The Scarlet Knights certainly do not appear formidable. They are only 2-8 in conference play, and they have one of the most anemic offenses in college basketball.
For conference games only, Rutgers ranks 16th in the league in scoring (58.5ppg), 16th in field goal percentage (36.5%), 16th in three-point field goal percentage (27.8%), 16th in assists (8.2 apg), 16th in assist/turnover ratio (.71/1.00), and 14th in three-pointers made per game at 4.9. It's not a very pretty picture if you're a Rutgers fan.
The defensive stats are somewhat better, but then they couldn't get any worse. The Scarlet Knights are 14th in field goal percentage defense (45.1%) and 12th in three-point percentage defense (34.8%). Plus, they are 16th in steals at 4.5 per game. They do rank 8th in scoring defense (67.5 ppg), but a major factor is that they slow down the tempo of the game as much as they can, thereby limiting the number of possessions.
To understand the Knights' offensive woes, one needs to look no further than the shooting stats of the five regular starters (for conference games):
*Point Guard: Anthony Farmer – 31.1% overall, 26.3% on three-pointers
*Off Guard: Marquis Webb – 38.2% overall, 34.8% on three-pointers
*Small Forward: Jaron Griffin – 34.0% overall, 28.6% on three-pointers
*Power Forward: JR Inman – 35.3% overall, 31.0% on three-pointers
*Center: Adrian Hill – 66.7% overall
It is interesting that the three returning starters – Farmer, Webb, and Inman – are all shooting lower percentages this year in conference games than they did a year ago for the entire season, both overall and on treys.
However, this does not mean this team doesn't have talent. It does.
Inman is more of a natural 3 than a 4, but at 6'9" he can play either spot. He is quick and athletic, and he is a good leaper. He has scored in double figures in six of nine conference games, and he's had games of 18 points and 12 rebounds against Seton Hall, 10 points and 8 rebounds against South Florida, 14 points and 12 rebounds in a second game against Seton Hall, and 16 points against West Virginia. Because of his combination of height and quickness, he could cause some problems for MU when Rutgers is on offense.
Hill has been on fire the past three games. He had 18 points and 19 rebounds against Seton Hall, 15 points and 8 rebounds against West Virginia, and only 8 points but 13 rebounds against UConn. He's averaged 13.7 ppg and 13.3 rpg in those contests. At 6'8, he's undersized for a 5, and he's not extremely quick. But he works hard and uses his body well. Plus, his confidence has to be soaring, so he could be dangerous.
Griffin is an athletic, 6'7" small forward who likes to play on the perimeter. He's averaging just a shade under five three-point attempts per game. He's had five double-digit scoring games, including 19 against West Virginia and 18 against UConn in his last two games. Combined, he made 14 of 30 shots (46.7%), including seven of 16 treys (43.8%) in those two games, so his confidence, too, must be on the rise.
The 6'5" Webb is a four-year starter who has a reputation as a premier wing defender. It will be interesting to see if he and McNeal match up against each other. Webb is averaging 10.2 ppg in league play, which is decent. He's scored in double figures in six of 10 conference games, and he can get hot from the outside as he showed when he drained four of four treys against Cincinnati.
Farmer showed a great deal of potential as a freshman starter last year, but his game does not seem to have elevated much, if at all. He takes care of the ball (1.7/1.0 assist/turnover ratio), and he's a solid on-ball defender. He has had four double-figure scoring games, and while he's only five of 19 for the conference season on treys, he did nail three of four against UConn. Still, he's averaging only 8.1 ppg and 3.0 apg.
Rutgers' bench, which is thin to begin with, may be thinner against MU as forward Ollie Bailey has reportedly been suspended for the game for making an obscene gesture to UConn fans. If true, that could put pressure on 6'11" freshman Hamady N'Diaye, who can be a force on defense but is raw on offense (think Barro as a freshman). N'Diaye has scored only 17 points (on eight of 20 shooting) in league play in 12.3 mpg.
Rutgers' fans were optimistic in the pre-season about transfer Courtney Nelson. There was even talk that he might become the starting point guard, which would have moved Farmer to the 2 and Webb to the 3, more natural positions for both. Nelson did have a nice game against Syracuse (14 points in 30 minutes), but he has scored only 13 points in the other nine conference games combined and was scoreless in six of those. He is shooting only eight of 39 (20.5%) in league play; take away the Syracuse game and he's shooting five of 30 (16.7%).
MU can expect the Knights to play primarily man to man, which should be a welcome change after playing five of their first nine conference games against teams that prefer zone. Reportedly (thanks to a knowledgeable Rutgers fan) Coach Fred Hill's squad occasionally played a combination defense in a few non-conference games, in which the perimeter defenders matched up man to man while the two interior players played zone. That's an interesting scheme, but it's hard to imagine the Knights' using it against MU.
