"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tossups and white knucklers

With a convincing win over Cincinnati on Saturday, Marquette moved to 21-5 on the season and a gaudy 10-3 record in the Big East. Despite devastating injuries to their front line, Buzz Williams' crew has run off nine wins in their last ten games, the program's best stretch since joining the Big East.

The latest Pomeroy numbers pulled MU up to #19 with a projected final record of 24-7 overall and 13-5 in Big East play. With a week to prepare for the next game, a roadie at UConn, this sounds reasonable given the current pace, no?

However, a closer look at the final five games shows that the Warriors are heading into the most uncertain stretch of the season. Four of the last five games are toss-ups per Pomeroy, who currently predicts four one-point games in the season's final two weeks.

  • Loss @ UConn, 71-70 (49% certainty)
  • Win vs. Rutgers, 75-62 (87% certainty)
  • Loss @ WVU, 74-73 (49% certainty)
  • Win @ Cincy, 71-70 (50% certainty)
  • Win vs. Georgetown 67-66 (55% certainty)
The toss-ups are punctuated by three road games including back-to-back tilts against West Virginia and Cincinnati. Marquette has handled itself very well on the road this season, claiming three conference wins away from home to go with its signature road over the Badgers in December and a handful of neutral site wins.

While the KenPom numbers say 'tossup' there is more reason for optimism than not even though MU has a depleted roster at this point. Counting the road game at Villanova, MU has reeled off wins in four of the last five. This stretch corresponds to the Davante Garnder injury which many thought could derail the season, but ultimately saw MU once again demonstrate the fortitude that has long characterized the program.

Marquette was already one of the smaller teams in the nation prior to Gardner's injury. In addition, there was also the very real concern about the loss of Gardner’soffensive repertoire, one of the most efficient on the team and in the Big East.

Still, despite the vertically-challenged roster, opponents' height, quality and defensive efficiency have largely not mattered as Williams' crew has shown a great capacity for adjustment and improvement throughout the season.

For example when the Warriors hosted Seton Hall, the 63rd tallest team in the nation and one of the Big East's top defensive units, the Pirates only mustered a 43.7% eFG which was better than MU’s defensive average for the season. Marquette also tuned up the Pirates delivering 1.18 point per possession (ppp) in the decisive second half while holding SHU to just 0.83. (*note that 1.00 is the normalized average).

On Saturday the Warriors hung 95 points on the Bearcats thanks to an eye-popping 1.35 ppp against one of the conference's better defenses. Marquette shot 62.5% eFG% against an opponent that typically allows 0.91 ppp and 45.8%, respectively. And the Warriors held UC to just 0.92 ppp in the first half ... all the more remarkable considering that Cincy roared out to a 16-4 lead.

Obviously, this team is still improving despite the injury bug -- and in more areas than expected. In our Tweet stream on Saturday, Rob noted that MU’s turnover rate was 10% against Cincinnati --- the third-straight game with with elite ball protection (12.5%, 12.5%, 10%).

Tossups or not – Gardner or not -- MU will be a tough out in these last five games thanks to a deep, talented rotation and sound strategies on both sides of the ball which ultimately run well with just about any roster combination coach Buzz Williams chooses.

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