"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

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Illinois Preview, 2023-24

Illinois Fighting Illini

November 14, 2023, State Farm Center

Head Coach: Brad Underwood (223-106 overall, 114-79 at Illinois)

Three-Year NET Average: 17.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 13.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 29

Projected Starters: PG Marcus Domask (6'6" 5th), SG Ty Rodgers (6'6" So), SF Terrence Shannon (6'6" 5th), PF Quincy Guerrier (6'8" 5th), C Coleman Hawkins (6'10" Sr)


Coleman Hawkins rocks the rim at Fiserv in 2021

Photo by Mitchell Layton | Getty Images

TRIVIA TIME! Before we begin, when was the last time Marquette defeated a high-major opponent on the road in November? We'll get to the answer shortly. Now back to your regularly scheduled preview...

Illinois fans must've felt like they were on a roller-coaster last year. They started the season 9-5 (0-3 Big 10) and Brad Underwood was questioning the team's leadership and effort in December. They found their form after star recruit Skyy Clark transferred in January. Illinois had a red hot finish to January, going 7-1 through the end of the month, but closed the season with a 4-7 stretch including losses in their final three games. They lost Matthew Mayer to graduation and point guard Jayden Epps to the portal, but returned Terrence Shannon and Coleman Hawkins, both of whom flirted with the NBA Draft. They also added a trio of fifth year seniors in Marcus Domask, Justin Harmon, and Quincy Guerrier.

Few teams will start the year with a lineup as experienced as the Illini can put on the floor. Both Domask and Harmon are high-usage scorers with a ton of experience, but neither have played in the NCAA Tournament. Shannon is a lock-down defender and has been a consistently efficient offensive threat. Up front, Guerrier looked like a burgeoning star at Syracuse, but struggled to really make his mark at Oregon the past two years. Hawkins on paper is a matchup nightmare as a 6'10" big that at his best is an excellent passer and floor spacer, but too often is invisible or ineffective. They do have solid depth off the bench with combo guard Sencire Harris, wings Luke Goode and Ty Rodgers, and big Dain Dainja all capable of providing reliable minutes. The problem is there's no true point guard on the roster. During their 7-1 stretch, they were top-50 in turnover rate. Their 9-5 start they were a woeful #308 and in the 4-7 finish they were #164. It isn't difficult to see that when they turn it over, they lose far more often. In addition, while Domask and Harmon add back court scoring, both are turnover prone and that will likely only be exacerbated by transferring to a higher level.

Offensively, Illinois runs a spread offense. They put Hawkins at the free throw line, a role that his passing is ideally suited for. The other four offensive players spread out around him, leaving the corners and baseline open to try to get looks from three or clear driving lanes. They utilize a number of cutting actions to create open shots. This article from Hooper University does a great job laying out how they create offense. Defensively, Underwood has a great understanding of the modern game. He transitioned from a high-pressure defense while at Illinois. It starts on the interior, where everyone challenges shots. 9 of 11 players last year had a block rate greater than 1.0, led by Dainja, Mayer, and Hawkins. Compare that to Marquette, where only 3 of 9 players had such a block rate (Ighodaro, Gold, and Joplin). Illinois is elite at 2PFG% defense, and they are also great at chasing teams off the three-point line thanks to high-activity defenders like Shannon. Teams shot much better against them from three, but at such a low rate (#16 nationally) that it didn't hurt their eFG% defense much. Expect them to fly around on the defensive end, and while they'll get whistled for some fouls, they have the depth to offset that.

This Illinois team is hard to peg down. The positives are they have a ton of length and experience. They should be a stout defensive team and have guys who have been through the wars. But many of those guys are the same ones that have been considered disappointing the past two years, and the leadership that Underwood questioned last year is the same leadership the team has now. While they've added a ton of experience, it comes from players who have either not played in the NCAA Tournament (Domask, Harmon) or played the last two years for underachieving teams (Guerrier at Oregon). They have the talent to be a top-half Big 10 team that makes it to the Tournament, but there are enough question marks around the ball-handling and leadership to question if they get there. On their best nights, they will be able to compete with top teams, but on their worst they will likely struggle even with lesser opposition. So how will this game go for Marquette? Going back to our trivia question, if you answered "St. John's on November 13, 2003" you are a winner. It's been 20 years since Marquette won a high-major road game in November, going 0-7 in that time. It was so long ago that Marquette got that win against a Big East school that they share a league with going on 19 years. Illinois will be looking for revenge after losing as a top-10 team at Fiserv two years ago and while Marquette will likely be favorites on paper, location alone might make this the toughest test of November for Marquette, which is really saying something considering the Maui field.

