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Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Marquette Preview, 2023-24

Marquette Golden Eagles

April 8, 2024

Head Coach: Shaka Smart (320-162 overall, 48-20 at Marquette)

Three-Year NET Average: 51.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 49.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 17

Projected Starters: PG Tyler Kolek (6'3" Sr), SG Stevie Mitchell (6'3" Jr), SF Kam Jones (6'5" Jr), PF David Joplin (6'8" Jr), C Oso Ighodaro (6'11" Sr)

Tyler Kolek and Marquette won the Big East regular season and tournament titles

Photo by John Minchillo | AP Photo

Even the most optimistic Marquette fans didn't expect the team to reach the heights they did last year. Driven by All-American and Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek, Marquette started slow out of the gate, but showed their potential by battering then-#6 Baylor and took off in Big East play, going 17-3 in conference play and punctuating that with the program's first ever Big East Tournament Title. They earned a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the highest in program history, and won a NCAA Tournament game for the first time in a decade. For Marquette fans, years ending in the number 3 have been very good to them. Dwyane Wade and the Final Four in 2003, sharing the Big East title and going to the Elite 8 in 2013, and double Big East titles and an NCAA win in 2023. The only player of significance from that team that departed was Olivier-Maxence Prosper, who was a first round NBA Draft pick.

The top of the scouting report will start with Kolek. He had already proven he was a lethal passer as a sophomore, but he reined in his turnovers and improved his shooting efficiency in his All-American campaign. While it might be hard for fans to imagine Kolek being much better, it's worth noting he was actually significantly more efficient in Big East play (126.0 to 118.0) indicating he was already making improvements during the year last season, and as Paint Touches explained historically returning guards with his pedigree end up First Team All-Americans. We expect Stevie Mitchell to retain his starting role. Mitchell is a bit of a Swiss Army Knife for Marquette. He showed flashes of scoring ability, knows his offensive role, can hit shots both inside and beyond the arc, but is best known for his tenacious defense. Kam Jones was Marquette's leading scorer. He gained attention as a sharpshooter his freshman year, but it was his incredible interior scoring that raised eyebrows this past year. Jones' 64.3% 2PFG% was the best mark for a high-major player under 6'5". He has a combination of creativity and interior shot-making prowess that Marquette fans haven't seen since Davante Gardner, albeit in a significantly different package. Stepping into Prosper's role will be David Joplin. The forward is known for his microwave scoring ability and led the team in 3PFG% last year. As the year went on, his hands were visibly more active on defense, which will need to continue because Prosper was the guy you put on the opponent's best perimeter weapon and forgot about them. Up front, Oso Ighodaro is one of the savviest bigs in the country. He runs a beautiful pick-and-roll game with Kolek and is an excellent passer with good touch around the rim. But as good as he is offensively, Marquette absolutely needs him on the defensive end. Per hoop-explorer, Marquette is 12.2 adjusted points/100 possessions better when Oso is on the floor. The bench should be better than last year, provided it is healthy. Shaka Smart calls Sean Jones "the fastest player with the ball in his hands I've ever seen" and he provides a change of pace from Kolek along with very good defense. Chase Ross might be the most promising NBA prospect on the team. He's probably the most likely to crack the starting lineup if there are any setbacks for the projected starters. Ross has phenomenal leaping ability, good defensive instincts, and looks to have retooled his shot in the offseason. Ben Gold hopes to overcome shin splints from the offseason and is another player that looks to have a high upside. His efficiency improved significantly in Big East play, posting a 121.2 offensive rating while connecting on 39.3% from beyond the arc. If Big East Ben shows up for a full season in more minutes, Marquette could have one of the best front courts in the country to go along with what Field of 68 is already calling the best back court in the country.

Marquette's offense is a thing of beauty. They play at a breakneck pace, with the players and ball moving constantly. They place a high value on quality shots, which the staff indicates are either dunks, shots in the paint, or open threes. It helps to have a maestro like Kolek, who is excellent at the drive and kick, whether to the perimeter to another player in the paint. Ighodaro plays perfectly off him and is excellent not just at providing passes for others but at making runs into the post where he is great at getting open and finishing. There are rumors that Oso is adding a three-point shot to his arsenal, which would make a dangerous offense even more lethal because every significant returning player shot at least 30% from deep last year. If they have a weakness, it's on the offensive glass. Gold led the team in OR% last year and more minutes from him should help on that end, but it's a team-wide weakness. But this is an offense that ranked #7 last year and returns 83.7% of the scoring. Statistically, it seems likely this will be the #1 offense in the country and anything outside the top-5 would probably be underachieving. Defensively, Marquette plays with a similar aggression to Smart's VCU teams, but with a different end in mind. They don't press the way VCU did, which is why they have a respectable foul rate, but everyone plays with active hands and works to get into passing lanes which drove their top-20 defensive turnover rate. They also intend to challenge every shot, but last year's #230 eFG% defense would indicate that area still needs work. Finally, they are not a good defensive rebounding team. Marquette does well dragging out possessions and forcing teams into late shot clock situations (evidenced by their #358 defensive possession length, which is a good 358) but those lengthy possessions are also created by an inability to secure rebounds. Marquette didn't have a single player ranked in the top-500 in defensive rebounding rate. For their defense to take the next step, it would help to at least be a decent rebounding team. They will never be elite in this area under Smart, but going from sub-300 to at least average would help significantly.

So how good will this Marquette team be? That will likely be determined by the defense. Prosper was the best man defender, but the year before Darryl Morsell was the guy Smart stuck on the opponent's best perimeter player and Marquette improved defensively despite his departure. Given Smart's history and the team experience, the defense should improve, but whether it goes from #43 in defensive efficiency to 30-35 or 20-25 is the difference between a dangerous March team and a NCAA favorite. We should also have a very good idea before the end of November. Playing at Illinois is a major challenge, and it's entirely possible, if not probable, that the Maui Invitational will have 4 teams that end up occupying the top two seed lines, with the most likely preseason #1/2 both there in Kansas and Purdue. Win Maui and Marquette could find themselves atop the rankings before November is out, while breaking the NCAA record for the longest drought between #1 rankings. Ohio State went 16,422 days from March 12, 1962 until February 26, 2007 between being ranked #1. When the season tips off on November 6, it will have been 16,695 days since Marquette February 20, 1978 when Marquette was last ranked #1.

One Man's Opinion: Considering what they return, I am picking Marquette to finish #1 in the Big East. This is a team with real 1-seed upside and is not just a league contender, but a national title contender. Given what the offense returns and the historic improvement of teams with this much scoring returning, Marquette's offense has the ability to be mentioned alongside teams like 2015 Wisconsin, 2018 Villanova, and 2021 Gonzaga when the season ends. And given Shaka's history as well as the overall roster experience, the defense should be better, even without Prosper. However the biggest factor is this staff's track record with player development. We saw what they did with Justin Lewis and Oso Ighodaro in 2022. We saw the jumps taken by Kam Jones, Stevie Mitchell, Tyler Kolek, O-Max Prosper, and David Joplin in 2023. And in terms of raw talent, Chase Ross and Ben Gold might have the most elevator potential of any players they've had so far, not to mention Sean Jones should finally be healthy with a full off-season working with the staff. This team has experience, depth, talent, and a coaching staff that has proven to be a perfect fit to the program they run. While this team will almost certainly be judged by what happens in March, they have as good a chance as anyone at cutting down nets not just in early March, but in early April.

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