March Madness: NCAA Tournament primed to top itself again

Marquette guard Markus Howard, center, drives to the basket against Georgetown forward Josh LeBlanc, left, and guard Jagan Mosely, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Darren Hauck)

Marquette’s Markus Howard scores on step-back 3-pointers, floaters in the lane, by slithering between bigger defenders on drives to the basket, shooting from distances stretching to near midcourt.

The undersized guard has become quite adept at it, ending the regular season as Division I’s fifth-leading scorer.

Howard’s shot making repertoire developed by trying to get shots off against his brothers when he was younger.

Jordan and Desmond didn’t hold anything back against their little brother, so if Markus wasn’t creative enough to shoot over or around them, he would be chasing the ball after it was swatted into the bushes.

“Getting a tough skin from the beginning has always helped,” Howard said. “They’ve helped me in terms of putting me in situations where I’ll be in a game so I can see different things like when I’m going against a bigger player.”

Howard started scoring right after arriving at Marquette early from Chandler, Arizona. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound guard averaged 13.2 points while shooting 51 percent from the floor and 55 percent from 3-point range as a freshman.

A year ago, while sharing primary shooting duties with Andrew Rowsey, Howard averaged 20.4 points while shooting 47 percent.

Now that Rowsey has graduated, teams put more focus on stopping Howard, but seem to have an even harder time keeping track of him.

Entering this week’s Big East Tournament in New York, Howard is averaging 19.6 points, 4.0 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game for the 16th-ranked Golden Eagles. He’s shooting 42 percent from 3 despite the extra attention and has nearly doubled his free throw attempts from last season while shooting 90 percent from the line.

Howard set school and conference records with 53 points against Creighton, becoming the first player in 20 years to have two 50-point games in his career after putting up 52 against Providence last season. He had 40 of his 45 points in the second half against then-No. 14 Buffalo and had another 45-point night against No. 12 Kansas State.

“I don’t think you’re ever excited to really go up against Markus Howard,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said of facing Howard in January. “It’s like, are you excited to get a colonoscopy? Some of his shots are like from the parking lot.”

Howard honed his game in the family’s backyard hoop against his brothers.

Jordan Howard played at Central Arkansas and was the nation’s third-leading scorer when he was named the 2018 Southland Conference player of the year. He’s now playing with Raptors 905 of the G League.

Desmond Jordan operates a basketball training company and trains his brothers every summer.

The workouts are not easy.

Desmond takes his brothers through grueling fitness training, ball-handling drills and putting up shots in volume. He also has them practice difficult shots to replicate what they’ll need to do against bigger opponents in games.

“The way we train is unorthodox,” Markus Howard said. “There aren’t many times in a game where I get an easy shot, so I practice that.”

The training allows Howard to keep going and going, like an energizer Golden Eagle. He averages 33.7 minutes per game — his high was 44 in an overtime game against Louisville — in part because Marquette needs him on the floor, but also because he can sustain a high intensity level for longer stretches than most players.

“Your best players never want to come out and Markus has agreed with that,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “The rest we need to give Markus is not in games. It’s in practice and that’s what we do.”

Playing hard does not always mean playing fast.

Though just 20, Howard plays with a maturity beyond his years. Through the years of playing and training with his brothers, he’s developed an ability to wait for the right opportunity at the moment.

So even as opponents have geared up even more to stop him, throwing a variety of defensive looks his way, Howard has been able to keep calm, figure out the best way to attack — whether it’s a step-back 3, a hard drive to the basket or a floater in the lane.

“It’s just being patient,” Markus Howard said. “A lot of things can happen really fast and you have to take what the defense gives you.”

Howard has done just that, with an assist from his brothers.

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