Milwaukee, WI – Coming off an eight-day stretch with no games, Marquette returned to action on Wednesday night in a home game against a Butler team hoping to keep its name in the national discussion of NCAA tournament bubble teams. With Big East leader Villanova having lost to Georgetown earlier in the night, Marquette knew that a victory over Butler would elevate the Golden Eagles to sole position of first place in the conference.
Marquette came out more rusty than feisty and found itself playing from behind most of the first half. But rallying behind junior Markus Howard, the probable front runner for player of the year in the Big East, and sophomore Theo John, a leading candidate for most improved player in the conference, Marquette revved up its high-scoring offense in the second half to post a 79-69 victory and improve its now-Big East leading record to 11-2.
“Breaks are good, but when the bullets start flying, you can be knocked back,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “I’m not sure we’ve had a team play as hard against us in Fiserv (Forum–Marquette’s new home arena) as Butler. They physically knocked us back. They’re an NCAA team; they’ve good.” John added that he thought Marquette came out with a “lack of focus. They punched us in the mouth.”
Howard, the Big East’s leading scorer, impacted the game with his scoring from tip-off to buzzer. He got rolling early in the first half when he went off for eight straight Marquette points in a 61-second span that featured the first of his two four-point plays on the night. Howard followed up that three-point shot and free throw combination with two scoring drives to the basket. He went first to his left to score with a left-handed lay-up and followed up that drive with a penetrating move to his right that he finished with an underhand lay-up with his right hand. But Howard’s bread-and-butter scoring play is the three-point shot. Coming into the game shooting .438 from distance, fourth best in the Big East, Howard made 6 of 13 shots from behind the arc and all four of his free throws on his way to scoring a game-high 28 points, three above his average.
After watching Howard score 32 points against his team the first time the schools hooked up on January 30, a 76-58 Marquette victory at Butler, Butler Coach LaVall Jordan tried to make life difficult for the 5-11 Howard by instructing his bigs who found themselves in ball screen defense to hedge hard on Howard coming off the screen with his dribble and stay attached to Howard even after the Butler guard defending Howard had worked his way back to him. That allowed John, the usual screen setter for Howard, a free path into the paint for scoring opportunities off the pass and the freedom to stake out prime rebounding position to pull down potential offensive rebounds.
“Teams have to dedicate a lot to our shooters and to Markus Howard in particular,” said Wojciechowski. “A lot of times the second defender on Markus is the opposing team’s center. So when we got the ball out of the trap, Theo was open. He was able to finish and I thought he played with really good force.” John scored 15 points and collected 11 rebounds in registering his fourth double-double of the season. “My teammates trust me to do what I do,” said John. “If the game brings it to me, I’m going to try to do what I can (to score,)” Four of John’s six baskets, out of seven attempts, were two-handed throwdowns, most of which he executed in traffic and with authority.
The conference leader in blocked shots with a 2.38 block per game average, John was his usual rim-protecting self on defense swatting away three shots and discouraging many other Butler potential shots in the paint. Butler drivers would often get into the paint only to find John lurking and decide, usually wisely, not to challenge him. John’s emergence as the backbone of the Marquette defense this season is the primary reason why the Golden Eagles have improved from one of the worse defensive teams in the league last season to one that limits opponents to 69 points per game, second best in the Big East.
John is soft-spoken when he addresses the media and is quick to deflect credit for his play to his teammates and coaches. “Who you are away from the court, a lot of times you have to get into character on the court,” said Wojciechowski. “The game requires a certain mentality and mindset. Theo is a young man who says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and is patient when he has to wait. But when you cross the lines, it’s the law of the jungle. Theo’s become a very good player and he’s become a key player for us.”
Marquette received a lift in both halves from sophomore Jamal Cain, a bouncy 6-7 wing with three-level scoring ability, who had fallen out of the rotation for games this season in seeing his minutes reduced from his freshman season. Cain played 13 minutes off the bench on Wednesday, scored five points, made both of his shots–a midrange jump shot and a wing triple, made two steals and collected four rebounds, two on both backboards. Cain might be Marquette’s best offensive rebounder. He has instincts to anticipate balls coming off the rim and he uses his high and long jumping ability to rebound at and above the rim.
“I’m so proud of Jamal,” said Wojciechowski. “He’s a great kid. The season probably hasn’t gone to plan if you ask him, but to Jamal’s credit, he’s maintained a really good attitude. Jamal’s earned his minutes, and it all stems from the fact he’s had a great, great attitude.” Asked about Cain’s contributions, John smiled and said, “He’s my roommate. He’s been grinding and you can all see his confidence out there on the court. The sky’s the limit for him.”
Wojciechowski usually steals at least a couple of minutes of rest each half before a time-out for Howard. But he played Howard all 40 minutes on Wednesday night and explained why after the game. “There’s not a player in college basketball who’s in better condition than Markus Howard,” said the Marquette coach. “We give him rest outside of games. We need him on the floor. The rest we need to give Markus is not in games, it’s in practice.”
A win would have catapulted Butler into a third place tie in the jumbled Big East standings and given it a signature victory in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee. Playing in front of former Butler Coach Brad Stevens and former Butler star Gordon Haywood, both in town with the Boston Celtics in anticipation of their game the next night against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bulldogs were led by redshirt-junior Sean McDermott, a 6-6 wing with good length from just outside Butler’s home in Indianapolis, who needed only 13 shots to score a career-high 27 points. McDermott had it going all game from behind the arc where he displayed a quick release shooting mostly off the catch in making 4 of 5 triples. He also chipped in a team-leading eight rebounds. “The kid (McDermott) plays with an unbelievable motor,” said Wojciechowski. “He’s in constant motion, an energizer bunny He’s an example of when you play hard, good things will happen for you.”
But Stevens and Haywood were not the only members of the Celtics’ traveling party in the arena. Boston President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge arrived early to the arena and took a seat near courtside as players from both teams went through their pregame paces. Ainge settled into a seat near the Marquette basket, ostensibly to get a good look at Howard, a national player of the year candidate whose name has been climbing the mock NBA draft lists since early in the season.
Marquette heads east for a two-game swing starting on February 23 at Providence and continuing on February 27 at Villanova. Butler, one of only eight schools in the country to win at least one game in the NCAA tournament in each of the past four years, returns to Hinkle Fieldhouse to host Providence on February 26.