The Marquette Golden Eagles, winners of four straight, will take the surprising South Florida Bulls on Tuesday night at the Bradley Center.
The Bulls have been one of the biggest surprises in this year's unpredictable Big East season, winning five of their first seven games and tied for third in the conference.
While Stan Heath's group has feasted, for the most part, on the lower half of the conference, it has been efficient on the offensive end and use its size in the interior to hold teams down defensively.
Senior forward Augustus Gilchrist isn't terribly efficient (39.1 FG%, 25.0 3FG%), but he is still an integral part of South Florida's offense. He's averaging 11.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and is coming off a 22-point performance against DePaul on Saturday. He's at his best when he gets position down low and is drawing 4.6 fouls per 40 minutes. Defensively, he's averaging 1.4 blocks per game and, at 6-foot-10 is great inside.
The South Florida defense actually held Thomas Robinson to 14 points back in early December.
Leading the way for the Bulls offensively is shooting guard Jawanza Poland. The junior is shooting over 48 percent from the field on his way to 12.0 points per game and has improved his play during the conference season, averaging 14.6 points over his last five contests.
The Bulls' only real outside shooting threat is Victor Rudd, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Los Angeles. He has struggled lately, failing to score in double digits in nine of the last 10 games, but went for 24 points (including five 3-pointers) last week against St. John's. He takes a surprisingly high percentage of shots for someone who shoots 35.8 percent from the field but plays sound defense and has good length on that end.
Junior Toarlyn Fitzpatrick plays just 26 minutes per game but makes the most of his time, averaging 8.2 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds for the Bulls. He's also a threat on the perimeter, ranking second on the team with 20 3-pointers. His defensive rebounding percentage (24.8) is one of the best in the country and his block percentage (4.4) is impressive as well.
The most efficient offensive player for the Bulls is Ron Anderson Jr., a 6-foot-8 senior. He is shooting 59.5 percent from the field, his offensive rebounding percentage is top 20 in the nation and he is drawing 5.0 fouls per 40 minutes with a free throw rate of 75.7 (24th in the nation). He is only making 53.6 percent of his freebies but is still a threat to get defenders in foul trouble.
One of the most pleasant surprises for the Bulls this year has been freshman point guard Anthony Collins. A two-star recruit from Houston, Collins is sixth in the Big East in assists (5.1) and steals (2.1) per game. His rates in each of those categories rank in the top 40 nationally but he isn't much of a threat to score. He is averaging 6.1 assists in wins and 3.5 in losses, so stopping Collins means stopping an offensive that already has trouble scoring as it is.
Senior guard Hugh Robertson does a little bit of everything, sophomore point guard Blake Nash has played well defensively behind Collins, and guard Shaun Noriega rounds out the rotation for the Bulls.
Where the Bulls are good
In Big East play, the Bulls have done a nice job getting the ball inside. They are third in conference play in field goal percentage and are attempting the second least 3-pointers (99 attempts in 7 games). Their offensive efficiency is third in the Big East in conference play, in large part because they have made teams play down to their slow pace (59.0 possessions in Big East play). In all seven Big East contests, five games have gone 60 possessions or fewer. Much of their efficiency has come from playing their own style.
Rebounding defense has been a major factor in the Bulls' fast start to the conference season. Teams are averaging 17.7 defensive rebounds and 10.4 offensive rebounds per game against the Bulls, both of which are the best marks in the Big East. One of the tallest front lines in the Big East has propelled the Bulls to excellent marks on the defensive end. Teams are also making just 27 percent of their 3-pointers against the Bulls in Big East play, which is third lowest in the Big East.
Stan Heath's squad plays an efficient style of offense and doesn't allow rebounds.
Where the Bulls can be beat
The Bulls are solid on the interior but struggle from outside, making just 32.2 percent of their 3-pointers on the year. Their slow pace has helped them but when they get behind in games and the tempo picks up, it's tough for them to play from behind.
They struggle to get to the free throw line, including the 12th lowest rate in conference play. Gilchrist and Anderson do a nice job getting to the line but, past those two, no one draws more than 3.5 fouls per 40 minutes (that's low).
The Bulls are efficient offensively, but they still average just 61.9 points per game. They don't have a true go-to scorer (eight players average between 6.8 and 11.1 points) and that can be risky business in the Big East.
Three keys to the game
1. Push the ball: A mantra of Buzz Williams and Marquette this year has been doing "us," which is something that will come in handy against South Florida. That being said, Marquette showed it can play well in the half court with its performance against Providence. But the Bulls play the 15th slowest game in the nation, which means pushing the ball will be a major factor in the game. That starts with turnovers and defensive rebounds to start the break.
2. Limit fouls: Jamil Wilson is beginning to prove he can be trusted off the bench, but it's playing with fire for Marquette if they get into early foul trouble. Gilchrist and Anderson have the size to make the Marquette interior work. Juan Anderson may be a valuable player off the bench to grab some minutes to limit the risk of foul trouble.
3. Strong guard play: Even at a slower pace, Marquette can use its speed on the perimeter to initiate paint touches through drives and fast breaks. The Bulls make their mark on the interior but can be beat in the back court. Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner have been great inside but tonight's game will hinge on solid guard play.
Preview: South Florida
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