Seeing as how the first game against Marquette was a mere 17 days ago, I think it's unnecessary to delve too deeply into who they are or what they're going to try and do this evening. However, the original game and what has transpired in the two and-a-half weeks since have left us with a better idea of what we should be looking for when these two teams take the floor in the Bradley Center.
Here are ten things to keep your eye on tonight.
1. Marquette's ability to defend the pick-and-roll
Marquette has won more than a few games this season with defense, but on Jan. 17 they struggled for 40 minutes to defend the game's simplest play. I would venture to say that around 60% of the points U of L scored out of its halfcourt offense came by way of the pick and slip, whether it was David Padgett and Derrick Caracter getting chippies off of the roll, or them finding open shooters on the baseline whose men had left to try and prevent an easy bucket. Tom Crean is not going to abandon his man defense regardless of how poorly a team shoots from the outside, so that means adjustments have to be made in order to avoid a repeat performance. All three of MU's guards are extremely capable defenders, but Barro, Hayward, Burke and company have got to do a better job of hedging and retreating if they want to avoid getting burned continually again tonight.
2. Bad Edgar missing the team flight
Marquette's style of play fits Edgar Sosa's game to a T, so it's no surprise that the sophomore has had three big games in as many opportunities against the Golden Eagles. He is the Cardinal best suited to deal with MU's constant ball pressure, and also the player most likely to take advantage of it. The pick-and-roll was so effective in the first game because Sosa has the ability to make great passes with little space, and that little space was available because Marquette defenders had to respect his ability to beat them off the dribble. If Sosa continues his recent trend of not forcing the issue, getting a step and either getting an easy shot or finding open shooters off the drive, and hitting open cutters, then U of L's chances to pull off a big road win will be increased dramatically.
3. An improved Golden Eagle frontcourt finishing around the basket
You have to be doing something right on defense to hold a team to 51 points and 30% shooting from the field, but as well as Louisville played two and-a-half weeks ago, there were several instances where Marquette got exactly what they wanted out of their offense but simply missed easy shots. The Golden Eagles M.O. right from the tip was to get the ball into the middle of the Cardinal zone, and often times they were very successful. The problem was that the forward duo of Lazar Hayward and Ousmane Barro were a combined 2-of-13 from the field, and totaled six points - all by Hayward.
Don't expect a comparably futile effort from the pair this evening, as both come in playing as well as they have all season. Hayward has averaged 17.5 ppg since the game in Freedom Hall, and has become Marquette's leading scorer at 13.7 ppg. Barro had remained quiet - scoring just six points in the three games after the Louisville loss - before exploding for a 19-point, 10-rebound performance in Saturday's win at Cincinnati. Each will challenge U of L's daunting front line with far more confidence than they had in their baby blue jerseys.
4. U of L dominating the glass
Marquette had been outrebounded in seven straight games before earning a 39-35 advantage on the boards two days ago against Cincinnati. Louisville, conversely, has been beaten on the glass just twice in its last 13 games. If the Cards don't win the rebounding battle, and don't win it relatively decisively, then they're going to have a hard time improving to 7-3.
5. Transition defense
One thing Marquette didn't struggle with against Louisville was breaking the Cardinal press. The Golden Eagles didn't allow U of L to score any cheap points, but at the same time they weren't able to capitalize on their effective pressure-breaking with any easy buckets of their own. Both teams like to push off of turnovers and missed shots, but in the opener it was Louisville who was more successful when it came to turning fast break opportunities into points. Marquette got a cool highlight when Dominic James dropped a behind-the-back pass to Jerel McNeal for a lay-up, but for the most part the Cards did a fantastic job of getting back and forcing the Golden Eagles to score out of their offense.
6. Slumping Dominic James
It's no secret that Dom James is the star of this team, but he hasn't been the same player since a hard foul from Seton Hall's Jamar Nutter on Jan. 8. Since that night he is shooting 36% from the field, and his hit double figures in just two of Marquette's seven games. If ever there were a time for him to break out it would be now, as tonight is the first of four crucial games for Marquette.
7. James vs. Smith
While his offensive woes were just highlighted, it was the same Dominic James who completely shut down Jerry Smith in the first game. Louisville's second leading scorer finished the game 0-for-7 from the field and scored only one point. Smith did find other ways to contribute, however, snatching six rebounds, handing out five assists, and making a pair of steals. Still, it's likely that his team is going to need him to contribute just a bit more in the scoring column this evening.
8. Jerel McNeal whining after every blown whistle
Because it's going to happen.
9. Matthews and McNeal hitting from 15-feet in
Lost in the discussion of Marquette's woeful (0-for-12) three-point shooting was just how many open jumpers the Golden Eagles missed from inside the arc. Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews were both able to penetrate effectively against the Louisville zone, and while there were many instances in which they were well-defended by the Cardinal front line, there were nearly as many times when they had extremely good looks and simply failed to capitalize. Both players are too athletic to consistently keep out of the lane, especially since each is a capable enough shooter to demand adequate respect on the perimeter.
While Matthews struggled from the field (3-of-9), he was able to get to the free-throw line five times, where he connected on 8-of-10 free-throws. McNeal had a better shooting night (7-of-17), but still left at least eight points on the floor. If the same shots are open but falling this time, then MU figures to fare much better.
10. Louisville taking and making open outside shots
It's been discussed ad nauseam over the past three weeks, but the fact that we're all sick of hearing about it doesn't diminish its undeniable relevance. Simply put, when Louisville is taking bad shots or missing good ones, they're just not a very good team.