What We've Learned: Illinois is undefeated through two games, but like Marquette, both were against marginal competition. The Illini have been slow starters, as they were tied with Eastern Illinois late in the first before a 21-2 run gave them command and they were trailing Oakland with 10 minutes to play before a 22-3 run put the Grizzlies away. Defensively, they look like a tough matchup for Marquette. Illinois is top-20 in both limiting the number of attempts from three and assist rate. They have also been very good defending the interior and limiting rebounds. It's hard to tell how much of that is simply level of competition, but if they can cut down passing lanes, limit attempts from three, and defend the interior, that takes away much of what Marquette wants to do. That said, Marquette will be by far the best offense they have faced. On the other end, Illinois's lack of a point guard shows as Domask has registered a career high turnover rate through the young season while Harmon hasn't really cracked the rotation. Marquette's pressure could give the Illini fits. In addition, if the Golden Eagles can turn it into a shooting competition and get looks from three, they have been far better beyond the arc (40.0%) than Illinois has been (29.2%) to date. The Kolek injury is a question mark; the latest Cracked Sidewalks has heard is that he's expected to try playing tonight. Even if he doesn't, Sean Jones' speed and distribution could cause Illinois problems. Marquette will likely be the aggressor on both ends, the only question is whether that will lead them to overplaying their hand in a hostile environment and if Illinois can find the big runs they need to protect their court.

Marquette Connection: You don't have to go back too far to remember this one. Illinois was ranked #10 coming into Fiserv for the first marquee game with fans after the COVID pandemic shut college basketball down in 2020. Marquette played close to the favored Illini into the second half, but an 11-1 run pushed Illinois into the lead and a Coleman Hawkins three seemed to be the dagger as Illinois led 58-46 with just 10 minutes to play. Illinois then turned the ball over on three of their next four possessions as a 9-0 run got Marquette back into the game. The teams largely traded scores into the final minutes. With the score 66-65 Illinois, Marquette missed three straight chances to take the lead as Morsell missed two shots and Stevie Mitchell missed two free throws. With just seconds remaining, Illinois was trying to run out the clock as Darryl Morsell bodied up Illini guard Trent Frazier. When Morsell tried to force a steal, Frazier turned his dribble away but did not realize Tyler Kolek had snuck in from behind and was waiting to poke the ball free. Kolek made the clean steal and drove the length of the floor, scoring the winning points with 18 seconds left. Kur Kuath made one more steal on the final Illinois possession and Marquette escaped with a 67-66 upset win. Here's Kolek's game-clinching play:

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Getting excited for another season of Marquette hoops

I was on campus today as I needed to attend to something downtown.

I saw the Al McGuire Center and I was filled with excitement for Marquette hoops this season

Will they win the Big East again? They got a good chance with eight of nine rotational players including four starters coming back from last season’s championship team.

The standard has to be higher than winning the Big East and just making the NCAA Tournament.

Shaka Smart and the program need to snap their Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four drought. Hey, let’s also dream and hope Marquette basketball can win its first national championship since 1977.

Hopefully, Tyler Kolek will repeat as Big East Player of the Year. If he doesn’t, let’s hope it is because Kam Jones or Oso Ighodaro beat him out for the prize.

Oso is an NBA prospect but he needs to knock down some threes if he is to improve his draft stock. Hitting threes would bring an added element to his outstanding offensive game. It can also help make up for the loss of O-Max.

Chase Ross and freshman Tre Norman and Zaide Lowery need to fill the void on defense that Prosper’s departure left.

It will be interesting to see if Shaka plays a nine or 10-man role rotation.

If he does, which of the three freshmen will be the one on the outside looking in?

