Seton Hall has accomplished these seemingly modest goals without a legitimate big man, and, to make matters worse, starting center Grant Billmeier is apparently done for the rest of the season due to an ACL injury, thereby depleting the frontcourt even further. Billmeier generally played only 10-15 mpg once the conference season started, but he is 6'11" and could at least have given the Pirates some decent effort.
Fortunately for the Pirate faithful, red-shirt freshman John Garcia is playing once more after missing the entire first semester, as well as most of last year, as well as the first four conference games this season. He played nine minutes in the victory over Providence and 19 in the recent loss to Georgetown. He is certainly nowhere near 100%, and it's hard to imagine his playing more than 20 minutes against MU, but he might have to try.
Analysts and commentators have occasionally compared Marquette's team this season to last year's Villanova team because of the talent in the backcourt. However, the reality is that Seton Hall's lineup and approach are much closer to Nova's than MU's are.
Gonzalez has been forced to play "small ball;" he almost always has three guards on the court along with a small forward at the 4 and a power forward at the 5. Though born of necessity, this strategy has been more successful than almost anyone could have imagined.
The sparkplug for the Pirates is freshman point guard Eugene Harvey, Cubillan's backcourt partner at St. Benedict's last year. A Top 100 recruit (#73 on RSCI), the 6'0" speedster has been even better than advertised. In six league games he's averaging 15.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, and 3.8 apg. Harvey is not much of a threat from behind the arc (1 of 7 in six league games), but he can get to the rim and either finish or dish to a teammate. Prior to the Georgetown loss, in which he took only six shots and scored nine points, Harvey had scored in double figures in 15 straight games. He is quickly becoming the Dominic James of 2006-'07 as he continues to build his case for conference ROY.
Joining Harvey in the backcourt is senior Jamar Nutter. The 6'2" veteran is known primarily as an outside shooter. He's averaging eight trey attempts per game in the Big East so far and has made 14 of 48 (29.2%) from beyond the arc. However, take away his miserable performance in the first league game – against Rutgers – when he was 0 for 7 on threes, and he's shooting a more-respectable 34.1%. He scored in double figures in 10 straight games before being held to eight points last week against Georgetown. Despite a recent three-point shooting slump, Nutter is still a dangerous player who can get hot and go on a roll at any time. He almost single-handedly kept the Pirates in last year's MU – SHU game with his perimeter shooting.
The player who's made the most progress since the beginning of the season is freshman guard Larry Davis. The 6'4" wing averaged only 4.6 ppg and 2.6 rpg in the Pirates' first eight games, but he's averaged 11.7 ppg and 4.0 rpg in the six league games. During this stretch he nailed 12 of 24 three-pointers (50.0%). Obviously, MU can not afford to leave him open.
The player who's made the most progress relative to last year is 6'5" junior Brian Laing. Normally a small forward, Laing has been playing the 4 since Davis moved into the starting lineup. Laing is averaging 18.8 ppg and 4.7 rpg in conference games. Laing is quick enough to take his man off the dribble, athletic enough to shoot over taller defenders, and strong enough to score in the paint. He also has improved his outside shooting. He has made 38.9% of his long-distance shots in six conference games. He will be very, very difficult for MU to match up with.
With Billmeier sidelined, senior power forward Stanley Gaines will probably start in the post unless Garcia shows he's ready to hold down the fort there. Gaines wasn't a factor at all against Hibbert of Georgetown as he ended up with 0 points and 0 rebounds in 14 minutes before fouling out. He also struggled the previous game against Herbert Hill of Providence as he scored just three points and had only four rebounds in 27 minutes. In six league games he's averaged 3.0 ppg and 3.5 rpg and shot 35%, making seven of 20 shots. Gaines has a reputation as a very good defender, but in the past he's been matched up with forwards, not centers.
The X factor for the Pirates is 5'11" guard Paul Gause. When he plays well, Seton Hall usually wins; when he doesn't the Pirates generally lose. He averaged 11.6 ppg in the team's 11 wins, including seven double-digit scoring performances, but only 4.9 ppg in its seven losses with a high game of eight points. Gause, like McNeal, has gained a reputation as a consummate thief. He's averaging 2.7 steals per game in only 22.3 mpg in conference play. Many of his steals end up becoming fast break points, either for himself or a teammate.
In essence, Gonzalez has played Laing almost every minute of each conference contest – 40 minutes in each of three games, 39 in one, and 38 in the other two. Harvey, Nutter, Davis, and Gause pretty much rotate through the other three perimeter positions.
The Pirates' strategy is simple: spread the floor and let their better slashers – Harvey and Laing in particular – take their man off the dribble either for a lay up, a short, pull-up jumper, a dish to a weak-side cutter, or a kick-out to a teammate – generally Nutter or Davis – for an open trey.
Harvey is so quick and such a solid ball handler that he is difficult to contain, and Laing is much quicker than almost any power forward he will face. Plus, both Davis and Nutter can drive as well as shoot from the perimeter. This three-guard/small forward lineup puts enormous pressure on the defense. Opposing coaches are thus faced with a dilemma: whether to try to match up with the quickness of Seton Hall or to concede some hoops on defense but be able to pound the ball inside on offense and control the glass.
Georgetown embarrassed the Pirates on the boards, outrebounding them by an incredible margin of 39 to 11. But the Hoyas are somewhat unique in that their forwards – Summers and Green, especially – are quick enough to defend in space. No one on MU's squad that normally plays the 4 can match either Georgetown forward in terms of quickness and athleticism.
Both Fitzgerald and Hayward will have trouble defending Laing one on one, and Burke has even less of a chance to contain him in space. One possible solution would be to have Cubillan, James, McNeal, and Matthews on the court with Barro. The problem is that would undermine the nice four-guard rotation that Crean has instituted – a rotation which allows all four guards to get needed rest. Though fans might see this lineup for a few minutes during the game, they probably won't see it for long.
A zone would be another possible answer, but with both Davis and Nutter on the floor, that is also an unlikely scenario. If either one is on the bench, however, that could be a viable option since Harvey and Gause are not particularly good perimeter shooters, and Laing doesn't take many outside shots. The zone would basically then have to shade toward either Nutter or Davis, whichever one is in the game at the time.
The biggest problem for MU, however, might be Seton Hall's full-court pressure and half-court traps. They want to make their opponents work for all 94 feet and eventually wear them down. Because of their quickness, the Pirates force a lot of turnovers off their pressure, which often leads to fast-break baskets at the other end. In their last two games, Gonzalez' troops forced Providence into committing 20 turnovers and Georgetown into committing 21. MU can not afford to turn the ball over that often.
One of the sub-plots in this game could be a match up between former teammates Harvey and Cubillan. Having played with each other, as well as against each other at times in practices, for two years, they should be familiar with what the other likes to do.
One final factor could be critical in determining the game's outcome. Marquette must guard against a letdown after the exciting overtime victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday. MU can not afford to overlook any opponent, particularly one that recently defeated a very strong Providence team after losing to the Friars by 22 earlier in the season. In short, Seton Hall is considerably better than most analysts expected them to be. Wednesday's game could very well be considerably more competitive than many Marquette fans expect."
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior" is a regular poster on MarquetteHoops.com and is also a contributing writer for CHN - The College Hoops Network>