**Note: All stats are for conference games only.
On paper, Marquette's game against South Florida on Sunday should be no contest. Marquette is generally ranked among the Top 20 teams in the country and has won five straight games against solid Big East competition, three of which came on the opponent's court.
South Florida is 2-5 in the conference, and the Bulls' only two victories have come against two of the poorer teams in the league, Cincinnati and Rutgers. Furthermore, USF is ranked #166 on RPI (Kenpom.com), while MU is ranked #20.
Fortunately for Coach Robert McCullum and his staff, Big East games are not played on paper but on the court, and the reality is that this game should be considerably more competitive than many analysts might predict. With the additions of transfers Kentrell Gransberry and Jesus Verdejo second semester, as well as the recent return to health of point guard Chris Howard following two serious knee injuries in two years, USF is a much more dangerous squad than the one that started the year.
Gransberry, the Bulls' 6'9", 270 pound center is averaging 16.1 ppg (8th in the conference) on 55.8% shooting (10th in the conference). He is also pulling down 9.9 rpg (2nd in the conference), including a league-leading 4.4 offensive rebounds per game. In short, he's a handful. He's not quite as huge as Aaron Gray of Pitt, but he's more fluid and has a soft touch around the hoop. Gransberry has recorded double-doubles in three of his last four games (21 points and 15 rebounds against Cincinnati, 21 points and 11 rebounds against Notre Dame, and 13 points and 13 rebounds against Rutgers). He barely missed having four in a row (11 points and 9 rebounds against West Virginia). He will not be an easy match-up for Barro because of his strength and skill level.
Another offensive weapon is 6'7" small forward Melvin Buckley, who is averaging 13.9 ppg (15th) in seven conference games. He has been remarkably consistent as he has scored in double figures in 19 of 21 games overall, including 15 in a row. The transfer from Purdue is an excellent outside shooter as his average of 44.7% on treys illustrates. He is second in the league in three-pointers made per game (3.0). His free throw percentage - 87.5% - is fourth in the league. Buckley is not much of a threat to drive as almost two thirds of his shots (64.5%) come from behind the arc. The bottom line is that Marquette can not allow him to get open looks from the perimeter. Fortunately, MU has allowed conference opponents to make only 29.3% of its three pointers, good for 3rd in the league.
The X factor for the Bulls could be power forward McHugh Mattis. The 6'8" senior is exactly the type of player that is capable of giving Marquette's front line fits. He is extremely quick and an excellent jumper who uses his athleticism to average 10.9 ppg (almost all of his points coming right around the basket) and 6.0 rpg. It is difficult to imagine Fitzgerald being able to keep Mattis off the offensive glass. Hayward, though certainly not a stand-still, two-footed leaper, may have more success if he can keep a body on Mattis and box him out. However, Mattis might cause Tom Crean's squad more problems with his shot blocking than with his rebounding as he is averaging 3.3 bpg. He had 5 blocks against UConn, 5 against Cincy, and 5 against West Virginia. Still, MU's guards must attack the hoop and force Mattis to make plays. They have to hope that they can draw enough fouls on USF's premier shot blocker so that he either has to spend considerable time on the bench or become a bit less aggressive.
The Bulls rotate three players, two of whom did not play a single minute first semester, through the two guard spots. Chris Howard has taken over the starting job at the point following his recovery from the more recent of two serious knee injuries. The 6'3" sophomore is averaging 30.2 mpg in five games. He's not much of a scorer (5.6 ppg) or shooter (32.3% overall and 0 for 6 on three-pointers). However, he is averaging an impressive 5.6 apg (including 10 assists against Cincinnati) and has 28 assists to 14 turnovers for an assist/turnover ratio of 2.0/1.0. He is supposedly extremely quick, so James and Cubillan will have to stay in front of him to keep him from penetrating and finding open teammates.
Freshman Solomon Bozeman was one of the early surprise stories in the conference. Prior to conference play he averaged 14.0 ppg and scored in double figures in 10 of 14 games with highs of 23 and 24 points. In seven league games, however, he's averaged only 5.1 ppg with a high game of 10 points. His shot has deserted him lately as he's hit only 28.6% from the field overall and 21.1% (4 of 19) on treys. He is, however, an excellent free throw shooter – 88.9% - good for second in the conference.
Arizona transfer Jesus Verdejo has been a part-time starter since becoming eligible second semester. In 26.2 mpg in league play, he's averaged 7.0 ppg on 45.2% shooting. He has a solid mid-range game, and he's capable of getting to the hoop where he can use his height – 6'4" – to score over shorter defenders. He's not much of a threat from deep, however, as he's made only 5 of 17 treys (29.4%).
These six players have accounted for more than 90% of total playing time the past five games. The Bulls are simply not very deep once they get past these six individuals.
Overall, USF presents some problems. Gransberry can score inside and hit the offensive boards. Mattis is quick and athletic and can cause havoc with his shot-blocking ability. Buckley can shoot from behind the arc. Howard has a knack for finding open teammates and delivering the ball. Verdejo and Bozeman are both sufficiently athletic and skilled to cause some problems for MU's defense.
The keys for MU to extend its winning streak are obvious. Marquette's interior defenders must keep Gransberry and Mattis off the offensive glass. On the perimeter, the defense must not allow Buckley to get into a comfort zone, and they must not let the Bulls' guards penetrate and dish or kick it out to open teammates.
USF has some definite weaknesses as a team. For the conference season, the Bulls are 15th in scoring at 57.9 ppg, 15th in free throw percentage (58.7%), 16th in offensive rebounding (8.7 per game) despite Gransberry being first in the league, 15th in three-pointers made per game (4.3), despite Buckley's 3.0 per game.
If both teams play what is for them an average game, MU should win. But Coach McCollum has a knack for getting his teams to play well at home. They lost a number of close games last year on their home court before upsetting Georgetown at the end of the season. If Marquette does not play hard and smart on Sunday, MU could suffer the same fate.
Below are the P-5 (Potential Point Production & Prevention Profile) rankings - for conference games only - for the two teams' probable starters on Sunday. The P-5 score is calculated by adding a player's points, rebounds, assists (times 2), steals, and blocks, then subtracting turnovers from that sub-total. The new total is then divided by the number of minutes played.
Point Guard - Howard: 18.6/30.2 mpg = .616
Point Guard – James: 27.6/35.0 mpg = .789
Off Guard – Verdejo: 13.4/26.2 mpg = .511
Off Guard – McNeal: 28.9/30.5 mpg = .948
Small Forward – Buckley: 16.4/34.1 = .481
Small Forward – Matthews: 23.7/35.0 mpg = .677
Power Forward – Mattis: 21.3/32.0 mpg = .666
Power Forward – Fitzgerald: 9.0/20.9 mpg = .431
Center – Gransberry: 28.1/32.4 mpg = .867
Center – Barro: 19.3/31.0 mpg = .623
It is possible that Hayward could start at the 4 for MU and/or that Bozeman could start at the 2 for USF. Their P-5 scores are:
Off Guard – Bozeman: 13.8/29.7 mpg = .465
Power Forward – Hayward: 7.6/14.0 mpg = .543
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior", is a regular contributor at MarquetteHoops.com and is also a contributing writer for CHN, College Hoops Network.