We still have some days left in summer so enjoy it. That does mean you cannot be excited for some MU hoops.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Rider Preview, 2023-24

Rider Broncs

November 10, 2023, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Kevin Baggett (177-166)

Three-Year NET Average: 245.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 248.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 239

Projected Starters: PG Allen Powell (6'2" 5th), SG T.J. Weeks (6'4" 5th), SF Tyriek Weeks (6'6" So), PF Mervin James (6'7" 5th), C Tariq Ingraham (6'9" Sr)

Kevin Baggett has a MAAC POY Candidate in Mervin James

Photo courtesy of Rider Athletics

The Broncs showed flashes of potential in non-conference play last year. They had a double-digit lead in the second half at Providence before falling 66-65 and were within one possession at Georgia in the final minutes of an eventual 78-72 defeat. They put it together in MAAC play, starting an 8-game winning streak with a victory over Rick Pitino and Iona. They went on to finish second in the league before being upset by St. Peter's in the MAAC Tournament. While leading scorer Dwight Murray is gone, they bring back an incredibly experienced roster that will likely challenge for the MAAC title, seeking Kevin Baggett's second overall title and first since 2018. The question will be if they can get him to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career.

The first thing that jumps out about Rider is how old they are. This is a team with a ton of experience as four of five projected starters are seniors or fifth year players, as is the expected first man off the bench. Allen Powell is the leading returning player in terms of minutes. He can get hot and averaged double-digit scoring each of the past two years but has never had the scoring consistency Murray did. Expect a back court by committee, but Powell will likely get first crack at running the show. Massachusetts transfer T.J. Weeks will round out the back court and provides a reliable ball-handler and shooter. His brother Tyriek is a dark horse to start, but he posted 14.3 PPG/7.4 RPG for Miami-Dade College before transferring as a JUCO. The younger Weeks also shot 40.1% from three, something this team desperately needs. Up front, Mervin James is a MAAC Player of the Year candidate. He put up 12.9/6.8 last year with a 108.0 offensive rating. Wake Forest transfer Tariq Ingraham blossomed down the stretch in 2023, with a 62.7 eFG% in their last 11 games. Depth may be the only place the Broncs have questions. Corey McKeithan will likely be a spot starter after playing in every game last year and backing up the guard positions. JUCO J.T. Langston posted 15.0/7.2 for East Los Angeles Community College, but past that it's a number of unheralded freshmen that will round out the rotation, with D.J. Dudley, Ife West-Ingram, and Ruben Rodriguez looking like the most likely to contribute.

Baggett's teams want to win the fight. Offensively, they will pound it inside and rely on the strength of guys like James and Ingraham to battle on the glass and get second chance points. But they aren't teams that will win shootouts. They barely take threes (#357 in attempt rate) and they only had three guys who shot over 30% last season, all of whom are gone. The Weeks brothers can both make shots from range, which is why both will likely be heavy in the rotation. Defensively, expect them to be just as physical, which is a positive and negative. Their interior physicality allows them to control the glass and limit 2PFG%, but they also foul a lot. That focus also opens up the perimeter and while they make teams work for shots, they allow a ton of attempts from beyond the arc (#330 in defensive three point attempt rate). Make your threes and free throws and Rider will struggle to keep up.

Rider has a solid core with Powell, James, and Ingraham. The Weeks brothers are biggest question for this team. If T.J. can return to the high efficiency scorer he was earlier in his UMass career and Tyriek can provide some reliability from three, the offense should stay near the top of the MAAC. Depth will be the biggest question, as some of the freshmen will likely have to contribute from the start, but if they stay healthy they have an excellent seven-man rotation. With Iona going through a coaching change and massive roster turnover, the Broncs should be one of the favorites to win the league and give Baggett a shot at his first NCAA bid. For a guarantee game, this is a tough out and another game with Quadrant 3 potential.

Marquette Connection: Stevie Mitchell's high school career ended on March 12, 2021 as his Wilson team lost 66-58 to Reading High in the Pennsylvania District 3 Championship Game. The player most responsible for that loss was Reading's then-sophomore star, Ruben Rodriguez, who led the Red Knights with 24 points. Mitchell had a game-high 30 points and 10 rebounds, but his shot fizzled down the stretch as he went 1/4 from the field in the fourth quarter. "We know Stevie's going to get to the basket, and he's gonna get buckets," Rodriguez said, "but we just try to contain him and do the best we could. He's a helluva player." Rodriguez is now a freshman for Rider and Stevie will have a chance to get revenge for that 2021 loss. Ruben Rodriguez also commented after the game, "We knew we couldn't send our seniors home without a championship." That was a championship denied to Mitchell, and he will finally get a chance to return the sting of defeat to Rodriguez on the court.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Northern Illinois Preview, 2023-24

Northern Illinois Huskies

November 6, 2023, Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Rashon Burno (22-40)

Three-Year NET Average: 294.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 294.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 221

