(All Stats for Conference Games Only Unless Otherwise Noted)
Just how talented is the team that dominated Marquette in the first conference game on January 4? Well, it's probably the only team in the conference that has four legitimate candidates for all-conference honors at the end of the season.
Herbert Hill - not Aaron Gray, Roy Hibbert, or David Padgett - is clearly the most dominant center in the league. Including games through January 30, Hill leads the league in scoring at 19.9 ppg and rebounding at 10.4 rpg. He is the only player averaging a double-double, and his rebounding average is a full rebound per game higher than his nearest competitor (teammate Geoff McDermott). The 6'10" center is also the conference leader in blocked shots at 4.1 bpg. Plus, Hill ranks sixth in the conference in field goal percentage (60.4%).
Hill presents a tremendous match-up problem for Marquette, just as he does for every other Big East team. Though not as tall as Hibbert or Gray, he is much more mobile than either one. In fact, he is probably the quickest center in the league, but he is also strong and extremely aggressive. In the first game against MU, Hill had 23 points, nine rebounds, and seven blocks. In short, he was a headache on both ends of the court. Furthermore, it is no coincidence that Barro had his worst performance of the conference season in that game as he had only six points and three rebounds in 29 minutes. The bottom line is that Coach Tom Crean has no one who can defend Hill on the defensive end of the court or can challenge him on the offensive end.
However, Hill may not even be MU's toughest match up. That honor may well belong to Geoff McDermott. Through most of the non-conference portion of the season, the 6'7" sophomore primarily played the 4. However, since Jonathan Kale broke into the starting lineup, McDermott has split time between power forward and small forward. At 6'7" and 240 pounds, McDermott is too big and too strong for a small forward to contain in the paint. However, because he combines superb quickness and leaping ability with excellent ball handling and passing, he can take almost any 4 off the dribble and either score or draw a help defender and then hit a teammate for an easy basket.
McDermott is probably the best all-around player in the league. There are simply not many players anywhere in the country who are versatile enough to rank second in their conference in rebounds (9.4 rpg) and third in assists (5.4 apg). That's a remarkable combination. McDermott is also averaging 12.7 ppg on 58.9% shooting, which ranks seventh in the league.
In the earlier game against MU this year, McDermott nearly had a triple-double as he scored 11 points, had nine rebounds, and an amazing 11 assists. Time after time he got past his man, drove into the lane, and either finished himself or made pinpoint passes to Hill or Kale for lay ups or thunderous dunks. It is difficult to imagine anyone – Hayward, Burke, Fitzgerald, or Matthews – preventing McDermott from having another stellar performance.
Marquette matches up considerably better with the Friars in the backcourt, but Coach Tim Welch's starting guards have been every bit as productive as MU's over the course of the entire season. Point guard Sharaud Curry didn't play in the January 4 game, but he'll be on the court this Saturday.
How good is Curry? Well, one can compare his stats for the entire season to James's stats to get a pretty good idea.
Curry is averaging 14.6 ppg; James is averaging 14.5 ppg
Curry is averaging 5.4 apg; James is averaging 4.7 apg
Curry is averaging 2.9 rpg; James is averaging 2.7 rpg
Curry is shooting 41.1% overall; James is shooting 43.0% overall
Curry is shooting 33.7% on treys; James is shooting 32.2% on treys
Curry is shooting 89.2% on free throws; James is shooting 62.0% on free throws.
In five conference games, Curry is averaging 15.0 ppg and 4.8 apg. However, he is also averaging 4.0 turnovers a game. Curry is extremely quick, so MU's defenders can not be overly aggressive. If they are, he is capable of getting a step and driving to the hole or drawing a defender and dishing to a teammate.
The final member of Providence's potential all-conference quartet is another sophomore – Weyinmi Efejuku. The 6'5" guard experienced a three-game slump in mid-January, a stretch in which he scored a combined total of only 15 points. Still, Efejuku has had some terrific games the past month. He had 18 points and 10 rebounds against MU, then 24 points, eight rebounds, and six assists two days later against Seton Hall.
A quick comparison between Efejuku's stats for the entire season and McNeal's stats illustrates just how productive the Friars' guard has been.
Efejuku is averaging 14.3 ppg; McNeal is averaging 14.6 ppg
Efejuku is averaging 4.5 rpg; McNeal is averaging 4.7 rpg
Efejuku is averaging 2.4 apg; McNeal is averaging 4.1 apg
Efejuku is shooting 49.2% overall; McNeal is shooting 41.1% overall
Efejuku is shooting 39.5% on treys; McNeal is shooting 26.8% on treys
Efejuku is shooting 81.3% on free throws; McNeal is shooting 69.5% on free throws
In essence, as good as Marquette's perimeter players are, they will have their hands full with Curry, Efejuku, and McDermott. Each of MU's superb sophomores must bring his A game on Saturday as this is almost certainly the most difficult trio they will face in conference play.
