Quincy McKnight was one step ahead of the play.
The Pirates’ Swiss Army knife of a guard knew where the pass was going before it left Joey Brunk’s hands. The Butler center made few mistakes on Wednesday night in a 20-point, 10-rebound performance, but he was read like a book in this crucial second half-opening sequence.
McKnight then switched from defensive stopper to offensive finisher, dribbling down the court and dunking emphatically.
The sequence did not decide the game – the Pirates were subsequently held without a field goal for over three minutes – but the two pointes proved indispensable in a 76-75 Seton Hall win.
The 6-foot-4 junior from Bridgeport, Conn., was the only Pirate to join Myles Powell with double-figure points – he had 10 to go along with six assists, while Powell had 31. But, more so than his scoring, McKnight continued to spearhead a brand of tenacious defense that embodied the Pirates’ teams of 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Butler entered Wednesday with four players who shot above 40 percent from three: Paul Jorgensen, Sean McDermott, Aaron Thompson and Jordan Tucker. The quartet shot a combined 2-for-9 from deep in the losing effort.
McKnight stayed close to Butler junior Kamar Baldwin, a preseason All-Big East First Team guard.
Last season, in the Big East Tournament quarterfinal, Baldwin drove downhill past the Pirates’ then No. 0, Khadeen Carrington, and his layup with under five seconds remaining was cleaned up by teammate Tyler Wideman, eliminating Seton Hall with a one-point defeat.
On Wednesday, McKnight, wearing the same No. 0, avenged Carrington and limited Baldwin to 10-for-26 shooting and 1-for-7 from three. The pass from Brunk, which could have led to a game-changing basket at the start of the second half, instead was another example of what the former Sacred Heart player has provided for Kevin Willard.
“It’s nice to have a guy where you say, ‘Ok, there’s a Kamar Baldwin, you can work him,’” Willard said after the win on Wednesday. “And, Q works defensively, he really sets the tone defensively. And, I thought he did a good job offensively, six assists. It’s just nice having a guy that you know can be a lockdown guy.”
Of course, Saturday presents an unprecedented challenge: Marquette’s Markus Howard.
Howard’s rhythm is a horrifying melody for opposing defenses. At peak performance, the Golden Eagles guard is unlike anything the conference has seen before, evidence by his Big East single-game record 53 points at Creighton on Wednesday, one year after tying the record with 52 at Providence.
Even Shamorie Ponds, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, did not provide Willard with this level of headache. Willard explained after the win on Wednesday how the two elite scorers differ.
“Shamorie is a much different and more dynamic scorer, he can get you off the dribble much better, I think,” Willard said. “But, Q’s going to watch a lot of film with me, I don’t think – Markus’ range and the way (Marquette head coach) Steve [Wojciechowski] brings him off a stagger, handoffs and fades and staggers and fades. It’s going to be something that’s new.”
In both fixtures with Marquette last year, the Pirates conceded a 30-point game to one of the Golden Eagles. On Jan. 9, in Milwaukee, it was then-redshirt senior Andrew Rowsey. One month later, in the Prudential Center, Howard scored 32.
Also in both, two other Golden Eagle players aside from the top scorer reached double figures. Seton Hall lost each, and Willard has a career 6-11 record against Marquette – only his records against Villanova and Butler are worse among Big East competitors.
The prospect of facing the No. 21 ranked team in the nation, with a transcendent scorer and a coach calculating ways to make him even better, is not one Willard looks forward to.
“I don’t think I’m ever excited to go up against Markus Howard,” Willard said jokingly. “It’s like, are you excited to go get a colonoscopy?”
But, unlike last year, Willard has a top-level defender in McKnight to slow down the uber-talented scorer. Now comes the biggest test for the multifaceted Pirates guard: can he be one step ahead of Marquette?
McKnight may not be able to limit Howard to eight points like he and the Pirates did so with Ponds in their Dec. 29 win over St. John’s. Equally, though, Seton Hall has a much better chance than last year of slowing down Marquette’s shooting, or at the very least denying the Golden Eagles’ second and third options.
“I have confidence in Q, that he’s going to go out and he’s going to work, and he’s going to make Markus work,” Willard said. “I have total confidence in Q, in that way, but I think it’s a different look than any player he’s seen so far, just because of the range Markus can shoot with.
“I think that’s the biggest thing watching him on film. Some of his shots are like, from the parking lot. So, it’s going to be a good test, it’s going to be a fun game.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.