by John Fanta
MILWAUKEE – The best of the best players dazzle when the lights shine the brightest. Just look at Villanova. With four NBA Draft picks that would be selected in June, the Wildcats hoisted a national championship trophy in April.
On Saturday, the Wildcats were on the flip side of that argument. The best player in the Big East this season to this point relished the national spotlight for Marquette and delivered. Markus Howard scored 21 of his team’s 30 first half points, and 38 in total as the Golden Eagles handed Villanova just its first Big East loss of the season, 66-65.
Yes, it was Howard’s 16th performance of 20 or more points this season — the Golden Eagles are a perfect 16-0 in those, by the way. But it was more than just that. Howard bounced back from a 5-for-18 showing against St. John’s. He responded against the best and beat the best. That’s why he’s one of 20 left in the Wooden Award race and the Big East Player of the Year frontrunner.
“You have to have a quick mind,” said Howard when asked about his response from Tuesday’s loss to St. John’s. “It comes down to being able to move on to the next play. We took a big step today.”
Moving on to that next play was the key on Saturday. Villanova overcame a 15-point second half deficit in just seven minutes to pull ahead 55-53 with just 5:55 on the clock. When the going got tough, Howard got going. He scored eight of the team’s final 13 points, including what turned out to be the game-winning free throws with just less than a minute left on the clock.
“He single-handedly beat us,” said Jay Wright. “We have so much respect for the kid.”
Beyond the scoring column, the accountability that Howard took after the game in Marquette’s ability to adapt was telling. Think about these two things – 1. The Golden Eagles allowed 78.5 points per game a year ago. That total is at 68.9 points per game this season. 2. Villanova was 11-0 entering Saturday when allowing 70 points or less.
When Howard was asked if previous Marquette teams win Saturday’s game, he answered with a resounding “no.”
“We’ve showed a lot of growth and maturity,” added Howard. “It’s really good to see a group of guys that take winning seriously.”
There’s no question Howard takes it seriously, as he’s gone from a good player to one of the best in the country, all while balancing efficiency with explosiveness.
Not only is Howard one of, if not the biggest “must-see TV” factor in the Big East, he also just lifted Marquette into the discussion of the Big East title race. A loss meant Villanova could coast to it with a three-game lead at 11-0. With a win, Marquette is just a game back of the Cats. The two meet again Feb. 27.
Plan accordingly, because with this kid playing, you can’t take your eyes off of him.