Milwaukee, WI – As one of the best shooters in college basketball, Marquette’s Markus Howard has not had much practice bouncing back from sub-par shooting games this season, primarily because he has not had many sub-par shooting games to bounce back from. But he had one in Marquette’s last game, an 89-69 defeat to St. John’s on New Year’s Day in which Howard misfired on 13 of 15 shots and scored only eight points, the only time this year he failed to dent the double-digit scoring mark.
Breaking free from a Xavier defense designed “to make him (Howard) earn his points” according to Xavier Coach Travis Steele, Howard scored 16 second half points on his way to authoring a 26-point game to lead Marquette to a 70-52 victory in front of over 17,000 fans. Entering the game ranked 16th and 18th in the two major national polls, Marquette improved its record to 12-3 and evened its Big East record at 1-1. Xavier fell to 9-7 and dropped to 1-2 in the Big East.
This was the ninth time this season Howard put up a 20-plus point game, but this game had a different feel to it as it was less about how many points Howard and Marquette scored as it was about how few Marquette allowed. In limiting the Xavier to 52 points, Marquette held the Musketeers to 20 points below the average of 72 they brought with them into the game. “Our guys came into the game with a real defensive mindset,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “I thought we competed very well on the defensive end of the floor. Our physicality was good and our rebounding was good. They’re a good team with players who played on a Big East championship team last year. To get a conference win is like gold. I’m proud of my team especially on the defensive end.”
Howard’s scoring ability has attracted nationwide attention in the first two months of the season. His Big East-leading scoring average of 24 ppg includes two 45-point eruptions, both coming against teams–Kansas State and Buffalo–ranked in the top 20 in the nation at the time Marquette played them. Lost in part in Howard’s scoring outbursts this season has been the junior’s improved playmaking ability. He entered the game averaging close to four assists per game and doubled that on Sunday afternoon with eight assists against Xavier. Marquette scored its first points of the game when Howard drove along the right baseline and found Sacar Anim slashing to the basket for a lay-up. Howard had two highlight reel assists, both in the second half and both resulting in teammates’ dunks. His advance pass found Anim streaking ahead of the Xavier defense and his lob pass above the rim landed perfectly into the hands of Jamal Cain. “I thought Markus really passed the ball well today,” said Wojciechowski. “He had eight assists, and to be quite frank, it probably could have been 14 today. But that (teammates’ missed shots) happens in a game.”
“Markus Howard is a special, special player,” said Steele. “I thought Naji Marshall did a pretty good job on him and I thought Tyrique (Jones) and Zach (Hankins) did a good job of being at the level of the screen (in ball screen defense).”
The Marquette offense got a welcome jolt from the redshirt-junior Anim, a 6-5 slashing wing who poured in a season-high 20 points, some 14 above the average he carried with him into the game. Anim scores primarily at the rim. Marquette runs an offensive set that puts the ball in the hands of Anim coming out of a hand-off pass on the left wing area. With teammates spread around the perimeter and a Marquette big sealing a potential help defender out of the paint, Anim has space to drive the ball to the basket and finish with his dominant (right) hand on the right side of the rim. Anim scored one time each half on the play against Xavier.
“Sacar is a good player,” said Wojciechowski. “He’s at his best when he’s driving and creating. When he gets into the paint, he can find people. His ball handling and decision making are important for our group.” One of Anim’s two assists came after he beat his defender off the bounce, killed his dribble in the paint, pivoted and made a kick-out pass to a wide open Howard above the arc at the top of the key who promptly knocked down the jump shot.
“Every team has a game plan to stop Markus,” said Anim. “I try to impose my will (on the game) on defense first. I just have to go out there and be aggressive and attack.” Anim’s one-handed flush finish of Howard’s hit-ahead pass brought the Fiserv Forum crowd to its feet. “The guys were making fun of me,” he said through a laugh. “They were like ‘finally you dunked one.’ I think that was my first dunk of the year. It felt real good.”
With junior Sam Hauser, Marquette’s second leading scorer, limited to only seven minutes in the first half with two early fouls, the Golden Eagles received a scoring lift from Joey Hauser, Sam’s freshman brother who plays with the measured pace of an upperclassman. Connecting on 6-of-10 field goal attempts including 3-of-4 from distance, Joey scored 18 points to tie his career high. “Sam is a real good shooter,” said Joey. “Tonight was one of those nights when it wasn’t falling, so I kind of stepped up in that role.”
Marquette has been getting strong post play for much of this season from 6-9 sophomore Theo John. A defensive-minded big, John’s 1.9 blocked shot per game average entering the game was best in the Big East. Saddled with foul trouble, John played only 14 minutes against Xavier before fouling out. As he has done in previous games, 6-7 junior Ed Morrow came off the bench to more than hold the fort for Marquette. A transfer from Nebraska playing his first season with the Golden Eagles, Morrow banged with the taller Xavier bigs for 20 minutes and in the process pulled down a team-high ten rebounds. “Ed, especially in the second half, provided us with a physical presence on the defensive end,” said Wojciechowski.
Xavier swept Marquette in both meetings last season on its way to winning the Big East regular season title and earning a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. When Chris Mack left as Xavier coach after last season to take over the reigns at Louisville, the University elevated the 36-year old Steele to the top job from his position as assistant coach. While he welcomed four rotational players back from last year’s team, he also had to find a way to replace seniors Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Karem Kanter, the three top scorers from that team.
Points were hard to come by for Xavier against the Marquette man-to-man defense. Junior Quintin Goodin, the Musketeers’ leading scorer at 13.5 ppg, struggled to find room to operate in the Marquette defense and scored only one point. Sophomore Naji Marshall, a 6-7 wing, led Xavier with 21 points. A two-level scorer, Marshall dribbled into midrange jump shots and drove the ball to the basket where he finished with both hands and through contact. Both Marshall and teammate Paul Scruggs, the only other Xavier player to score in double figures with 17 points, converted on 7-of-8 free throw attempts.
“Give Marquette credit; they defended us real well,” said Steele. “I thought our guys competed from start to finish and I’m proud of that. Self-inflicted wounds are killing us. We have to take better shots and our turnovers led to a lot of run outs and open threes for them.”
Xavier returns home to face Georgetown on January 9 while Marquette travels to Omaha, Nebraska to challenge Creighton also on January 9.