MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES (13-2, 3-1)
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Freedom Hall: Louisville, KY
Favorite: Louisville by 3
All-Time Series: Louisville leads 35-24
Last Meeting: Louisville won 61-59 in Milwaukee on 2/17/2007
Officials: John Cahill, Karl Hess, Tim Clougherty (first the other Higgins, now the other Clougherty?)
Best Win: Marquette 81, Wisconsin 76 (12/8)
The win over Notre Dame was impressive because of the final margin, but the Badgers are legit, and knocking them off in Madison is a tall task even when they're down.
Worst Loss: West Virginia 79, Marquette 64 (1/6)
Probable Starting Lineup
G Dominic James...14.9 ppg
G Wesley Matthews..10.5 ppg
G Jerel McNeal...13.5 ppg
F Dwight Burke....3.8 ppg
F Lazar Hayward..13.1 ppg
Louisville and Marquette meet for the 59th time tonight in a rivalry that has grown immensely over the past decade. The Cardinals hold a 35-24 advantage in the all-time series, but the two are even over the last 16 meetings.
Marquette comes into the game ranked 13th in the country, and is led by a trio of junior guards. Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews each average more than ten points per game, but each also presents just as much of a problem for opponents on the defensive end as they do when MU has the ball.
James is the team's unquestioned standout, and in addition to winning the award for "player who most looks like he should be playing for the 1990 UNLV Runnin' Rebels," he's also the player in college basketball most likely to be described as "bouncy." There may not be a point guard in the country more athletic than James, and having broken out of the shooting slump that plagued the second half of his sophomore season, his name has been placed back on the short list for best floor general in Division I.
James' shooting percentage from both inside and outside the arc is up from a year ago, and perhaps more importantly, his turnovers are down. In Marquette's thrashing of Notre Dame last week, he connected on 3-of-6 attempts from three, scored 16 points, and handed out seven assists. The difference in the Golden Eagles' nine-point win in Freedom Hall last year was James' outside shooting, and if he gets hot again then the same could very well be true tonight.
McNeal and Matthews aren't quite as heralded as James, but their importance to Tom Crean's team is no less than equal. McNeal can score in doses, as evidenced by his hitting the 20-point mark in three of MU's first four games, but he's far more known for his play without the ball. The 2006-07 Big East Defensive Player of the Year enters tonight's game second in the league and 26th in the nation in steals per game at 2.4. Though still a major flaw in his game, McNeal has also significantly reduced his propensity for turning the ball over. He's still averaging 2.9 giveaways a game, but that is down significantly from his horrendous mark of 4.1 last season.
McNeal's defense might not be regarded quite as highly if it weren't for the presence of Matthews in the backcourt. The pair doesn't make its living trapping opposing big men, but rather by coming right out and challenging the other team's guards. Perhaps the biggest key to the game for the Cardinals is the ability of Edgar Sosa (who I believe will start), Andre McGee, Jerry Smith and Terrence Williams to maintain a level head and not panic when McNeal, Matthews and James turn up the heat in the halfcourt.
Lazar Hayward is the team's third-leading scorer at 13.1 ppg, and though he's listed as a forward, his game is nearly just as perimeter-oriented as the three guards'. He was able to drop 17 on Notre Dame because of an advantageous matchup against the Irish's less athletic frontcourt, but he won't have the same edge tonight going up against the likes of Earl Clark and Juan Palacios. Hayward has been extremely unproductive in both of his career games against Louisville, scoring just six total points against the Cardinals last season.
Fifth starter Dwight Burke is a non-factor on offense, but the Golden Eagles have some firepower off the bench in the form of sophomore guard David Cubillan and senior sharp-shooter Dan Fitzgerald, who scored nine points against the Cards in Milwaukee last year.
Before the season I said that Marquette would be an interesting case study on just how far three extremely talented guards could take a team with virtually zero frontcourt. The results have been puzzling.
The Golden Eagles are a legitimate top 15 team, but the fact that a West Virginia squad with an equally limited frontcourt and a seemingly far less talented backcourt could stomp MU makes little sense. The Mountaineers seemed like a team that Marquette should have been able to breeze by, but when that didn't happen I became highly interested in how a well-rounded team like Notre Dame with a very talented post player in Luke Harangody would fare against MU. Harangody tied a career high with 29 points and snatched 14 rebounds...and the Irish lost by 24.
The thing about Tom Crean is that he's aware of his teams limitations, so he's made sure that they do what they can do extremely well. If you don't take care of the ball, if you don't shoot particularly well, and if you don't defend the perimeter, this team is going to beat you.
If we stop playing the defense the way we have the last three weeks, if James gets hot from midcourt again, or if Caracter plays the same way he did against Rutgers, we lose. Marquette is too good at what they do to not take complete advantage of what they don't do well, which is guard the post. Caracter, Padgett and Clark have to get the extreme better of Burke, Hayward and Barro.
This is the team that has the potential to expose Andre McGee's limitations more than any other, so I like I said before, I think we're going to see Edgar Sosa back in the starting lineup. Sosa was very successful in both games against Marquette last year, averaging 14 points and dishing out five assists to only one turnover. If ever there were a game for him to step up and break out, this would be it.
Crean scouts as well as any coach in the league, so it will be interesting to see what he's prepared to combat Louisville's delayed match zone. Don't be surprised if Marquette's MO early is to let Dominic James take the ball into the lane and either look for his own shot or look for one of the three other shooters on the wings. I think it's also a safe bet that we're going to be seeing far more man than we did against Rutgers.
Louisville 69, Marquette 65
Each team has seemed to have more success in the other's house recently, but I'm feeling almost troublingly optimistic this afternoon. This team is as confident and as cohesive as they've been in ten months, and I think the crowd is also going to bring their A game this evening.
Look for papa kicking it with the donors underneath the visiting basket (I love you Dan).