MILWAUKEE — The play that might define Marquette’s renaissance season is one the Golden Eagles probably don’t make a year ago. Ed Morrow certainly couldn’t have made that play. He wasn’t even on the court.
Morrow, a backup forward who sat out last season after transferring from Nebraska, found himself squarely in the path of Marquette triumph or heartbreak Saturday at Fiserv Forum. Marquette led 66-65, but it was winning time for No. 14 Villanova, the defending national champion, which had the ball in the hands of the ultimate winner — fifth-year senior guard Phil Booth. Villanova is 155-20 when Booth plays. Another tick on the left side of the ledger seemed inevitable for a Wildcats team riding a program-record 10-0 start to Big East play. Also inevitable, a second straight one-point, final-possession home loss for No. 10 Marquette. Especially when Booth turned the corner with six seconds left.
But Morrow moved to his right, cutting off Booth under the basket. With no room to shoot, Booth chucked the ball toward teammate Jermaine Samuels, who flung a no-chance shot as time expired.
“Booth got by his man, and Ed stepped up and protected our basket like we wanted him to, like was in our game plan,” coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “So we made Booth pass. Obviously, it was a game-winning play.”
Marquette became a top-10 team because it has started making more winning plays on defense. It will stay there because of the play Morrow made under his own basket. And if Marquette makes its first meaningful NCAA tournament run since it reached the Elite Eight under Buzz Williams in 2013 — it will be because of its growth on defense. No one recognizes this more than Markus Howard, which is kind of ironic. He’s the show here, the national star. He’s what those outside Marquette know about the program. He showed why on Saturday, scoring 38 points — his 14th career 30-point performance — including 21 of Marquette’s 30 first-half points. On an afternoon when the Hauser brothers, Sam and Joey, combined for just four points in more than 61 combined minutes, Howard carried the offense as he so often does, getting help from Sacar Anim in the second half.
“He single-handedly beat us,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “It would be stupid not to say that.”
But Howard knows he simply would be the frontman of a going-nowhere band if Marquette hadn’t significantly improved on defense. Howard averaged 20.4 points per game last season. Marquette went to the NIT. It also ranked 182nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom data. This year, Marquette has jumped to 38th, and leads the Big East in opponent field goal percentage defense, more than seven percentage points better than last year. It defends well enough to beat a team like Villanova despite getting 56 of 66 points Saturday from only two players, Howard and Anim (18 points on 8-of-10 shooting).
“Our guys have really owned the fact we had to get better on the defensive end, and we have,” Wojciechowski said.
Marquette held only four opponents to below 40 percent shooting last year. It has done so 10 times already this season, winning every contest. It would have been 11 if not for a Villanova burst late in the second half. The Wildcats opened the game with a 3-pointer but then missed 13 of their first 14 attempts from long range.
“In the offseason, when we were working out, I could just see a difference in how we defended,” Howard told ESPN. “With our length, our size, our commitment to it. I could just see it as soon as we started.”
Marquette’s defensive commitment wasn’t there Tuesday, as St. John’s scored 40 first-half points on 53.3 percent shooting. The Golden Eagles steadied themselves but surrendered a layup to Shamorie Ponds with 16 seconds left that gave St. John’s the victory. Wojciechowski admitted his team lacked the connectivity and even the fight that had spurred an eight-game win streak.
“That was not the team we were, not the team we’ve been,” Howard said. “Tonight, we really just wanted to bounce back, and the best way we could is to pick it up on the defensive end.”
When Villanova erased a 15-point deficit in less than six minutes behind Booth and surging freshman Saddiq Bey, Marquette’s newfound defensive edge seemed to crack. After Bey stole the ball from Howard with 12.8 seconds left, Marquette was headed toward a reality-check loss against a more proven foe.
But there’s a new reality with this team. Forward Theo John, the Big East’s best shot-blocker, had two swats and a game-high seven rebounds before fouling out. Anim was active on defense during Villanova’s push, and the Hauser brothers didn’t let forgettable offensive showings carry over to defense. Morrow, who replaced John, finished with no points but six rebounds and two steals in more than 21 minutes.
“Defense is as much team-oriented as it is individuals playing defense, and they’re really well-connected as a team,” Wright said of Marquette. “Howard, Anim, [Sam] Hauser, they all get older, and when you get older, you get better defensively. You get more connected.”
Villanova isn’t the same team that resoundingly won it all last year, but few teams nationally had played better recently. It’s why Anim considered Saturday “a statement win,” which will propel the Golden Eagles toward March and possibly their own deep tournament run.
“You kind of figure things out as time goes on,” Howard said, “and we have this group of guys that really buy into the process of wanting to play defense. [Wojciechowski] has been on it since I’ve been here, so I think us as a team, we’re willing to do the things necessary to win, and defense is a big part of that.”