Busting Brackets

Big East Basketball Tournament: Smart bursts Neptune’s Bubble as Marquette Clips Villanova

Villanova v Marquette: Starting in his VCU days, Marquette's (current) head-coach, Shaka Smart, has been one of Division 1's best coaches for 15 years. While a lot of coaches are credited with greatness thanks to their (even) greater recruits and/or their school's greater reputation, Shaka is a thoroughbred; a truly great coach who's gotten the job done at 3 separate schools. Moreover, Smart doesn't just know the X's & O's. He knows how to deploy them.
Villanova v Marquette: Starting in his VCU days, Marquette's (current) head-coach, Shaka Smart, has been one of Division 1's best coaches for 15 years. While a lot of coaches are credited with greatness thanks to their (even) greater recruits and/or their school's greater reputation, Shaka is a thoroughbred; a truly great coach who's gotten the job done at 3 separate schools. Moreover, Smart doesn't just know the X's & O's. He knows how to deploy them. / Sarah Stier/GettyImages

Per usual, the 2023-‘24 Villanova Wildcats’ efforts in a crucial, Big East setting were not enough to secure the result that Kyle Neptune and his troops were in desperate need of. Unlike most of their previous games, however, the stakes in this one were of the do-or-die variety. To keep their NCAA Tournament hopes above water, the 18-&-14 Villanova Wildcats had to beat Marquette in the pair’s Big East Tournament quarterfinal meeting last night.

Before tip-off @ Madison Square Garden, injury reports concerning Marquette’s star point guard, Tyler Kolek, came to light; with the news of his (to-be) absence circulating like wildfire throughout the basketball corridors of New York City. Without Kolek’s playmaking and scoring, the Golden Eagles are hardly the same team (at least) offensively; but they’re still able to defend at a very high level and guard Kam Jones has more of a green light to unleash his innate scoring ability. From Villanova’s vantage point, a Kolek-less Marquette means sophomore combo-guard Mark Armstrong has less pressure on him to be an All-Big East type of perimeter defender; an honor that Armstrong didn’t even sniff this season.

With fewer responsibilities to shoulder defensively, Armstrong has more on his plate offensively and the fact that Justin Moore has yet to ascend to his old self gave the 6-foot-2-inch sophomore speedster even more reason to increase his workload offensively. If you haven’t been watching Villanova this season, the ‘Cats’ offense struggles mightily to not only make shots but create quality shot opportunities; more frequently than what’s survivable. Entering last night’s pivotal showdown with the Golden Eagles, ‘Nova Nation knew its team was prepared from a defensive standpoint but the other end of the floor has been the question mark all season. While you could say the ‘Cats’ unremarkable offensive-play has been their “Achilles’ Heel”, it’s much more than that; as the team’s deficiencies in the scoring department are far from being (merely) a here-and-there issue. Plainly, the 2023-‘24 Villanova Wildcats can’t score to save their lives.

Don’t let the over-the-top optimism of in-game announcers like Bill Raftery, Rob Stone or anyone else fool you. While I can hardly blame them for merely doing their jobs in attracting viewers, it’s asinine to say or think Villanova has a slew of quality shooters and scorers. At multiple points in the latter half of this season, announcers for Fox Sports 1 have gone out of their way to mislead viewers by mentioning three of Villanova’s 1,000-point scorers; Tyler Burton, TJ Bamba, and Hakim Hart. Averaging 10.1 PPG this season, TJ Bamba transferred in from Washington State and was supposed to be more efficient and productive than he ended up being. Nearly the same can be said for Hakim Hart (Maryland) and Tyler Burton (Richmond); who went from averaging 11 PPG and 19 PPG at their previous school(-s) to 6 PPG and 7 PPG; respectively. These guys came up short as scorers, and even though they did their part in other areas of the game, basketball is a sport that comes down to scoring. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but I don’t think Tyler Burton would’ve gotten the nod to come to ‘Nova this year if Neptune and the rest of his coaching staff were aware of Burton’s deficiencies as a scorer (-amongst better competition).

Aside from my frustration with Villanova’s transfers, Kyle Neptune’s performance didn’t give me much to cheer about; either.

