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Marquette is hoping to take its next step in the Big East Conference standings, having finished in ninth place and seventh the previous two years. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi)

Marquette midseason check-in and Big East Conference preview

Marquette begins its Big East schedule Wednesday night at home against Georgetown, entering the game with a 9-3 record amassed during the nonconference portion of its season.

After finishing 8-10 in the Big East (20-13 overall) in 2015-16, the Golden Eagles were picked by many media outlets to finish in the bottom half of the 10-team conference this year. Following the departure of freshman phenom Henry Ellenson, perhaps the best recruit in school history, to the NBA, Marquette regrouped around senior center Luke Fischer and its still-young core, including sophomore guard Haanif Cheatham. The team also added a couple of experienced transfers (guards Katin Reinhardt and Andrew Rowsey) and a pair of highly touted freshmen (guards Markus Howard and Sam Hauser).

The Golden Eagles split their first four nonconference games, dropping two games to power-conference opponents Michigan and Pittsburgh. They won seven of their last eight out-of-league contests, losing only to Wisconsin in the in-state rivalry on Dec. 10. But this month also brought the news that two contributors, junior Sandy Cohen and sophomore Traci Carter, had decided to transfer, the sixth and seventh players to leave the program in head coach Steve Wojciechowski's three seasons.

Trimmed down to a nine-man rotation, the Golden Eagles are getting a balanced scoring attack, with seven players averaging at least 9.0 points per game. Marquette is led by Fischer, a true low-post big man averaging team highs in points (13.5), rebounds (5.9) and blocks (1.3), while shooting 65.7 percent from the field, and all-around guards Jajuan Johnson (13.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.2 steals) and Cheatham (13.2, 4.5, 3.2, 1.3).

The freshmen, Howard and Hauser, have thus far confirmed their reputations as 3-point prodigies, both shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc on a combined 98 attempts. As expected, Reinhardt and Rowsey are adding some offense, averaging 9.6 and 9.1 points per game, respectively, with each having made 24 of 25 free-throw attempts to tie for the team lead at 96 percent.

Marquette goes as its offense goes. The team averages an impressive 85.9 points per game (19th in the country, through Dec. 25), but only 73.3 in its three losses. The Golden Eagles have been shooting the ball well from all over the floor, making 49.8 percent of their field goals (17th in the nation), including 40.3 percent from behind the 3-point line. Marquette is also best in the Big East and second in the nation in free throw percentage at 81.3. The team's effective field-goal percentage of 57.8, according to KenPom.com, ranks ninth.

The Golden Eagles have only averaged 80.0 points per game for an entire season three times before, most recently in the 1970-71 campaign; if they maintained their current scoring pace, they'd break the program's single-season record of 84.2 points per game, set in in 1954-55.

Defensively, however, Marquette has struggled in Wojciechowski's third year. According to KenPom.com, the Golden Eagles' adjusted defensive efficiency – a calculation of points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent – is 98.6, which ranks 86th in the country.

With Cohen and Carter leaving the team this month, Cheatham will have to step up even more as a leader and playmaker in the backcourt. Named to the Big East All-Freshman Team and winner of Marquette's Best Defensive Player Award last year after a breakout freshmen season, Cheatham had 16 points and eight rebounds against Wisconsin, then followed that up with 18- and 19-point performances. In the nonconference finale victory over SIU-Edwardsville, junior guard Duane Wilson had 11 points – his first game scoring in double figures in a month. Those two, along with the transfer players and freshmen, will have to shoulder an even bigger load for their squad, which essentially starts Fischer and four guards.

Sophomore center Matt Heldt, who barely played last year, has seen his role expand and minutes increase, up to 11.2 per game. The Golden Eagles need Heldt to continue improving and cut back on his fouling, in order to provide some support in the frontcourt. Fischer, meanwhile, has done a better job staying out of foul trouble this season, averaging 3.1 personals per game, but still doesn't rebound well enough for a 6-foot-11 player.

After hosting Georgetown, Marquette plays at Seton Hall on Sunday, before traveling to Villanova six days later to take on the No. 1-ranked Wildcats. The other conference teams that currently are nationally ranked are No. 10 Creighton, No. 13 Butler and No. 17 Xavier, all of whom the Golden Eagles face twice.

With a roster still relatively young and thin compared to an experienced and deep Big East, it may be difficult for Marquette to take that next step in the standings (the team finished ninth and seventh in Wojciechowski's first two seasons). The Golden Eagles haven't made the NCAA Tournament in three consecutive years, and an NIT invitation might be the best they can hope for in 2017.

But that's why they play the games, folks. Big East basketball has begun.


Talkbacks

mbradleyc | Dec. 29, 2016 at 2:01 a.m. (report)

Ellenson was not better than Rivers. He was not better than Walton or Ellis or Whitehead. He was not better than Lucas. He probably wasn't better than Crowder. He was nowhere near Wade. Please!

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