November brings about college basketball season in Milwaukee, but some of the best games might not be where you’d expect this fall. It’s a golden era for basketball fans in the Cream City. In addition to the Bucks’ annual contender status in the NBA, Marquette might have the most hyped team in program history. They’ll open the season ranked number 5 in the Associated Press poll, their highest ranking at any point in a season since March of 1978. The advanced metrics also love them: Ken Pomeroy projects they’ll have the nation’s sixth most efficient offense and has them right in the upper crust of the Big East. For the first time in a while, however, they’re not the only quality Division 1 college program in town.
In their first season under head coach Bart Lundy, UWM won 14 Horizon League games and 22 overall—their most since the spring of 2005 and 2006, respectively. They return more than half of the contributors from last year’s squad and added four Division 1 transfers, including two that played for power conference schools last season (former Washington big man Langston Wilson and Texas A&M guard Erik Pratt). And, for what it’s worth, some of the best teams to pass through Milwaukee during the upcoming non-conference season will park their buses outside Panther Arena, not Fiserv Forum.
Between now and the end of the year, Marquette and UWM will host 11 non-conference home games in the city. Here’s a quick ranking of those games, and what to watch for if you attend:
T-10. UWM vs UW-Stout on November 6 and vs Luther on November 17
This year, two of UWM’s non-conference home games are against teams from the lower levels of college basketball, which is an improvement from last season when they faced three of them: MSOE (Division 3), North Park (Division 3) and Cardinal Stritch (NAIA). They won the three games by an average score of 102-49.
While two games against non-D1 opponents is better than three, these games are still unlikely to be competitive. Stout lost their last 13 games in the WIAC to close out a 5-20 campaign at the Division 3 level last year. Luther went 9-16 at the same level a year ago and will be visiting a D1 school for the first time since losing 110-51 in an exhibition game at Northern Iowa in December of 2019.
9. Marquette vs Southern on November 28
The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) gets its moments in the spotlight in the fall as the opponent in a lot of lopsided “buy games”—games where the home team pays a visiting school to come play at their facility instead of agreeing to some kind of home-and-home arrangement. This season, Southern opens the year on an eight-game road trip, visiting TCU, UNLV, Arizona, Western Illinois, Illinois, and Valparaiso before coming to Marquette, then continuing on to Mississippi State.
Southern has been one of the more successful programs in the SWAC each of the last two seasons, winning a combined 22 of their 35 conference games. However, they changed coaches over the summer and most of the players from last year’s team followed the old regime out the door. They’ll open the year as one of the lowest-rated teams in Division 1, and Ken Pomeroy rates their chances of pulling off this upset at 0.5%.
8. Marquette vs Northern Illinois on November 6
The only time this fall when UWM and Marquette host non-conference games on the same day will be on the season’s opening night when, unfortunately, neither are likely to face a serious challenge. The Mid American Conference is a solid mid-major league, but Northern Illinois is not one of its better teams. Last season, they went 13-19 overall and finished 250th or worse out of 363 teams in KenPom for the third consecutive season.
The Huskies may be poised to take a step forward behind senior guard Keshawn Williams, who returns to DeKalb after a season where he averaged nearly 18 points per game but finished his season early with a torn ACL. The Huskies are bigger than the typical mid-major team, have some experience and can score, but it’d be a massive leap forward to go from the middle of the MAC to competing with Marquette for 40 minutes.
7. Marquette vs Saint Thomas on December 14
The Tommies are playing just their third season as a Division 1 program, but their transition to college athletics’ highest level has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped. Last season, they posted a winning record overall at 19-14 and finished .500 in the Summit League, tied for fourth among 10 teams. They’re one of just two Division 1 programs in the state of Minnesota, which may help them attract talent.
Last season on offense, Saint Thomas did two things really well. First, they took good care of the basketball, ranking near the top of D1 in turnover percentage. They also shot a lot of three pointers, which allowed them to rack up points in a hurry on the nights when they shot well. They lost their best player in guard Andrew Rohde, who transferred to Virginia, but added sharpshooter and Division 3 All American Raheem Anthony. If anything, with him on the floor, they might even shoot more from outside the arc. They’re unlikely to win or even compete in the rebound battle against Marquette, but they might keep things interesting for a bit if they can make shots.
6. UWM vs Longwood on December 13
The Big South isn’t always the sexiest mid-major league, but Longwood is a program that’s trending in the right direction. Over the last two seasons, they’ve won 46 games, including 27 in conference play. And two years ago, they were a 14-seed in the NCAA tournament. This season, they’re dealing with some turnover, as more than half of their contributions from last season came from players no longer with the program. They also brought in several potential impact transfers, including seven-footer Szymon Zapala, former Xavier wing Elijah Tucker, and a shooter who can take over a game in Johnathan Massie. The last two seasons have been easily Longwood’s best across their two decades as a Division 1 program, and it seems likely they’ll continue that trajectory this year.
