Milwaukee, WI— DePaul blitzed high-scoring Marquette guard Markus Howard in ball screen defensive coverages and ran him off the three-point line when he did find space behind the arc. The Golden Eagles were forced to look elsewhere for points if they were going to defeat DePaul in a Big East Conference match-up in Milwaukee on Wednesday night. Where they looked was toward the basket and what they found was sophomore Theo John, a 6-9 big who muscled his way to a career-high 16-point scoring game to help Marquette to a 79-69 win to run its conference winning streak to six games, the longest conference win streak in the five-year tenure of Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski.
John, a one-level scorer who scores at the rim, rolls out of ball screen actions. With DePaul focusing much of its defensive attention on Howard, the Big East’s leading scorer entering the game with a 24.4 points per game average, John found space in the paint rolling out of high ball screens and Howard delivered the ball to his teammate where he could catch it and score it usually with two-hand dunks. “He (John) has learned to play with great physicality defensively,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “We need to help him learn to use that physicality and his body and size on the offensive end. I thought today he did that. He made some real physical plays offensively.”
For most of his short time at Marquette, John’s contributions have come mostly at the defensive end. He’s developed into an elite basket protector blocking and altering shots both as a primary and secondary defender. His six blocked shots against DePaul came on the heels of a five-block game against Providence, and he ended the night as the Big East’s leading shot-blocker with 2.3 blocks per game average. “Theo provides an unbelievable physical presence,” said Wojciechowski. “He’s a rim-protector, he’s physical, he rebounds and he covers up a lot of our mistakes.”
John’s shot-blocking skills are more advanced than his rebounding ability at this stage in his development. He entered the DePaul game 28th in the Big East with a 4.6 per game rebounding average. But he is increasingly announcing his presence on the backboards as the season moves along and he more than doubled his season rebounding average by pulling down a team-high ten rebounds against DePaul. “I’m just trying to bring the same energy every game,” said John. “For my role it’s on the defensive end, rebounds, blocking shots, being the energy guy. When they throw me the ball in the post, I just try to dunk everything.”
Howard adjusted to DePaul’s increased attention to him behind the arc, where he missed the only two three-point shots he attempted, by driving the ball into the midrange to shoot and pass. His four baskets came on short jumpers and runners and when he was not finding John rolling to the basket, he was making kick-out passes to Sam and Joey Hauser behind the arc to help them shoot a combined 6 of 13 from distance. Entering the game fifth in the Big East with an assist average of 4.1 per game, Howard handed out a game-high nine assists to tie a career high. “I thought Markus made a concentrated effort to share the ball,” said Wojciechowski. Howard finished with a game-high 23 points that included a perfect 15 for 15 performance at the foul line.
“Markus has gotten significantly better, but he’s still developing as a player and we can forget that,” said Wojciechowski. “Tonight he made some really nice passes. Defensively, he has improved significantly. I heard his voice a ton in huddles and on the bench, and when he talks, we’re a better team.” The 5-11 Howard did struggle at times with DePaul’s length and turned the ball over a season-high eight times.
“You put a great player out there (Howard) and you have to have a lot of eyes on him,” said DePaul Coach Dave Leitao. “He’s a very difficult guard. He doesn’t need much time or space to shoot, he can take you right and left and he’s as good at using screens as I’ve seen in a long time. He’s kept me up at night since our last game trying to figure out how to guard him. If you had told me that we’d have a game where Markus Howard wouldn’t make a three-point shot and commit eight turnovers, I would think we’d have a good chance to win. But they are anything but a one-man group. I thought Theo John played great and was the reason they won tonight.”
The Hauser brothers were coming off a week that saw Sam being named the Big East player of the week and Joey winning the award as conference freshman of the week. It represented the first time in conference history that brothers were so honored in the same week. They combined for 33 points against DePaul and together are averaging over 36 ppg in Marquette’s last three games. Joey scored six of Marquette’s first eight points with two triples before Sam starting finding his offensive groove later in the first half. Sam turned in his typically efficient game needing only 11 shots to score 19 points.
With Sam and Joey among the top ten free throw shooters in the conference, they combined to make 9 of 10 free throws on the night to help thwart any thoughts of a DePaul second-half comeback. “They’re both very smart players and terrific teammates who can play inside, play outside and are good decision makers,” said Wojciechowski. “The thing is that at the end of games, when you have Markus and the Hausers on the floor, as long as we don’t turn it over and keep the ball in their hands, when those guys get fouled and walk to the line, you feel pretty good.”
It’s an understatement to say DePaul has struggled since the reconfiguration of the Big East in 2013. If the Blue Demons have not finished at the bottom of the conference in the last number of years, they have not been far from it. But those days could be over as soon as this season as DePaul came to Milwaukee with a 3-3 conference record and fresh off a victory at Seton Hall where the Blue Demons put up 97 points against a normally stingy Seton Hall defense.
Max Strus, a 6-6 senior wing who started his collegiate career playing two seasons at D-II Lewis University in Illinois, leads the Blue Demons in scoring with an average just under 18 ppg. Usually a tough match-up for defenses with the ability to find space behind the arc against bigger defenders while also possessing the strength to back down smaller defenders and shoot over them in the paint, Strus found scoring opportunities limited against Marquette. Guarded closely for most of the night by Sam Hauser, Strus converted on only 4 of 17 shots including 2 of 9 from distance and was held to 12 points.
But DePaul starting bigs–senior Femi Olujobi and sophomore Paul Reed–picked up the scoring slack for the Blue Demons. A fifth-year graduate transfer from North Carolina A&T, the 6-9 Olujobi is the rare post player with the strength to bully a defender in the paint while also being able to step out and knock down a face-up jump shot from as far out as behind the arc. He posted a double-double with 15 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. With Olujobi imposing his will on the Marquette defense in the second half and the Golden Eagles fouling him to prevent shots in the paint, Olujobi showed off a soft shooting touch making 7 of 8 free throw attempts.
Only a sophomore, Reed entered the game having put up three double-doubles in a row. Also at 6-9 but with a long, willowy body, Reed is a developing three-level scorer who knocked down 1 of 3 attempts from distance with a high-arching, soft-landing jumper. But he does his best work in the paint where he uses his instincts and length to rebound and score. Twice Reed found himself far under his team’s basket after collecting an offensive rebound or loose ball. Using his length and showing no fear of Marquette’s shot-blocking tandem of John and Ed Morrow, Reed maneuvered his way through the thicket of bodies in the paint to score. Reed finished with 18 points and seven rebounds and although he saw his double-double steak end at three, Fiserv Forum fans got the chance to see two of the most improved players in the Big East in Reed and John.
Marquette, winners of all its 14 home games this season, takes to the road for a two-game swing starting on January 26 at Xavier. DePaul concludes a three-game road trip at Providence on January 27.