Milwaukee, WI – If Marquette was going to upset #10 ranked Kansas State on Saturday afternoon at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, the Golden Eagles were going to have to do with their star player, junior guard Markus Howard, coming off a mid-week bout with a flu that left him operating on less than full battery. But even a weakened Howard is often good enough and that was case against the Wildcats as Howard scored from distance, in midrange, at the rim and at the free throw line in putting up 45 points in leading Marquette to a 83-71 victory.
“I knew this was a big game for our team and our program,” said Howard. “No matter how I felt, I was going to try to play to the best of my abilities. I’ve had food poisoning the last couple of days. Just having that gave me a supreme focus of trying to lock into the game and trying to do what I can to help my team get a win.”
Howard pulled up to his left–his favorite move shooting off the dribble–to make a shot-clock beating jumper from distance to tie the game at 6-6 early in the first half. He didn’t cool off until coming out for good with 68 seconds remaining in the game. Howard did major work at the free throw line where the sharp-shooting native of Chandler, Arizona connected on 19 of 21 attempts. He made four free throws in a row midway through the first half, two coming on a foul call on Kansas State’s Barry Brown when Brown was whistled for holding Howard curling a screen, and two more when Brown was called for a technical foul for demonstrating his displeasure with the call too vociferously for officials’ liking.
Although Howard did make four of the ten shots he got up from behind the arc, he mostly encountered Kansas State defenders intent on crowding him soon after crossing the midcourt line and running him off his three-point shot. Howard answered by driving the ball into the midrange where he took advantage of space to shoot pull-up jump shots and floaters. He also penetrated to the rim where he scored or drew fouls. “They’re a great defensive team,” said Howard. “They made things difficult for me early. They were making me work for everything I got, so when it happens like that, my biggest area of growth is I know not to get frustrated and to just let the game come to me. My coaches help me in terms of picking my spots.”
“He (Howard) was awesome,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “I love seeing him get to the free throw line. Teams are smart. They just attack him. He’s got to be a tough son-of-a gun mentally and physically to withstand the beating he’s going to get on a nightly basis. Today he was a tough guy.” Wojciechowski prefaced his remarks on Howard by saying he “has been real sick the last three days. He’s gotten multiple bags of fluid and hasn’t been able to practice. We didn’t know what to expect from him. But we’ll take it. He may not practice the rest of the year.” Of course, the Marquette was joking about keeping Howard, a renowned gym rat, out of practice. He was also joking when he added that, “I am mad at him (Howard) because he gave me his flu.”
“He (Howard) has 45, an unbelievable game for him,” said Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber. “They give him the ball and the other guys swallow their egos and let him make the plays and get him open. Obviously, we didn’t have a good scheme. I thought we were worried about the threes and maybe too much. I said to (assistant) Coach Frazier ‘who’s going to guard him when Barry isn’t in there?’ Obviously, we didn’t have anybody who could do the job today.”
As much as Howard got Marquette going in the first half and allowed the Golden Eagles to play from in front the whole second half, he was not the first subject Wojciechowski addressed upon meeting with the media after the game. For one of the infrequent times since taking over as Marquette coach five seasons ago, Wojciechowski started with commenting on his team’s defensive effort against the Wildcats. “I’m really proud of the defense our team played today, especially in the first half,” he said. “I thought we had a stretch there (in the first half) where we held them scoreless for a long period of time. We thought Kansas State was one of the best defensive teams in the country, so we had to do a good job ourselves of defending them and be ready for a grind-it-out game.”
Limiting the Wildcats usually means containing their two top scorers, seniors Dean Wade and Brown. Wade is a 6-10 senior from St. John, Kansas, just outside the Kansas State campus in Manhattan, whose name popped up on most, if not all, of the Big 12 preseason all-conference teams. He entered the game leading the Wildcats in scoring, rebounding and assists. A big with three-level scoring ability, Wade found open looks limited in the first half. On the rare occasions Wade found himself in space matched up against a single Marquette defender, he was hesitant to make a scoring move and often passed to teammates. He did connect on all four of his first-half free throws, but his only field goal in the first 20 minutes came with seconds left before the halftime horn when he caught a pass above the arc at the left wing and buried a jumper to increase his scoring total to seven.
Wade would only add four more points in the second half to finish with 11 points, more than five below the 16.2 ppg scoring average he brought into the game. In a game with 53 personal fouls called, Wade played most of the second half burdened with foul trouble. After picking up his fourth foul with 12:07 left in the game and resting for a time, it was not long before he picked up his fifth foul upon re-entering the game. “Our defense on Wade and Brown, they’re their two go-to guys, was huge,” said Wojciechowski. “Sam (Hauser) was on Wade quite a bit and Joey (Hauser) did a good job on Wade when he was in there. We had a number of wings on Brown and all of them did a good job.”
Marquette’s lead grew to 17 points at the 8:57 mark of the second half, but the Wildcats quickly cut the lead down to within striking distance. “We kept staying there,” said Weber. “We’d get it to ten, get it to eight or whatever, and then we’d come down and didn’t keep our poise on offense and make the right play. It’s disappointing. But we’ve got to learn from it. We could have easily just stayed at home and played a bunch of games, but we felt like this was good for us in the long run.”
Kansas State parlayed strong defensive play into a run to the Elite Eight in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Included in that stretch was an upset victory over Kentucky in a game the Wildcats held the high-scoring Kentucky offense to 58 points. Wojciechowski expected to face stiff defensive pressure, and early on, his team was running offense late into the shot clock and having to take low-percentage shots to beat the buzzer. “This is a team that because it doesn’t allow you to run your offense and makes you make plays, that you have to be able to drive the ball against,” he said. “Sacar (Anim) and Markus were fantastic drivers. That’s why we were able to win the free throw battle (36-31.)”
The game marked a homecoming for Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber, who attended high school in Milwaukee at the time Al McGuire coached Marquette and observed the legendary coach from a distance. He started his coaching career at two Marquette area high schools before entering the collegiate ranks at Western Kentucky and going on to head programs at Southern Illinois and Illinois, where he led the Illini to the NCAA championship game against North Carolina in 2005. He took over the Kansas State program in 2012. An 82-67 victory over Missouri was the Wildcats’ most impressive win in opening the current season with a 6-0 record. The Wildcats return to practice this week before traveling to Tulsa on December 8 to attempt to revenge last season’s loss to the Golden Hurricane.
If Marquette is to contend for the top position in the Big East as most preseason publications predict, much will fall on the slight shoulders of Howard, whose 19 made free throws eclipsed the previous school record of 16 set by Andrew Rowsey. “We want Markus to be aggressive,” said Wojciechowski. “It also helps him that he plays with teammates that you can’t help off of. Our big guys did a great job of freeing him up with ball screens and because we have guys who can really shoot, the floor is more open than it would be if he were playing for someone else.”
Marquette, 6-2 overall and 4-0 at home after the win, looks to extend its unblemished record in the new Fiserv Forum when it welcomes UTEP to Milwaukee on December 4.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can follow us on Facebook, or on twitter. We are looking for those interested in our basketball scout apprenticeship program. For information contact us and forward your resume.