5. Marquette vs Rider on November 10
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC, which is most fun to pronounce with two syllables), is a league in transition for at least the second time in a decade. As recently as 2014, this was the most uptempo conference in the nation—a group that really liked to run and played wild games. Last season, this was one of the nation’s best defensive leagues. Coaching and roster turnover crushed the MAAC this summer, though, with 14 of last season’s All Conference honorees no longer in the league. It remains to be seen if that revolving door of top talent will impact the league’s style of play again.
The lone exception to that exodus was Rider forward Mervin James, who has been a double-figure scorer in each of the last three seasons for the Broncs (yes, that’s correct, just “Broncs”). Last season, Rider got roughed up in non-conference play, but got better as the year went along, finishing second in the MAAC. This year, Marquette is the first of six consecutive road games in November, but Rider might be experienced enough to steal one or more of those games this time.
4. UWM vs Chattanooga on December 22
Last year was supposed to be a big season for the Southern Conference’s Mocs (yes, that’s correct, “Mocs”). They were an experienced team built around do-it-all big man Jake Stephens, the conference preseason Player of the Year, and despite sharing a league with a really good Furman team, they were picked to finish a strong second. That didn’t happen. Stephens held up his end of the bargain when he was on the floor (including a 31 point, 13 rebound game against UWM in December), but missed their final 11 regular season games and Chattanooga sputtered down the stretch. Stephens has since gone pro and played for the Kings this summer.
Veteran head coach Dan Earl has since retooled with five Division 1 transfers, including former Florida guard Trey Bonham and Honor Huff, an experienced young guard who was on the floor for nearly 70% of Virginia Military Institute’s minutes last season. By the time they make the trip to Milwaukee, they’ll be battle tested, having already played four road games. This will be an interesting measuring stick game for them, an opportunity to show that this reconfigured roster is ready to compete in a good mid-major league.
3. Marquette vs Notre Dame on December 9
It’s always good to see an old friend, and Notre Dame is one of Marquette’s longest tenured rivals. This will be the 120th game in an all-time series that dates back to the 1919-20 season, but had lapsed recently. Until last season, the two teams had not played since meeting in the Big East tournament in March of 2013. The next season, the Fighting Irish (yes, that’s correct, “Fighting Irish”) moved to the ACC and left their old rivals behind.
Notre Dame looked to be on pretty decent footing when Marquette visited them in South Bend last December, having won seven of their first nine games and beaten Michigan State. Their 79-64 loss to the Golden Eagles was the start of an awful ending. They lost 19 of their final 23 games, including a 3-16 stretch in conference play. Last season’s team was built around a very small collection of players and virtually none of them return this year. They’re a likely candidate to finish last in the ACC under new head coach Micah Shrewsberry, and it might be a while before this program approaches its historical levels of success.
2. UWM vs Southern Miss on November 25
While Notre Dame’s program was coming apart during the 2022-23 season, Southern Miss’ was coming together. They went 1-17 in their final season in Conference USA two years ago and graded out as one of the worst teams in the nation, but they pulled off a stunning turnaround in their first year in the Sun Belt. They opened the season with wins in 11 of their first 12 games, then reeled off another nine-game winning streak during conference play. They finished with 25 wins, their most in a decade, won a regular season conference championship for the first time since 2001, and made a postseason appearance (NIT) for the first time since 2019.
If they repeat or improve on that success, it’ll be on the back of senior guard Austin Crowley, the Sun Belt’s preseason Player of the Year. Crowley, who joined the team as a transfer from Ole Miss last season, averaged 16 points per game as an efficient scorer, solid defender and passer, and a surprisingly successful rebounder for a player with a relatively slight frame. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by somewhat polarizing former Illinois and St. John’s guard Andre Curbelo, who has extensive major conference experience but inconsistent results. We’ll know more about how that’s going to fit by the time they come to Milwaukee, as they’ll already have played a road game at MAC favorite Akron and hosted Summit League favorite South Dakota State by then.
1. Marquette vs Texas on December 6
There’s a lot to like about many of the games listed above, but they all pale in comparison to the main event. The Big East/Big 12 Battle gave the Golden Eagles a matchup that would be fascinating purely from a basketball perspective, but gets an extra interpersonal layer because of the coaches involved.
Texas is coming off a turbulent season where they were expected to be one of the nation’s best teams, but their performance was at times overshadowed by scandal, as head coach Chris Beard was fired mid-season following allegations of domestic violence. The Longhorns bounced back under interim coach Rodney Terry, but still only went 12-6 in an extremely difficult Big 12 before shifting their narrative by winning the conference tournament and going to the Elite Eight. Terry returns for his first full season as head coach and brought in some of the offseason’s top transfers, headlined by former Oral Roberts sharpshooter Max Abmas. They’ll be an experienced and explosive group on offense but KenPom projects they might be even better on defense, where his model has them as the nation’s sixth best team.
We’ll never know, of course, if the Longhorns could have reached this level under former head coach Shaka Smart. He spent six seasons in Texas from 2016 through 2021 and took them to the NCAA tournament three times, but struggled to reach the high expectations that come with that program before leaving to come to Marquette. The move has certainly worked out for him, as he’s 38-20 with a pair of NCAA tournament appearances across his first two seasons back in Milwaukee. Nonetheless, his history with the Longhorns will add some narrative drama to one of the biggest games of Marquette’s season.