Despite the focus on the players mentioned above, basketball is a team game, and the complementary players may well be the ones who determine the outcome. Fitzgerald, Cubillan, Hayward, and Burke must contribute significantly more than they did a month ago when they shot a combined six of 24 from the field (25%) in 80 minutes of action. Fitzgerald and Cubillan were a combined two of 10 on treys as MU shot a frigid 17.4% (four of 23) on three-pointers overall.
For Providence Kale has been playing well lately. He had his best game of the season – 10 points and 9 rebounds – last Saturday against UConn. MU can not afford to allow him to get anywhere near those numbers this Saturday.
It's worth noting that the previous game – against Villanova – Kale played only seven minutes and was scoreless. The reason he get so little playing time was that freshman guard, Dwain Williams, was on fire with 18 points in 33 minutes, including four of 7 treys. Williams also did a nice job filling in for Curry against MU in their first meeting with 11 points, including three of six on three-pointers, and only two turnovers in 38 minutes.
Another freshman guard, Brian McKenzie, has recently gotten more playing time and has responded well. He had 12 points on 4 of 8 treys in 24 minutes against Seton Hall and 11 points on 3 of 4 three-point shooting in only 12 minutes against UConn.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this upcoming Big East battle is which defensive option or options Coach Crean chooses to employ against the high-scoring Friars who are averaging a league-leading 75.9 ppg on 48.4% shooting, which is second in the conference behind Georgetown. Providence will almost certainly rely on its usual zone defense, but MU could opt for either zone or man to man.
One possibility is to play a considerable amount of zone because the Friars are shooting a decent, though not outstanding, 34.5% from behind the arc. Furthermore, neither Curry (28.6%) nor Efejuku (26.9%) has been as effective from behind the arc in the conference season as they were in non-conference games. However, the real allure of playing zone is that it would relieve MU's interior players of having to contend with Hill and McDermott man to man.
Of course, playing zone comes with some risks. It may be more difficult to keep Hill, Kale, and McDermott off the offensive glass as it's harder to locate and block out in zone than in man. The Friars are strong on the offensive glass as they rank fourth in the conference with an average of 14.0 offensive boards a game, and they rank first in rebounding margin at just under +7 per game. (MU is eighth in this category at +0.4.) It won't do MU much good if Providence misfires from the perimeter if the Friars get a ton of second-chance opportunities.
Crean and his players, of course, would almost certainly prefer to go with their strong suit – man to man, and there is certainly a solid rationale for pressuring the Friars' guards. Providence ranks 16th in the conference in turnover margin and is averaging a whopping 18.1 turnovers per game. Still, MU forced 20 turnovers in their last meeting, and it wasn't enough to even keep the game close.
The risk of playing man is obvious: Hill and McDermott could repeat their dominating performances of a month ago. If they do, MU will be in deep trouble.
One strategy could be to mix defenses and try to keep the Friars off balance. Personnel on the floor at any given time for both teams could also determine MU's defensive approach.
Marquette, of course, didn't have McNeal in the first game, but Providence didn't have Curry. It's almost impossible to assess what their absences meant in terms of the way the contest played out as both players are critical to their team's overall success.
Playing at the BC should certainly be a factor in MU's favor. For one thing, Providence has won only one away game all year, its last game, against a rapidly-sinking UConn team. In conference play the Friars also lost at Louisville and at Seton Hall. Furthermore, the excitement related to retiring Wade's jersey will add even more intensity to the crowd.
The bottom line is that MU's defense, not its offense, will win or lose this game. It's a theme Marquette fans have grown accustomed to hearing from players and the coaching staff alike, but it's true, particularly in this game. Three-point shooting will be important; free throw shooting will be important; rebounding will be important. But the real key will be whether or not Marquette's defense can shut down Providence's offense. James, McNeal, Matthews, Hayward, Barro, Cubillan, Fitzgerald, and Burke will all have to play like true warriors to come away with the win.
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 – Curry: 125/183 minutes = .683
Point Guard – James: 232/278 minutes = .835
Off Guard – Efejuku: 163/228 minutes = .715
Off Guard – McNeal: 191/211 minutes = .910
Small Forward – McDermott: 237/270 minutes = .878
Small Forward – Matthews: 190/280 minutes = .679
Power Forward – Kale: 78/158 minutes = .494
Power Forward – Hayward: 57/111 minutes = .514
Power Forward – Fitzgerald: 100/158 minutes = .633
Center – Hill: 238/253 minutes = .941
Center – Barro: 150/251 = .598
**Eric Silver, "Silver Warrior" is a contributing member of MarquetteHoops.com and is also a contibuting writer for CHN, College Hoops Network.