The “unique” Oso Ighodaro is Marquette’s most valuable asset in defeating UConn

MILWAUKEE β€” Oso Ighodaro is the key piece in Marquette’s consistently promising season because he’s what everyone wishes they had and hardly ever does. The first mention of his name elicited something of a half-bark, half-moan from the opposing coach, who dealt with him on Wednesday night, as if he couldn’t quite decide which sound best reflected his admiration. Perhaps that is what is happening as you watch the value of difference unfold before your eyes.

“Of course there are a lot of great centers in college,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley when he started using his words, “but he’s unique.”

Nor is it a center. But he can’t really be labeled as a striker or guard either. So the 6-9, 215-pound junior is nothing. Also not everything. He’s his own thing. He’s what the country’s 25th team needs from moment to moment it seems, as evidenced by an 82-76 win over the sixth-ranked visitors at the Fiserv Forum. Probably much to Shaka Smart’s delight, Marquette has come this far in part because of the unanswered question of who his most valuable player is. Everyone does something well. Everyone feels important. Good energy and such.

The right choice is Oso Ighodaro. Close the polls. Anyone watching the program’s latest top 10 takedown may have to struggle to differentiate themselves. No one else in the squad has had a mutual impact like Ighodaro for most of the season and the efforts of no one else on either side had more impact in Wednesday’s most significant win of the season so far. Respect Baylor, but UConn is better. And Ighodaro finished the game with 19 points, three assists, two steals, a turnover and up 11 in 36 minutes. He starred in the game’s biggest moments, allowing the Golden Eagles to spread offense and unclog lane when it mattered late. Along the way, he was leaning against two actual centers that are pretty good, and in their own way, measurably larger than him. Ighodaro didn’t have to win the fight against Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan as long as he didn’t lose it in a loss. Which he didn’t.

Without Ighodaro, Marquette is a regular. Together. Not necessarily equipped to win that big. As simple as that.

Maybe that’s not the case in every game, and it’s ridiculous to ignore Tyler Kolek’s passing and Kam Jones’ shot-selection maturity as driving factors in a 6-1 start in the Big East game…but can you imagine? that everything works so smoothly without Ighodaro? “He’s 6-9 and he can handle the ball and pass it like a guard and he makes good decisions,” said Smart. “He’s our biggest guy out there and we put up ball screens for him. This is unique.”

That word again. Here’s some empirical evidence: On Wednesday, Ighodaro led Marquette in win percentage (2.6), effective field goal percentage (0.672), total rebound percentage (12.6), and block rate (6.6 percent) while he finished second in minutes played (519). and support rate (18.3 percent). The less predictable part is his eagerness to put in the time to be the asset he is, making him one of the many avatars for Marquette men’s basketball this season.

Smart and the coaching staff challenged Ighodaro to become a better ball handler as a junior, knowing what kind of advantage a 6-9 player with guard skills could offer. Over the summer, Ighodaro made everyday two-ball dribbling drills a regular part of his training – between his legs, behind his back, whatever he could realistically do. At night he would return to the gym to do nothing but hone his grip.

“Not crazy for long,” he said. “Probably 30, 40 minutes.”

To the right. Just bounce a ball or two for half an hour or more. Definitely not crazy long.

“I just feel like when the court is open I can get to my seats whenever I want and I can use it to be aggressive,” Ighodaro said when he entered the court after paying off that work years 2022-23 was asked. “It helps our team.”

And then there’s the 5-for-5 score from the free-throw line for a player who had missed 22 of 37 tries from the strip when he entered on Wednesday. In short, Ighodaro, at his best, gives Marquette more opportunities than perhaps anyone currently on scholarship.

It’s pretty easy to gauge offensively, but what he can do defensively β€” and what his team can’t do when he’s not out there β€” shouldn’t be ignored.

Yes, Clingan looked like Zach Edey Redux with 20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in 21 minutes for the Huskies. But Ighodaro was quick and handy enough to harass preseason Big East Player of the Year Sanogo to one of his less impressive games: 10 points and five turnovers and down 5 in his time on the floor. It’s the kind of thing that puts a No. 6 team on the road. “The switchability, the length — you can do multiple things in ball-screen defense,” Hurley said. “You can drop him, you can flash, he can switch. It’s a really nice luxury to have with a center to be able to do all these things.”

In fact, when Marquette got the worst of UConn’s bigs, Ighodaro had usually been knocked out by them on the rotation.

“That’s why we need two from Oso,” Smart said.

A lucky winning coach’s privilege to wish for such a thing. But of course he would. Smart knows the value of only having one.

(Photo: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today) The “unique” Oso Ighodaro is Marquette’s most valuable asset in defeating UConn

Russell Falcon

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