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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

STARTING FIVE: No. 2 Marquette faces No. 15 Western Kentucky in NCAA First Round

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Photo by Keifer Russell
Stevie Mitchell (left) and Zaide Lowery (right) in Marquette’s win over Southern.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Marquette men’s basketball is dancing for the third straight year.

The No. 2 seed Golden Eagles take on 15th seeded Western Kentucky at 1 p.m. CST Friday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

“We’re excited to be here in Indy,” Marquette head coach Shaka Smart said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in this building… It’s great to be back. Excited about our group of guys.

“Those three guys (Oso, Tyler and Kam) that were just up here talking, awesome representatives of Marquette University and of our team, as are the rest of our players. Looking forward to a heck of a challenge against Western Kentucky tomorrow.”

Here are five things to look out for in Friday’s First-Round matchup:

Kolek’s return

Tyler Kolek has missed the last six games after injuring his oblique in Marquette’s win over Providence in February. But the senior guard is ready to get back on the court against Western Kentucky.

“I’ve been practicing this whole week,” Kolek said. “I feel good. I feel confident. At this point in the season, nobody is 100 percent. Everybody is battling through something. Just got to put the straps on and battle up again.”

He enters the tournament leading the nation in assists per game at 7.6. Before his injury, he was averaging 15 points per contest, shooting 40% from three and at a 48.6% clip overall.

Marquette will need its All-American point guard’s impact if they want to avoid a repeat of last year’s early exit.

Western Kentucky’s pace

The Hilltoppers play at a fast rate — they rank first on KenPom.com for adjusted tempo (75.2) — which is something the Golden Eagles will have to account for heading into the matchup.

“They like to play fast,” Mitchell said. “They play hard. Obviously, we played against teams that played fast before putting the ball in transition. We’re prepared for it.”

One of those teams that shares a similar tempo to Western Kentucky is Xavier. The Musketeers — whose KenPom adjusted tempo is 71.1 — scored 14 transition points and nearly mounted a comeback before being defeated.

“Going into the game, we prepared heavily for transition defense and still in that game, they were able to get the ball — even on our makes — in the net and down the floor fast,” Smart said. “Western Kentucky plays even faster than that. We’re going to have to do a great job of transition defense.”

Marquette’s defense

Ever since Smart has been at the helm, he has instilled a suffocating and disrupting defensive presence — with vocabulary like deflections, kills and skunks — into this Marquette team. It has been seen multiple times throughout the season.

Against Notre Dame, Marquette started the game on a 17-0 run and earned its first dead skunk — nine straight defensive stops — of the year, while preventing the Fighting Irish from scoring in their first 10 possessions in the 78-59 win.

“Multiple efforts, deflections, helping each other,” Smart said after the win about the defense. “Anytime you play a group that is a young team, and they have to come into your place, you want to really set a tone with aggressiveness and defensive violence and get your hands on the basketball. Our guys did a nice job of that early in the game.”

In Big East play, the Golden Eagles led the conference in steals per game (8.5), turnover margin (+4.56) and turnovers forced per game (14.7).

If Marquette can impose its will on defense, Western Kentucky — who has committed a turnover 18.3 times every 100 possessions according to KenPom this season — will struggle to find its rhythm on offense.

Rebounding impact

All season long, Marquette has struggled against opponents who can rebound consistently.

In their second Big East loss Jan. 6 against Seton Hall, the Golden Eagles were hampered by the Pirates’ physicality and dominance on the glass as they were out-rebounded 43-25.

Marquette has lost to the Big East champions UConn three times, and the Huskies have scored a combined 61 second-chance points in those contests.

Meanwhile, Western Kentucky ranks No. 7 in the country in defensive rebounds per game (29.3) and also led Conference USA in that category. But senior forward Oso Ighodaro said his team is prepared to crash the glass.

“We just have to rebound, us five guys, really have each other’s back, help each other out,” Ighodaro said. “But we’ve been preparing all season for this.”

Tournament experience

The Golden Eagles’ roster features seven players that have played in the Big Dance at least twice, while the Hilltoppers have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013.

Smart said his team has learned a lot from the last two years being in the tournament, and he gives his players props for the meaningful experiences they have brought them here by using poker chips.

“I think in the first year — not necessarily me, but most of the guys were probably just happy to be there,” Smart said. “In our second year, we had such a phenomenal regular season and conference tournament, but we still were relatively young, and I think when we got to that Michigan State game, there was a little bit of imposter syndrome of ‘Wow, do we really deserve to win this game?’

“For example, last Thursday we had to beat Villanova twice. We thought we had the game won in regulation, but we didn’t. So then we had to go win again. So on the back of that chip, it said, ‘won the game twice.’ Those are valuable experiences, chips that our guys have in their pocket, that hopefully we can draw on to play well this week in Indy.”

This article was written by Kaylynn Wright. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter/X @KaylynnWrightMU.

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About the Contributors
Kaylynn Wright, Assistant Sports Editor
Kaylynn Wright is a sophomore from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin studying journalism, and she is an Assistant Sports Editor for the 2023-2024 school year. Outside of the Wire, she enjoys reading and watching baseball, specifically the San Francisco Giants and the Boston Red Sox. She is excited to meet new people and continue to create high-quality sports content for the Wire.
Keifer Russell, Staff Photographer
Keifer Russell is a junior from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin studying digital media and public relations and is a Staff Photographer of the Marquette Wire for the 2023-2024 school year. Outside of the Wire he enjoys rock climbing, photography (figures), as well as finding and listening to new music. He is very excited to further refine his photographic content over the next year

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