Also, Rutgers is not a full-court pressing team; nor does it trap much in the half court. One reason is probably lack of depth, which will be even more of an issue without Bailey. In essence, the Knights are a rather conservative team defensively. They tend to not overplay the passing lanes but rather try to stay in front of their man and force the opponent to use up as much of the shot clock as possible.
The bottom line is that MU should win. However, the game might be closer than many fans expect. Rutgers has been more competitive recently, as the Scarlet Knights beat Seton Hall, lost to West Virginia by six, and took UConn to overtime in Storrs without its best all-around player (Inman) before losing.
Besides, all Marquette players, coaches, and fans have to do to remain grounded is to say a few critical words, like "Idaho State" and "North Dakota State." Nothing is a given in the wacky world of college basketball.
The probable match ups for Wednesday's game are:
Point Guard: James versus Farmer – Farmer isn't much of a threat offensively, but he's a solid on-ball defender. He's not as explosive as James, but he's strong, and he works hard. He will almost certainly play off James to deny dribble penetration and give him open looks from behind the arc, at least unless/until he proves he can nail a couple of three-pointers.
Off Guard: McNeal versus Webb – Webb, like McNeal, is one of the top defenders in the conference, possibly in the country. But their styles are entirely different. McNeal likes to go for steals, both by jumping the passing lane and by picking the ball handler's pocket. He'll also try to block shots, both jumpers and lay ups. Webb prefers to play straight-up, position D. He's not super quick, and he doesn't have McNeal's first step or his attack mentality on offense, but he's smart, and he's strong. He will almost certainly play off McNeal when he's outside the arc but try to stay in front of him – and draw a couple of charging fouls – when McNeal attacks. This will be an extremely intriguing battle.
Small Forward: Matthews versus Griffin – Griffin has a height advantage, and he is an above-average athlete. He is not shy about shooting. Matthews will have to keep a hand in his face and not give him wide open looks, which he's knocked down the past two games. Griffin has attempted only 17 free throws in 10 league games, so he doesn't draw many fouls. Matthews, on the other hand, has shot 63 free throws, (and made 52) in nine games. He's been particularly active in driving to the hoop the past four games. During that time he's shot 10-11, 10-12, 8-8, and 10-10 from the line. Griffin, despite his height and athleticism, may have trouble keeping Matthews from going to the hole.
Power Forward: Fitzgerald/Hayward versus Inman – The 6'9" Inman will be a fairly tough match up for both Fitz and Hayward. Inman's length can cause them both problems on either end of the court. A year ago, Inman had 42 blocks in 24 games (1.75 bpg). His blocks/per game are down this year (22 in 21 games), but recently he had three blocks against Providence and five against Seton Hall. At times, Hayward has had trouble shooting over taller players, especially if they're long, which Inman is. As for Fitzgerald, Inman is quick enough to defend on the perimeter, so it's unlikely he will give Fitzgerald much room. MU has been successful when one of the guards had penetrated, drawn a second defender, and kicked it out to Fitzgerald. If the Knights' perimeter players can stop the dribble penetration, Inman may not have to help out, and even when he does, he is much better at recovering after a kick-out and closing than most 4s.
Center: Barro versus Hill – Barro seems to have more success on defense when he's matched up with a center that relies more on power than on quickness and athleticism. Hill fits the former category. His game is a bit like USF's Gransberry's game, though he's not as huge as the South Florida center. Hill is not going to out-quick or out-jump opponents. He's going to try to out-muscle and out-work them. Barro is going to have to play him tough because Hill has been on a roll lately. On the other end of the court, the 5s that give Barro the most problems are the shot blockers, like Watkins of Syracuse. He won't have to worry about that on Wednesday, at least in terms of Hill, who has one block in 10 league games (257 minutes). N'Diaye, when he's in the game, may be a different story as he's averaging one block every 8.7 minutes in conference play. As with Fitzgerald, Barro gets the majority of his baskets off teammates' dribble penetration. He almost never scores on his own with a post-up move. If Rutgers can contain MU's guards, they can keep Barro from scoring.
As always, MU must play tough defense and not give Rutgers open looks, and Coach Tom Crean's crew must hit the boards. The real key to the game, however, may be the perimeter match-ups, particularly when Marquette has the ball. If Farmer, Webb, and Griffin can keep James, McNeal, and Matthews from getting into the lane, this will probably be a close game, at least until the last few minutes. If they can't contain MU's guard tandem, this game should be over by midway through the second half as Rutgers just does not have enough offensive firepower to come back from a significant deficit.
The refs will also be a factor, like it or not. Without Bailey, Rutgers has even less depth than normal. If any of their starters get into foul trouble, the Knights will have serious problems. Expect MU to pressure Rutgers' three perimeter players and try to wear them down.
This could be an uncomfortably close game for 30+ minutes, but MU's depth and RU's lack of depth should be crucial factors the last eight to 10 minutes of the game.
**Eric Silver, "Silver Warrior" is a frequent contributor for MarquetteHoops.com and is also a contributing writer for CHN, College Hoops Network.