? 

Ighodaro played as part of a two-headed monster on the rebounding efforts with Kur Kuath. 

Since the summer, Smart has indicated Ighodaro will be utilized differently this season. 

“Oso’s going to handle the ball more than any 6-10 guy in the country, I can promise you that,” Smart said in October. “One of the best things that he does is handling the ball.” 

Kolek, who served as the Golden Eagles’ primary playmaker last season, said Ighoardo has become more confident in both ball handling and dribbling. 

“Having another guy that can make plays and get open shots for everybody else, it’ll open everything up,” Kolek said.

The mystery still remains on how Marquette will utilize Ighodaro as a playmaker or how it will look in a game setting itself. But if it is anywhere close to how Ighodaro’s highlights in high school, Marquette fans will have something to be excited about. 

Kolek shooting improvements? 

Kolek’s first season at Marquette brought critics from fans as he experienced offensive struggles going 32% from the field and 28.1% from beyond the arc. In the Golden Eagles’ last four games of the season, Kolek shot a combined 4-for-18 from the field. Prior to arriving to Marquette, Kolek shot 35.9% from long range at George Mason.

Smart said with being as good of a passer as Kolek is, the challenge was the uncertainty of when does one shoot the ball himself. 

“It’s a lot hard to make that discernment than it looks,” Smart said. “He’s still a work in process in terms of understanding all the times and all the ways that he can attack from a scoring standpoint but he’s put a ton of work into it.” 

Kolek said he spent the offseason working on specific areas on his game in hopes of returning to the offensive numbers he put up at George Mason, where he was named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year.

“Picking my spots (better) and trying to be more aggressive,” Kolek said. “Me being more aggressive scoring the ball will open up all the passing lanes and everything for everybody else.”

If Marquette can unlock and utilize Kolek’s ability to attack the paint and hit deep shots on a consistent basis early on in its non-conference schedule, it could be the key to winning come Big East play.

What is the role for Wrightsil? 

Among the more intriguing storylines heading into the season is Wrightsil, who was the lone transfer this off-season for the Golden Eagles. 

He averaged 18.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.6 assist per outing last year at Loyola while helping the Wolf Pack to a 37-1 overall record and the NAIA National Championship. 

But how quickly will his skill set — versatility on both ends of the ball, defensive presence, ability to finish downhill to name a few — translate to the highest level of Division I basketball will be the question to follow early on. 

Smart said in order for Wrightsil to make an impact, he has to press his advantages. 

“Zach has to do what Zach does well and not get overly caught up in the things that he doesn’t do as well,” Smart said. 

But the impacts of his role on the team might not all reflect in the box score each night. 

“The biggest things that I could bring to this team is being a leader using my voice and being a big defensive presence and getting a lot of rebounds,” Wrightsil said. 

What will the projected starting lineup be like?

Monday night will be the first time Marquette will play in front of fans, aside from its open scrimmage and open practice, as the Golden Eagles chose to play two closed scrimmages against Loyola Chicago and Missouri. 

The Golden Eagles started Kolek, Mitchell, (Kam) Jones, Prosper and Ighodaro in those scrimmages, Smart told reporters Friday. However, he did not disclose what Monday’s starting lineup would be like. 

“We have a team where that may not necessarily be our best lineup against certain team or at certain times of the year or at certain times of the game,” Smart said. “And as you saw last year, who starts the game doesn’t necessarily dictate who finishes the game, which I think if you ask players is the most important time to be in.” 

This article was written by John Leuzzi. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.