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Marquette built an elite offense overnight, and it’s made them a Final Four sleeper

Shaka Smart has always been a defense-first coach, but Marquette’s surprising success this year has been fueled by college basketball’s most beautiful offense.

Xavier v Marquette Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

From the very start of his rapid rise up college basketball’s head coaching hierarchy, Shaka Smart’s teams have always gotten it done with defense. Smart was the architect behind HAVOC, his iteration on the 1-2-1-1 full-court press, that became a household name when he helped make No. 11 VCU the lowest-seeded team to ever reach the Final Four during his second season in charge in 2011.

Just 33 years old at the time, Smart seemed to be on the precipice of a brilliant coaching career. He made five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances with the Rams before finally taking one of the biggest jobs in the sport at Texas. Smart recruited McDonald’s All-Americans and developed several first-round NBA draft picks during his time with the Longhorns, but he never won an NCAA tournament game. His teams often ran into a familiar problem: even if the defense was good, they could never really figure out the other end of the floor.

In Smart’s first 13 years as a head coach, his offense never finished higher than No. 28 in the efficiency rankings. He presided over an offense that was more efficient than his defense just once. Even with all the money in the world at his disposal in Austin, and gobs of talent on campus, Smart’s teams could never score enough to compete with the upper echelon of college hoops.

Smart left Texas after six seasons to go to Marquette ahead of the 2021-2022 season. He started to turn over the roster with a massive haul of incoming talent that included only one fringe top-100 recruit but still restocked the roster with the type of players that fit Smart’s new vision going forward. Marquette was expected to be a long-term build, but Smart made the NCAA tournament in his first season anyway before an unfortunate opening-round matchup against eventual national runner-up North Carolina. Still, the offense ranked just No. 64 in the country.

There was no five-star recruit or top-rated transfer coming to save Marquette this season. Instead, the program was supposed to sustain itself with internal improvement from the group Smart brought in when he first took the job. Outsiders were skeptical this team was set up for success, especially with its two best players departing in Justin Lewis and Darryl Morsell. The Eagles were picked to finish just No. 9 in the Big East, and started the year at No. 76 in KenPom’s DI rankings.

Now in the last week of Feb., Marquette might be the best story in college basketball. A thrilling 73-71 win at Creighton on Tuesday night put the Eagles in the driver’s seat to win their first outright Big East championship ever. The team is ranked in the top-10 of the polls for only the second time in the last decade, and there’s starting to be chatter this could be a real Final Four sleeper.

There are so many reasons for Marquette’s success, but the most surprising might be how deadly this offense has become. The Golden Eagles have the No. 3 offense in America, a whirling machine of ball movement, spacing, and efficient shooting all over the floor. For once, Smart’s offense is carrying his defense, which ranks just No. 62 in the country. This is how the Golden Eagles have done it.

Spacing, cutting, and shooting

The first thing that jumps off the screen about Marquette’s offense is just how well they balance the floor. It’s a team that often has four shooters on the court around star center Oso Ighodaro, and those players are in constant motion with the goal of creating plenty of space for their scorers to attack the basket or get a clean look at a jumper.

Whenever a Marquette ball handler can draw two to the ball, it triggers a cut almost automatically. This Golden Eagles team doesn’t have anyone resembling a star shot-creator off the dribble, but they still find their way into so many easy buckets in the halfcourt simply by leveraging their floor balance for easy cutting lanes.

Of course, floor balance is impossible to achieve if the opposing defense doesn’t respect your outside shooters. Marquette has shooters: 40.8 percent of their total field goal attempts are three-pointers, per KenPom, and they hit their threes at a 35.1 percent rate.

Sophomore guard Kam Jones is Marquette’s best shot-maker from deep. Jones is taking 7.5 threes per game, and knocking them down at a 35.5 percent clip. Marquette loves to run him off screens to get quick catch-and-shoot opportunities from deep, and Jones can create his own shot with a step-back or a straight line drive if the closeout is on time.