Projected Starters: PG David Coit (5'11" Jr), SG Keshawn Williams (6'3" Sr), SF Zarique Nutter (6'6" Jr), PF Philmon Gebrewhit (6'7" 5th), C Harvin Ibarguen (6'9" Sr)

Keshawn Williams led all scorers with 17 points in Marquette's 2021 win over NIU
Photo by Larry Radloff | Associated Press

The last time we saw Northern Illinois was two years ago, when Marquette dispatched them 80-66 at Fiserv Forum. The Huskies made a big improvement in year two under Rashon Burno, finishing 9-9 in the MAC and winning 9 of their last 17 games. Their performance per T-Rank skyrocketed, ranking #328 through January 8th and climbing to #191 the rest of the way. This was largely fueled by massive shooting improvement. They went from a 47.2 eFG% (ranked 293) to a stellar 56.0 (ranked 13). Inside, credit the emergence of Harvin Ibarguen, who ranked 3rd nationally in 2PFG% at 74.5%. Outside, it was improvement from David Coit (34.9% to 41.9%) and the departed Darweshi Hunter (25.0% to 48.3%) from deep that drove that surge.

NIU improved their kenpom rank from #297 in 2021-22 to #250 in 2022-23 and return four starters. They will be led by Keshawn Williams, who led the team in scoring average at 17.9 PPG, but it's worth noting he only played in the first 13 games of the season and NIU's improvement began after Williams went down. David Coit will run in the back court with Williams and likely take over the lead ball handler duties. Along with Zarique Nutter, the Huskies have multiple players that can create offense on and off the ball. The familiar name here is Philmon Gebrewhit, who was a spot starter for DePaul the past two years and provides another capable wing scorer. Ibarguen was one of the big surprises last year, putting up monstrously efficient offense (125.3 Offensive Rating) albeit on low usage (12.4%). His minutes, efficiency, and 2PFG% all improved in conference play, and he could be in for a huge senior year. Two more names to watch are Quaran McPherson and Ethan Butler, a pair of high-major down-transfers from Nebraska and Oregon. This roster is experienced, deep, and talented.

Offensively, Northern Illinois wants to play fast, creating turnovers and transition opportunities to generate offense. However, that was more effective in conference play than in non-con. They also played smarter and more aggressive on offense as the season went on. The Huskies attacked the rim more, got to the line more often, and took a higher percentage of their shots from deep. With their improved accuracy coinciding with increased volume, it's no wonder the offense improved. On defense, they play a pressure defense, using their length and athleticism to generate turnovers. They also have a pair of aggressive shot-blockers on the bench in Oluwasegun Durosinmi and Yanic Konan Niederhauser, but both are more likely to foul than they are to block shots. That's particularly true for Durosinmi, who fouled out 6 times on the year and while he led the team with an 8.5% block rate, he had as many or more fouls than blocked shots in 27 of 29 appearances, and in 5 of the 6 times he fouled out he did it in fewer than 10 minutes played.

For the past few years, Toledo, Akron, and Kent State have been the class of the MAC. Next year, between those 3 teams, 8 of the top 9 scorers are gone. If ever there was a season for a team to challenge from the middle of the pack, this is it, and NIU looks positioned to be a team that could make that type of charge. It might be too soon to win the league, but this looks like a top-4 team in the MAC and could even be a Quadrant 3 game by the time March rolls around. The biggest X factor may be leading scorer Keshawn Williams. While he's a highly productive player, the team's improvement in shooting and overall play coincided with his season ending injury. He will need to prove he can fit in with and augment the roster that looked so much better from January 10th on. If he does, this could be a better team than most are expecting. On opening night with multiple championships being unveiled in the Fiserv rafters, Marquette should come away with the win, but if NIU rediscovers their hot shooting, don't be surprised if they keep it closer than most expect.

Marquette Connection: After a 24-year series hiatus, this will be the third time NIU has traveled to Milwaukee since 2017. NIU was once a thorn in Marquette's side, going 2-1 against Rick Majerus in the 1980s, and they were so once again on December 18, 2017. Coming out of halftime with a 6-point deficit, the Huskies' all-time leading scorer Eugene German led a 13-3 run that gave the visitors a 49-45 lead midway through the second half. The game played close until an 11-1 run led by Markus Howard and Sam Hauser put the game away. Even still, that game foreshadowed a Marquette team with both tremendous offensive capabilities and glaring defensive weaknesses as they escaped with a 79-70 victory.