Five preseason things to watch as Marquette prepares for second season under Shaka Smart

The Marquette men’s basketball team began official practices last week, ramping up preparations with the season opener looming against Radford on Nov. 7 at Fiserv Forum.

The Golden Eagles will play in front of the public for the first time on Saturday morning with an open scrimmage at the Al McGuire Center.

Since MU isn’t playing an exhibition game this season, choosing instead to have two closed-door practices with Loyola (Chicago) and Missouri, it will be one of a few opportunities to see the Golden Eagles in a competitive environment before the regular season.

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Here are a few preseason story lines to monitor ahead of head coach Shaka Smart’s second season at MU:

How will Shaka Smart use NAIA transfer Zach Wrightsil?

The only transfer addition was 6-foot-7 Zach Wrightstil, the NAIA player of the year at Loyola (New Orleans). MU had rebounding issues last season, and Smart likes Wrightsil for his size at 215 pounds and for making winning plays with his hustle and nose for the ball.

It will be interesting how that translates against Division 1 athletes and if Wrightsil can play as a center in small-ball lineups. Wrightsil also hasn’t been a shooter (4 for 27 on three-pointers last season), so if he plays alongside Oso Ighodaro in the frontcourt MU's spacing could get cramped with defenses playing off both of them.

Oso Ighodaro could be used as a playmaking center for Marquette this season.
Oso Ighodaro could be used as a playmaking center for Marquette this season.

Is a big season coming for Marquette's Oso Ighodaro?

Speaking of Ighodaro, there are plenty of signs pointing to a breakout season for the 6-foot-9 center. Smart has dropped hints all summer about running more offensive sets through Ighodaro as a ball-handler and passer. Ighodaro no longer has to split time at center like last season with Kur Kuath, so it will also be up to the long-limbed, third-year player to protect the rim.

According to Smart, Ighodaro won all the team awards for the first week of practice: the deflections champion, the rebounding champion and the “domino” of the week for being a positive teammate. Ighodaro improved dramatically last season after barely playing as a freshman, and now he has a chance to make a another big leap.

Will the three-point shooting improve for Marquette?

MU was a slightly above-average team last season in three-point shooting, ranking 123rd in the nation at 34.4%. Smart has talked repeatedly about Tyler Kolek wanting to prove that he is a much better shooter than the 28.1% that he compiled from beyond the arc last season. The coaching staff is also high on Stevie Mitchell improving his jumper and for Olivier-Maxence Prosper (31.7%) and Kam Jones (39.2) to find more consistency from long range.

Marquette guard Tyler Kolek looks to improve his three-point accuracy this season.
Marquette guard Tyler Kolek looks to improve his three-point accuracy this season.

The biggest variable could be former Brookfield Central star David Joplin, who has a sweet stroke and the unshakable confidence to put up shots but was just 17 for 59 (28.8%) from deep as a freshman. Smart has raved about Joplin’s conditioning and improving effort on the defensive end, which would lead to more playing time.

Can Marquette's three freshmen of Ben Gold, Chase Ross and Sean Jones carve out roles?

The pathway for playing time is there for Ben Gold, Chase Ross and Sean Jones. The 6-11 Gold adds a different look for a thin frontcourt with his shooting ability. The super-athletic, 6-4 Ross seems ready-made to be disruptive in Smart’s pressure defense and score on transition buckets.

But probably the most interesting newcomer is the 5-10 Jones, who Smart said is “flat-out the fastest guy I've ever seen play basketball that I've coached.” With a tight handle and a relentless motor, Jones should be fun to watch as he adjusts to a new level.

Will Marquette's depth lead to a faster pace of play?

According to KenPom.com, a statistical website for college basketball, MU was 25th last season in adjusted tempo at 70.9 possessions per 40 minutes. Expect that ranking to be higher this season, especially with a lot of guards at Smart’s disposal.

Kolek, Mitchell, Kam Jones and Sean Jones will look to push the ball up the court, even after made baskets by opponents. Maybe, as Smart has hinted, even Ighodaro will be leading the fast break after grabbing a rebound.

Contact Ben Steele at (414) 224-2676 or bmsteele@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenSteeleMJS or Instagram at @bensteele_mjs

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marquette basketball enters second season under head coach Shaka Smart