INDIANAPOLIS — Consider this week’s top-10 in college basketball. All the usual suspects are present — Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky, et al. But wait, who are the gate crashers?
Who are these guys who have learned to love defense — last in the conference in 2018, first in 2019 — even as the star scores 53 points in a game? The team with the hot new brother act, and the coach whose last name is even harder to spell than Mike Krzyzewski?
Make way for Marquette. The Golden Eagles haven’t been seen in these parts for years.
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They blew through Butler 76-58 Wednesday night, which makes them 19-3 and winners of eight in a row and pretty large figures in Villanova’s rear view mirror in the Big East. They’re No. 10 in Associated Press and No. 9 with the coaches this week — they haven’t been there in seven years — and if they keep winning and go up a couple of more spots, we’re talking the highest in four decades.
So what’s going on in Milwaukee, besides low wind chill? Let’s paint Marquette by the numbers.
1 — That’s how many Division I players in the past 20 years have scored 50 points in a game twice. That’d be Markus Howard, Marquette’s 5-11 bundle of offense who, when he hasn’t been going for 53 points against Creighton this winter, put up 52 against Providence last winter. He also had 45 against Buffalo and Kansas State this season. His current 25.0 average is fourth best in the nation, and as Butler coach LaVall Jordan noted, “He’s not out there alone.”
26.2 and 12.8 — The combined scoring and rebounding of the Hauser boys — junior Sam and freshman Joey. On Jan. 21, Sam was named conference player of the week, and Joey freshman of the week. Such a brotherly sweep had never happened before in the history of the Big East.
13 — Number of letters in coach Steve Wojciechowski’s last name. He’s an old Duke Blue Devil, and compared to him, spelling his coach and mentor Krzyzewski is a walk in the park. He also has this program on the move.
77.5 — Marquette’s team free throw percentage, seventh best in the nation. But look closer, and it gets even better. Howard and the Hausers have combined for 280 free throws and made 89 percent of them. Let's ask Wojciechowski probably an overly simple question: Why does his team own such a lofty free throw percentage? "Can I give you a simple answer?” he said. “We’ve got great free throw shooters, and they’re the ones who get fouled the most.”
10 — Marquette’s winning streak in overtime games, best in the nation. The Golden Eagles haven’t lost one in three years. They’ve won three this season, including against the likes of Louisville and Wisconsin. “We’ve had games where we’ve taken a lot of teams’ best punches, and we’ve been able to respond,” Howard said.
10th — Marquette’s ranking in the Big East last season in field goal percentage defense. That’s last.
1st — Marquette’s current ranking in Big East this season in field goal percentage defense. The scoring defense, meanwhile, has climbed from 10th to third. This fast elevator ride from sieve to steel is at the very core of the Golden Eagles’ surge. Wojciechowski had suggested they get better at that end of the court. Well, he did a lot more than suggest.
“That’s all we talked about all off-season, all this season, really,” Sam Hauser said. “Taking care of the ball and defense. That’s what’s going to push us to the next level.”
Butler was the 10th opponent Marquette has held under 40 percent shooting. That happened only four times all last season.
So what did it take to make the leap? “A lot of practice and a lot of patience from coach,” Howard said. “In the summer time, we all came together as a team and said if we want to do the things we want to do, we have to lock in on the defensive end. I think we have a group of guys who have really bought into that process.”
The numbers would confirm so far, anyway. Which is why Wojciechowski could stand in a hallway in Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse Wednesday night and savor the trend.
“They certainly recognized that for us to take the next step as a program, we had to get a lot better at the defensive end,” he said. “It feels good to win games with defense, because that’s not been who we’ve been over the last few years. We’re winning games now with a combination of good offense and good defense. That’s what you have to do in order to be a good program.”
Or as Hauser said, “It’s pretty relieving when you can score 65 points and win the game.”
So Marquette’s wins have come in all sizes — from the 106-104 epic overtime at Creighton to the 70-66 grinder with Seton Hall. That's led to the top-10.
“I still think we have a lot of room to grow. I don’t want to diminish what we’ve accomplished to this point, but I think we can still get a lot better,” Wojciechowski said. “Momentum is fragile, you’ve got to keep working to get better.”
Indeed, now is not the time for the Golden Eagles to back off. In the next six games, Marquette plays St. John’s once and Villanova twice.