What can the MU diehards expect to see Monday night? First of all, they can look forward to some excellent defense. Coach Jay Wright's team employs a three-quarter-court zone press that traps after every pass in the backcourt and sometimes one additional time in the frontcourt.
The press creates occasional turnovers, but it also accomplishes two other goals. It causes the opponent to use most of the 10-second clock to get the ball across mid-court, thereby allowing less time to set up and run its half-court offense. Also, it can wear down opposing guards, not just physically, but also mentally, which can lead to mental errors.
It will be interesting to see whether MU's guards aggressively attack the press and try to split the Wildcats' double teams with the dribble or take a more conservative approach and swing the ball side to side with short passes, as Georgetown did on Saturday. It wouldn't be a surprise if Coach Tom Crean directs his talented trio of sophomore guards to attack the press with the dribble and then try to create scoring opportunities off penetration once they get into the frontcourt.
However, the Wildcats' half-court defense has also been extremely impressive. They have held their last seven opponents to an average of 56.9 ppg. During that period, opposing teams have shot only 37.3% from the field.
In essence, MU, which has averaged only 61.3 ppg in its three consecutive losses and has not scored more than 70 points in any of its last six games, may once again find it difficult to score. Against Louisville on Saturday, MU managed to take only 45 shots in 40 minutes against the Cardinals' zone.
Villanova is likely to play both man to man and zone in the half court. They have done an excellent job of keeping the ball out of the paint. In fact, Georgetown's talented center, Roy Hibbert, who destroyed MU a week ago, didn't take an official shot and ended up with only two free throws in 24 minutes in Georgetown's first game against Villanova and made only two of four shots in 18 minutes in the second game.
Offensively Nova has three players who can cause havoc for any defense. Leading the way is small forward Curtis Sumpter. The 6'7" fifth-year senior is the quintessential 3. He can slash to the hoop; he can post up; he can bury the mid-range jumper; and, he can nail the three-pointer. He is quick, and he is strong, a combination that makes him extremely difficult to defend. In 12 conference games, Sumpter is averaging 14.9 ppg and 7.25 rpg in 28.9 mpg. He is shooting 41.4% from the field, including a solid 38.5% from behind the arc.
The task of guarding the potential all-conference forward will likely to fall to Wesley Matthews, who can match Sumpter's quickness but not his power. Matthews will have to be on top of his game to contain the player recognized as the Wildcats' unquestioned leader both on and off the court.
Another senior, Mike Nardi, has scored in double figures in 10 of 12 league games. However, in the other two, he scored only three and two points, respectively, the latter occurring on Saturday against the Hoyas. Still, he's averaging 12.3 ppg in conference play. At times, the 6'0" combo guard can catch fire from the perimeter as he showed when he hit five of six treys against Providence and four of five against Cincinnati. However, in the other 10 conference games he's made only17 of 66 three-pointers (25.8%). MU must hope he doesn't get hot Monday night.
Recently, the most prolific scorer for the Wildcats has been freshman point guard Scottie Reynolds, who is averaging 15.3 ppg in league play. He's been a bit inconsistent as he scored 27 points against Notre Dame, 26 in a non-conference win over Texas, 25 against DePaul, 20 against Providence, 19 in a second game against the Irish, and 18 Saturday against Georgetown, but scored in single digits against West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Cincinnati.
Still, he's extremely dangerous. He can get to the hoop almost any time he wants to, but he's also a threat from the perimeter. In fact, he's shooting 42.1% on three-pointers in conference play.
It will be interesting to see how MU matches up with Nova at the 1 and the 2. Crean could go either way with James on Reynolds and McNeal on Nardi, or vice versa.
The other four Wildcats who see significant minutes are primarily complementary players who know their roles. Up front, 6'8" senior Will Sheridan (3.9 ppg and 5.2 rpg in 26.6 mpg) doesn't score much, but he's a strong interior defender.
Sophomore Shane Clark, 6'7", has moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 6.8 ppg and 3.7 rpg in 24.6 mpg. He does look to score and can be a threat from behind the arc where he's hitting 35.7%.
Dante Cunningham, a 6'9" sophomore, is now coming off the bench after starting most of the season, but he's still averaging 27.3 mpg. He's extremely athletic, and he is active around the hoop. He's averaging 7.8 ppg and 6.1 rpg. In essence, Coach Wright rotates his four forwards through three spots, much as Crean rotates four guards through three spots.
In the backcourt, freshman Reggie Redding has become the top reserve to the tune of 17.8 mpg. He doesn't look to score, and he's shooting only 35.3% from the field, but he's a solid defender with an understanding of the game.
Wright has narrowed his rotation to these seven players. Combined, they are averaging 191.1 mpg in conference play out of 200. Each one seems to know and his accept his role on both ends of the court, which has led to effective team play and a four-game winning streak prior to the narrow loss to Georgetown.
It is notable that Wright has molded his lineup and rotation to fit his personnel. Gone is the three-guard/four-guard lineups of a year ago. Instead, Nova almost never employs even three guards at the same time but uses a two-guard, three-forward lineup almost exclusively.
This is a talented, well-coached team that will give MU all it can handle. The Wildcats are deeper than MU up front, but Marquette is deeper in the backcourt. This could easily be another game that comes down to the final shot. If it does, hopefully this time the result is in MU's favor. One thing is certain: this will not be an easy game.
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior", is also a contrbuting writer for CHN, College Hoops Network.