Ah, January. The weather certainly wasn’t warmer in Milwaukee or South Orange back then as Marquette and Seton Hall went into their first head-to-head matchup, but the optimism around both programs certainly was. But nearly two months later, the Golden Eagles and Pirates have combined to lose five straight contests, setting up this crucial Wednesday night matchup in Newark.
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The bloom has not completely fallen off the rose for no. 16 Marquette (23-6, 12-4), even though its last two losses were varying degrees of disastrous and put a serious dent in the Golden Eagles’ Big East title bid. This has been an otherwise incredibly successful season for MU, and could still finish as such, so long as Marquette wins its final two games to capture at least a share of the Big East regular season crown, and then acquits itself well in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden next week.
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Turnovers have been the Golden Eagles’ one bugaboo all season long, and boy, has that issue flared up recently, as MU threw the ball away a combined 40 times in its two losses at Villanova and home against Creighton. The ‘Cats and ‘Jays aren’t even particularly good at forcing turnovers, yet by frequently doubling Markus Howard as soon as he crossed half court, they pushed MU into two of the seven worst turnover ratesposted by any Big East team during conference play this year. MU now ranks 71st among all 87 high-major teams in offensive turnover rate.
Howard has been the leading culprit with the giveaways (13 combined over the last two games), but that is somewhat understandable given the immense burden he is often forced to carry as the lone ball handler on the floor. Marquette particularly needs two of its key secondary playmakers – Joey Hauser (9 TOs) and Sacar Anim (6 TOs) – to be stronger with the ball in traffic.
Marquette has actually shot the ball well in these two recent defeats, but the sheer volume of turnovers (40 giveaways to 44 made baskets) have completely cut the legs out from any other offensive successes. Unfortunately for the Golden Eagles, Seton Hall is one of the better teams in the Big East at forcing turnovers, doing so 20 times in its first matchup with MU.
The Pirates aren’t out of the woods though, even if they take advantage of MU’s turnover woes. Seton Hall (16-12, 7-9) is right on the NCAA tournament cut line, and has not topped one point per possession on offense during its three-game spiral. SHU is just 15-67 (22.3 percent) from beyond the arc during this stretch, though Myles Powell is still finding a way to stuff the box score (26 points per game).
Second-leading scorer Myles Cale has been particularly quiet of late, shooting just 3-13 from the field against St. John’s and Georgetown. And even while it continues to hand free possessions to its opponents, Marquette has still played stingy defense during this losing streak, and had a chance to win both games down the stretch (the Golden Eagles were up five with 5:17 left at Villanova and up four with 5:30 left vs. Creighton).
The Pirates have struggled to consistently pair a running mate with Powell this season. If Marquette can limit Powell to a relatively inefficient shooting night – MU held him to 21 points on 19 shots – then the Golden Eagles have a decent shot to pull out a road victory and remain in the Big East title race.
Of course, while Marquette is now fighting through its most adverse situation of the year – which, all things considered, is not too strenuous – Seton Hall is already quite familiar with the thrilling highs and agonizing lows of a long season.
After falling to 1-2 in November, the Pirates rattled off 10 wins in their next 11 games. Then after losing six of eight in January and early February, Seton Hall won three games in a row. Even now after yet another prolonged losing streak, it would not be surprising to see Kevin Willard’s fickle squad pull together and find home wins over both Marquette and Villanova to close out the 2018-19 regular season. Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles still have to prove they can respond with their backs against the wall. Such is life in the wacky and wild Big East.
Five of the last six Marquette-Seton Hall matchups have been decided by six points or less, and with the sloppiness that both squads have displayed over the past week, there’s a good chance this one comes down to the wire as well. Things may get sticky on the offensive end at times, but the result is all that matters at this point in the season, especially for two teams desperate for a win.