The 39-year-old head coach put the icing on the cake (for me) last night when he subbed in defense, Tyler Burton, by subbing out offense, Mark Armstrong, with roughly 3 minutes remaining in OT. Armstrong, who finished the game with 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting, earned his second trip to the foul line of the 5-minute overtime period with 2:52 remaining after beating his man off the dribble and getting fouled at the basket in the act of shooting.

To begin overtime, Marquette was uncharacteristically undisciplined on defense; committing 3 fouls that sent Justin Moore and Mark Armstrong (twice) to the charity stripe in the opening 2 minutes & 8 seconds of OT. After drilling both of his free throws with 2:52 remaining to cut Marquette’s lead down to a point (63-62), Neptune immediately decided to replace Armstrong with Burton; presumably because Armstrong had 4 fouls and Neptune wanted Burton’s defense for the upcoming possession. On the ensuing possession, Marquette’s Kam Jones missed a contested shot that TJ Bamba rebounded for ‘Nova; meaning Neptune’s decision to go with Burton had initially paid off. But, instead of calling a timeout to get Armstrong back in the game (for Burton) following Jones’ miss with 2:23 left, Neptune allowed his team to play on before Hakim Hart was fouled and made 1 of his 2 free throws to tie the game at 63-63. Again opting to keep Armstrong on the bench as Hart was tying the game with his 1-for-2 effort at the foul line with 2:06 remaining, Neptune looked on as Marquette advanced the ball up the floor and the Golden Eagles’ Chase Ross drilled a 3-ball to give his team a 66-63 lead with 1:55 left.

After Ross’ dagger 3-ball, Neptune (again) missed another opportunity to get Armstrong back in the game; leaving TJ Bamba with the responsibility of bringing the ball up. Not playing his natural position, Bamba unwisely dribbled into a crowd of Marquette defenders and lost the ball to Marquette’s Chase Ross with 1:41 left. Forty-five seconds later, Tyler Burton committed his fifth foul; sending Marquette’s Joplin to the line with 56 seconds left and an opportunity to extend his team’s lead to 5. After getting comfortable on the bench for almost 2 minutes, ‘Nova’s primary ball-handler and creator, Armstrong, was finally plugged back into the game with 56 secs left and his team down-4, 63-67. Impacting the game almost immediately, Armstrong nailed an impressive, step-back jumper to cut the deficit to 2 points (65-67) with 44 seconds left.

Marquette’s Shaka Smart, who’s widely regarded as one of the nation’s top (5-to-10) coaches, played his part to near perfection against Villanova; putting his team in a position to make big plays on numerous occasions. Fully prepared to finish the ‘Cats’ off following Armstrong’s bucket with 44 seconds left in OT, Smart cleared out the middle of the floor and wisely placed the ball into his most-trusted player’s hands in the absence of Tyler Kolek; 6-foot 11-inch forward Oso Ighodaro. Standing 3 inches taller than the ‘Cats’ power-forward who was guarding him, Eric Dixon (6’8”), Ighodaro has a clear height advantage; but the Marquette big-man’s lean frame and unique skill set are such that handing him the ball in a traditional back-to-the-basket position against Villanova’s moose (/Dixon) isn’t ideal. So, Smart pulled Ighodaro (and Dixon) out of the paint and gave his Golden Eagle the ball near the 3-point line; allowing Ighodaro to start his move in a face-up position and with his dribble. After taking a few power dribbles with his off-hand, Ighodaro was able to get to his spot in the paint, feel Dixon’s weight, spin to his (own-) right, and drill a sweet baby-hook over Dixon to give his team a 2-possession lead (69-65) with 17 seconds left.

It’s a sad but fitting ending to Villanova’s 2023-‘24 season. In the waning moments of the game, Villanova’s guards couldn’t score or create quality looks for their teammates; dumping the ball off to Dixon and praying he could get something to fall. Asked to carry the ‘Cats on the offensive side of the floor virtually all season, Dixon did the job admirably, but essentially forcing a 6-foot 8-inch, 260-pound front-court player into creating clean-looks off the dribble, in-traffic, on-the-perimeter, and in end-of-shot-clock situations isn’t the way (good-) basketball is played.

Thank you, Eric Dixon and Justin Moore. It’s been an absolute pleasure watching you two play the game of basketball for the last 5 years.

While I can’t speak to what the future holds in terms of your chosen paths post-Villanova, I can tell you this much: You will succeed; (in) no matter what it is.

Go ‘Cats.