Milwaukee, WI –Xavier Coach Chris Mack’s work in the first half of the season in leading the Musketeers to a 15-1 record impressed the decision makers at the Sporting News so much that they recently named him Midseason National Coach of the Year.
On Saturday afternoon at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Mack impressed the 14,864 Marquette fans in attendance with that same coaching ability in guiding Xavier to a 74-66 victory over Marquette.
Off to a slow start, trailing Marquette 12-6 after five minutes of play, Mack switched the Musketeers out of their man-to-man defense and into a 1-3-1 half court zone that negated the Marquette inside play of bigs Henry Ellenson and Luke Fischer, limited dribble penetration of the Marquette guards, forced shots from behind the three-point line and sparked a 21-0 run that gave Xavier control of the game it would never relinquish.
“I thought the game swung when we went to our zone defense,” said Mack. “It helped us build a lead and caused some hesitation on their part. Our zone is more of a curve ball for us than a staple. But we spent a little longer in it today than usual.”
“It’s an unusual defense,” added Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski. “You don’t see it often. They’re big and long.”
But players must execute coaching strategies, of course, and the Musketeers did their part by raising their level of play after the slow start. Coinciding with Xavier’s big run was the insertion of 6-10 senior center James Farr into the game. Leading the Musketeers with an 8.3 rebound per game average, good enough for fourth in the Big East, Farr not only impacted the game with his rebounding in collecting seven first half boards, but he also scored 16 points before intermission, six more than his 9.9 per game average.
A big who gives defenses a different look as a left-handed shooter, Farr was active in the paint moving without the ball for catches and finishes at the rim. He showed off a back-to-the basket game mostly catching the ball on the right block, backing his defender down into the paint and shooting a jump hook over his right shoulder. On one of the rare times Farr received the ball outside of the paint, he squared up along the right baseline and connected on a 15-foot jump shot.
In addition to connecting on 6-of-8 shots from the field, Farr was a perfect 4-for4 from the free throw line in the first half. Farr was coming off a game against DePaul on January 12 where he made 1-of-6 shots and scored four points in only 16 minutes of play.
“I thought his preparation wasn’t what it was for the first 15 games leading up to the DePaul game, and my job is to tell him the truth,” said Mack of a talk he had with Farr. “He was terrific today. He was a one-man wrecking crew on the glass.”
While Farr was doing work around the basket, Xavier sophomore wing Trevon Bluiett was scoring from the perimeter.
Connecting once from well behind the three-point line and twice from midrange, Bluiett scored seven first half points in helping Xavier to a 38-28 lead. One of Bluiett’s midrange shots came after finding himself being guarded by the 6-11 Ellenson. Making a jab step to create space from Ellenson, Bluitt shot over the long-armed Marquette defender to score.
“He (Bluiett) is certainly in better shape than last year,” said Mack. “He has a good I.Q. for the game. He’s a terrific shooter and much improved defender.” “He’s a tremendous shooter with a nack for scoring,” echoed Wojciechowski. “He’s playing a lot harder this year. I admire him for taking that next step.”
Marquette made runs at Xavier in the second half, cutting the lead to single digits a number of times, but Xavier always answered. Xavier guard Myles Davis, without a made field goal in six attempts through the first 30 minutes of the game, knocked down two three-point shots from the right wing and right corner in the last six minutes of the game to keep Marquette at bay and quiet the home crowd.
“I and our staff have a lot of confidence in him (Davis),” said Mack. “He’s a closer.”
The game marked the return of Xavier guard Edmond Sumner, a redshirt freshman who fell hard to the floor in Xavier’s only loss on the season to Villanova on December 31 and had not played since. A willowy 6-6 native of Detoit, Sumner sliced through the Marquette defense on more than one occasion to score for himself and set up teammates to score. He finished with 15 points despite connecting on only 6-of-11 free throw attempts. His five assists were a team high.
“He (Sumner) was a little gassed, but in the last two days of practice, I didn’t see any difference than before (the injury),” said Mack. “We need him to be a play starter for us and he was real good today.”
In building its early lead, Marquette went repeatedly to Fischer on the low block, and the junior responded by converting on his first three shots in recording Marquette’s first six points. But as has happened no doubt far too frequently for Wojciechowski’s liking this season, Fischer was sidelined with first-half foul trouble and would in fact finish the half with three fouls. Fischer would foul out in the second half after scoring 11 points.
“We wanted to get Luke involved early,” said the second year Marquette coach. “I thought the foul trouble knocked him off his rhythm.”
Entering the game as the Big East’s fourth leading scorer at 15.7 points per game, Ellenson led the Golden Eagles with 20 points scoring often with midrange jump shots from the wings.
Marquette’s inability to hit from behind the arc, where it was only 4-for-25, played a huge role in its defeat. Marquette sophomore Duane Wilson, shooting a respectable 35 percent from distance coming into the game, connected on only 1-of-10 three-pointers.
“I thought we had some open looks from behind the three-point line,” said Wojciechowski. “Off the top of my head, I’d say of the 25 shots we took, 15 of them were open looks. We’re a better shooting team than what we showed. In order to beat good teams, you have to make more shots than we did.
“There are going to be nights when you don’t make shots. We have to find a way to win when shots aren’t falling. On the other side of it, really tough teams don’t make excuses when they aren’t making shots.”
Marquette got a boost from rotational players Jujuan Johnson and Wally Ellenson, the older brother of Henry. Johnson sliced through the Xavier zone to score all his 13 points in the second half. Wally Ellenson not only played a career high 20 minutes, he also recorded career highs in points (nine) and rebounds (eight.)
“Without Jujuan and Wally, we would have lost by 30 points,” said Wojciechowski.
While disappointed losing to a Xavier team ranked in the top ten in both major polls, Wojciechowski said he was impressed with what he saw from the Musketeers. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be on teams and staffs that had the potential to win a national championship, ” he said referencing his years as a player and coach at Duke. “Xavier is that level of a team. Look, they bring in Farr and Sumner off the bench. Farr is a beast and Sumner may be the best pro prospect on that team.”
Now winners of four straight, Xavier looks to extend its winning streak when it hosts Georgetown on January 19. Marquette continues a two-game homestand by welcoming DePaul to the Bradley Center on January 20.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can subscribe to our RSS feed from the upper right corner of our home page, follow us on Facebook, or on twitter.
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