The goal of putting so many shooters on the floor isn’t just to hit threes. The spacing the threat of Marquette’s shooting creates often keeps the paint wide open for finishes at the rim — which is where the Golden Eagles truly excel. Marquette makes a ridiculous 59.3 percent of its two-pointers, which ranks No. 2 in America.

You rarely see a mid-range pull-up in this offense. Instead, the scheme is geared towards getting looks at the rim and from three. Watch the way the shooter in the corner lifts to the wing here, taking his defender away from double-teaming Ben Gold when he puts the ball on the floor to drive.

This is exactly how a modern offense at any level of basketball is supposed to look. Smart’s team is pulling it off seamlessly.

Oso Ighodaro is the big man who makes everything work

Oso Ighodaro was only ranked as the No. 136 recruit in the country when he arrived at Marquette. Scouts saw a player who wasn’t quite big enough to play center at 6’9, 216 pounds, and couldn’t shoot well enough to play the modern four. While Ighodaro may have lacked the conventional elements evaluators look for, his game still had plenty to offer.

Ighodaro’s numbers do not jump off the page this year — he’s averaging 12 points, six rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game — but he’s the man that makes everything work for Marquette. He combines agility and power when attacking the rim while also being a tremendous playmaker as a passer. He’s the hub that Marquette has run through to create one of the country’s most efficient offenses.

Marquette loves to clear out an entire side of the floor for Ighodaro, as they do on this play. Good luck defending him on an island: the big man can dribble and finish with either hand, and has incredible touch around the basket. He’s making 65.5 percent of his two-pointers this year, which has helped make him top-50 in the country in true shooting percentage.

There aren’t many big men in the country who can facilitate better than Ighodaro. He’s masterful in dribble-handoff situations, organizing the offense in the halfcourt and getting Marquette’s shooters open with solid screens. His 18.4 percent assist rate is a monster number for a center, and that playmaking ability jumps off the screen when you watch Marquette’s offense.

Think you’ve got the DHO figured out in time to contest the shot? Well, Ighodaro will put the ball on the floor and attack the basket himself.

Just look at the ocean of space Marquette’s offense creates here with the fake hand-off. No one is stopping an athlete like Ighodaro from finishing at the rim when he has a runway like that.

Ighodaro is not a big-time NBA prospect — ESPN has him as the No. 94 prospect in the 2023 draft — but he certainly has pro-level athleticism, agility, and playmaking. There are times when he can completely take over a game with his blend of power and skill.

This sequence against Creighton put it all on display: there’s an empty-side post-up with a soft right hook, a fake DHO and beautiful baseline drive to finish with the dunk, and a hard sprint in transition to finish with the monster slam.

Ighodaro hasn’t attempted a three all season. He’s just a 51.6 percent free throw shooter. No NBA team wants a 215-pound center. For someone who should be so flawed on paper, Ighodaro is simply an awesome basketball player with a ton of skills that fit together perfectly for this offense.

Marquette’s offense has a sum so much greater than its parts

Marquette has talent, to be sure. Tyler Kolek is making a serious run at Big East Player of the Year as a brilliant playmaking guard — his 38.5 percent assist rate is top-10 in the country — who is also hitting 38 percent of his threes. Stevie Mitchell is a bulldog defender as a 6’2 guard in the backcourt. One-time Clemson transfer Olivier-Maxence Prosper offers a glue guy skill set with an NBA frame for a forward. Kam Jones is a deadly shot-maker when he’s on, and we’ve already gushed about Ighodaro.

Still, there isn’t a single consensus top-100 recruit or a projected NBA draft pick in the rotation. This Marquette team is a national contender because the pieces fit the system perfectly, and the system is brilliant.

Marquette’s offense this season is everything modern basketball should be. After a lifetime spent as a defense-first coach, Shaka Smart has figured out the formula to score with anyone, and it’s taken Marquette from a Big East long shot to its likely champion.