The state of basketball in Milwaukee is strong. The Bucks are projected to win the most games in the NBA, and it’s on the back of one of the most exciting players in a decade. The Mike Budenholzer era is off and, goddamn, sprinting full speed. A team that hasn’t won a playoff series in almost 20 years is dominating the Eastern Conference. Go to a bar on game night and eyes are glued to television screens.
But, hey, the NBA playoffs don’t start until mid-April and the NCAA tournament will be dominating watering holes across the city for the next three weeks. So it’s good to know that there’s another squad in Milwaukee that’s putting together something special. The Marquette men’s basketball team racked up its best season in Steve Wojciechowski’s five years at the helm, finishing with a 23-8 and a second place finish in the Big East.
That earned the Golden Eagles a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, with a Thursday afternoon game against No. 12 Murray State. So, if you haven’t been paying attention, it’s time to hit pause on the Bucks (they’ll still be there when you get back), ring out ahoya, and jump aboard the Marquette Golden Eagles bandwagon. Here are some good talking points to help you sound like you’ve been watching all season long.
Most exciting player: Markus Howard
There have been higher touted recruits (Henry Ellenson) and players that were more well-suited for the NBA (Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Wes Matthews), but there hasn’t been a more fun player to watch in a Marquette jersey since Dwyane Wade took the school to the Final Four than Markus Howard. He can penetrate the lane and gracefully soar floaters above seven-footers or draw defenders and kick out to an open shooter. But his athletic magnificence emanates behind the arc. For one, he has seemingly unlimited range. Play off him and he’ll pull up a 25-footer. But play him tight and he can drive to the basket, take a big step back, and create enough space to drain an ostensibly unguarded three-pointer. He’s so good that these step-back-threes feel automatic. It’s a thing of beauty.
Stat to keep track of: Howard could break Marquette’s scoring record (and he’s a junior)
The 5-foot-11-inch guard began his Marquette career when he was just 17 years old. He celebrated his 20th birthday this month and nearly scored more points than any Marquette player ever before leaving his teens. Right now, he only needs 57 points to surpass Jerel McNeal’s 1,985-point benchmark. If Marquette can make a tournament run, it’s a certainty that he takes that mantle during the tournament (heck, it may only take one game—he’s scored more than 50 twice in the last two years). But even if he falls short, he still has another year of eligibility. That is, if he decides to stick around.
Heart of the team: Matt Heldt
More physical defenders Theo John and Ed Morrow supplanted the minutes of senior center Matt Heldt in his final season. But there hasn’t been a passionate supporter on the bench than the big man. And with the two players above him in constant foul trouble, Heldt’s number does come up from time to time. His performance against Xavier in January literally brought Wojo to tears during the post-game press conference. “He is—in terms of selflessness, and a pure heart and an all-in mentality—for our program as good as it gets. We don’t win without him”
How to celebrate: The air guitar
As far as the starting-5 goes, Howard is the guy, Theo John is the defensive enforcer in the lane, the Hauser brothers (Sam and Joey) can shoot from anywhere while providing some size, and Sacar Anim is a very good defender. But when Anim is drilling corner threes, Marquette’s offense looks unstoppable. If Anim gets hot, look for him to unleash the air guitar celebration and, hell, feel free to strum along.
What to say when things turn south: It’s okay, we have next year, too
Only Heldt, backup point guard Joseph Chartouny, and four-year walk-on Cam Marotta are graduating after this season. If Howard stays for his senior year, not only does he demolish the scoring record, Marquette could be a powerhouse next tournament.
Why Murray State can win: It has the best NBA prospect that’s not playing for Duke
Player Of The Year candidates aren’t supposed to meet until the later rounds of the tournament. But by stroke of luck, this year’s Marquette-Murray State game features two of the nation’s best scorers in Markus Howard and Ja Morant. While Howard is the better pure shooter, the 6-foot-3-inch Morant is the superior distributor, dishing out 10 assists per game and, uh, can do this. Morant has been playing against lesser competition in the Ohio Valley Conference. The NCAA tournament will be his chance to prove he can do it against the big schools.
Who will win: Marquette
Marquette stumbled down the stretch and a wrist injury has been bothering Howard. There’s a chance that the shooters go cold or Howard turns the ball over constantly, and Murray State pulls out the upset because of the sheer dominance of Morant. But even if Howard isn’t at his best, the Hauser brothers’ size and the team’s much-improved defense should be enough to pull this one out.
Marquette (5) takes on Murray State (12) at 3:30 p.m. CST on Thursday, March 21. The game will be televised on TBS.