NCAA Tournament Sleeper Pick: Marquette Golden Eagles

NCAA Tournament Sleeper Pick: Marquette

Special college basketball teams are often the ones whose sum is greater than their overall parts, with players who have and understand clearly defined roles.

Yes, star power matters, but Final Four and NCAA Tournament title runs are sometimes equal parts talent, chemistry, favorable matchups, and luck. Look at the 2011 Virginia Commonwealth team that was a controversial selection to the Field of 68 as a No. 11 seed and was placed in the First Four before racing its way to the Final Four. Or Butler making back-to-back NCAA Tournament championship appearances in 2010 and 2011. Or the runs of fellow 11 seeds Loyola of Chicago in 2018 and UCLA in 2021, the latter duplicating VCU’s First Four to Final Four journey.

Marquette, currently ranked 11th in the AP Top 25, is not going to need a First Four game for any potential deep March run and is one of the biggest overachievers in the country after being pegged for a ninth-place finish in the Big East preseason poll. The Golden Eagles lead the conference with four games remaining and are idle until a key encounter at No. 18 Creighton on Tuesday night. If Marquette wins that contest, it controls its destiny for a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Shaka Smart’s team has gotten plenty of plaudits for its play thanks to a crisp offense, a notable departure from Smart’s calling card of “havoc” defense that powered his rise at VCU and that 2011 Final Four appearance. In his second season in Milwaukee, Smart has full buy-in from his players, evidenced by them gutting out a 69-68 win against No. 16 Xavier on Wednesday night, which gave the Golden Eagles some breathing room atop the conference.

Sportsbooks have noticed the Golden Eagles taking flight, gradually shortening their odds as they have risen in the rankings. As a team with a public profile and flirting with a Top 10 ranking, Marquette may not fully fit the “sleeper” definition, but there can still be value for sports wagering purposes heading into March.

Reinvented offense pays huge dividends

Oliver Maxence-Prosper (@olmaxpros8) puts back a missed Kam Jones (@csgkam) shot giving #11 @MarquetteMBB a 69-68 victory over #16 Xavier (@XavierMBB) at the Fiserv Forum (@FiservForum) on February 15, 2023 #mubb

— Marquette Overload (@MUOverload) February 16, 2023

Smart and top assistant Nevada Smith have rejiggered Marquette’s offense after last season’s unexpected NCAA Tournament appearance and a 95-63 pummeling by North Carolina in the 8-9 game of the first round. Marquette has essentially two players running point, traditional guard Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro, a center whose 3.3 assists per game rank ninth among all Division I players 6-foot-9 or taller.

Kolek added the ability to finish around the basket to his offensive game while remaining one of the best passers in the country. His 11.7 points per game is nearly double his 2021-22 average and he is second in the country with 7.6 assists per game.

Kam Jones and Olivier Maxence-Prosper have also made tremendous strides offensively. Jones leads the Golden Eagles in scoring at 14.9 points per game and has a team-high 72 3-pointers, while Maxence-Prosper’s average has jumped from 6.6 to 12.7 points. Stevie Mitchell rounds out the starting five by doing whatever is asked of him. He had 17 points and a career-high six steals in the win over Xavier and usually draws the other team’s top scorer defensively.

Marquette also has a fairly deep bench led by David Joplin, who averages 9.8 points and is shooting 38.8% from 3-point range. Sean Jones and Chase Ross are above-average defenders for freshmen, with the 6’4″ Ross averaging 3.1 steals per 40 minutes. Ben Gold provides frontcourt depth, and the 6’11” New Zealand native has the ability to step out to the perimeter for the occasional 3-pointer.

What’s to like and dislike about Marquette

Shaka Smart’s decision not to call a timeout in the closing minutes of Marquette’s victory over Xavier was a sign of trust with his players via @journalsentinel

— Lori Nickel (@LoriNickel) February 16, 2023

When Marquette’s offense is in rhythm, it’s so pretty that you can hang it in the Louvre.

The Golden Eagles lead the nation in 2-point shooting at 59.3%, are fourth in effective field goal percentage (56.7%), and rack up assists on 58.7% of their baskets. If Kam Jones and Joplin are hitting from long range, Marquette can run any team in the country out of the gym, and Kolek’s 3-point shooting has returned to a point where he must be respected on the perimeter.

The Golden Eagles also value the ball. They commit 10.9 turnovers per contest, with non-steal turnovers on just 7% of their possessions, per KenPom, and rank fourth in the country with a plus-5.3 turnover margin per contest. Marquette is active on the defensive end, forcing opponents to turn the ball over on 23% of their possessions, per KenPom, including 13.5% ending in steals to rank ninth among Division I teams.

Marquette’s biggest weakness is rebounding. In its six losses, the rebound margin has been a woeful minus-11. The three teams the Golden Eagles have lost to in conference play — Providence, Xavier, and UConn — all have the common theme of bruising power forwards in Bryce Hopkins, Jack Nunge, and Adama Sanogo, while big men Zack Edey and Tolu Smith gave Marquette fits in close non-conference losses to Purdue and Mississippi State, respectively.

Additionally, teams are doing a better job scouting Marquette’s offense. Opponents are more effectively walling off back cuts when Ighodaro runs the offense in the high point, which sometimes impacts Kam Jones’ ability to score at the basket.

Available odds on the Golden Eagles

Marquette’s sports wagering value for NCAA Tournament futures will depend on where it is seeded come March. It has a strong overall profile with only one double-figure loss — at then-No. 20 Connecticut — and its signature non-conference victory was a 96-70 demolition of then-No. 6 Baylor at home. The Golden Eagles have no head-scratching losses, with a home defeat to a Wisconsin team currently on the bubble qualifying as the worst.

Thus, to get maximum value as a Final Four or NCAA Tournament champion pick, the Golden Eagles need to stay off the No. 4 seed line and be in the bottom half of the region as a No. 2 or 3 seed. A regular-season Big East title could go a long way toward securing no worse than a No. 3 seed. The longer Marquette can go without having to face an elite team, even in a season when there is no clear-cut tournament favorite, the better.

For Final Four options, Betfred is the clear choice, offering the Golden Eagles at +1000. FanDuel and PointsBet follow at +850, while the most common option at +800 is offered by WynnBET, Barstool Sportsbook, and BetRivers. Hard Rock is most bullish on Marquette at +700, with DraftKings offering +750.

For Marquette to cut down the nets for the first time since 1977, when Al McGuire topped Dean Smith and North Carolina, multiple books are offering +4000: Caesars Sportsbook, Hard Rock, Betfred, WynnBET, FanDuel, BetRivers, and Barstool. DraftKings and BetMGM have the Golden Eagles listed at +3500, while PointsBet and Betway check in at +3300, and Circa Sportsbook has the shortest odds at +3200.

In the few places where betting on a Big East title outright is still available, FanDuel’s -185 listing is the best offering. Expect that to change — possibly for the better — pending the outcome of Creighton’s game at St. John’s on Saturday ahead of Marquette’s Tuesday night showdown with the Bluejays.

Previous NCAA Tournament sleeper picks: Saint Mary’s; Iowa State; Xavier; Kansas State.

Photo: Getty Images

Author: Ryan Gonzales