For MU fans, the overriding question at this point is whether Dominic James's injured wrist will keep him on the sideline. With him, this game would be an enormous challenge; without him, coming away with a win in Storrs is even a tougher task.
But there are other questions as well. Near the top of the list is which defensive approach UConn Coach Jim Calhoun will employ – primarily man to man, which he normally prefers, or some sort of zone or combination of zones, a tact which proved to be extremely successful for both Bob Huggins and Rick Pitino against MU the past couple of weeks.
Another major question is which Marquette team will show up – the one that decimated Providence and dominated Notre Dame, or the one that looked like anything but a contender for the Big East title against West Virginia, Seton Hall, and Louisville.
Any avid MU fan could easily add another half dozen questions to this short list, which is what is so unnerving about this year's team. From one game to the next one doesn't know what to expect.
And what about UConn? What should the Marquette faithful expect to see on Sunday?
Well, they will see a team that can score but that doesn't shoot well from the perimeter. The Huskies now lead the conference in scoring during league play at 76.0 ppg. However, from behind the arc, the team is shooting a paltry 29.3% in those five games, which ranks twelfth in the conference. In fact, Calhoun's team has made an average of only 4.4 treys per game, which ranks fourteenth among Big East teams.
Both starting guards – Jerome Dyson and A. J. Price – are capable of having the occasional hot hand from outside, but that is not the strength of either's game. Both are considerably better at getting to the hole or pulling up for mid-range shots, as well as scoring in transition.
Junior power forward Jeff Adrien is as much a threat to score as either of his back-court teammates. He is relentless on the offensive glass, and he combines physical strength and excellent quickness to simply out-hustle opponents. But he has also developed a respectable mid-range game out to 10-12 feet, something he lacked two years ago as a freshman and was working on last season as a sophomore.
On the other end of the court, Connecticut also presents somewhat of a contradiction. They are holding opposing teams to 38.9% field goal percentage in league play, good for fourth in the conference. Yet the Huskies rank fourteenth in points allowed at 74.6 ppg and fifteenth in three-point field goal percentage defense at a shocking 44.2%.
However, there really is no contradiction. With Adrien, Stanley Robinson, and 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet manning the front court, the Huskies lead the conference in blocks at an incredible 10.0 per game. It is extremely difficult for opponents to get to the basket and finish without the shot being swatted away or, at the very least, altered. This ability of the athletic UConn frontcourt does not bode well for MU's slashers – James, McNeal, and Matthews – or for Hayward, who mixes it up with anyone inside but is undersized.
Most likely Calhoun will opt to play a considerable amount of zone and dare MU to beat his team from the perimeter. Given the Marquette's shooting woes in Morgantown and Louisville, this certainly seems to be an appropriate strategy. Of course, should James end up watching the game from the bench, the Hall of Fame coach could decide to pressure MU's guards in an attempt to create turnovers and transition hoops since UConn is at its best when it runs the floor.
There is one additional pair of statistics that create the appearance of a paradox: UConn ranks second in defensive rebounding in the conference at 27.6 per game; yet overall the team's rebounding margin over the past five games is 0.0. With a 7'3" center, a 6'6" (though listed as 6'7") rebounding maniac at the 4, and a quick, athletic, 6'9" leaper at the 3, one would expect the Huskies to be solidly on the plus side in terms of rebounding margin.
Starters & Key Reserve
A.J. Price – this 6'2" junior has finally become the quality of player he was expected to be as a Top 25 recruit (RSCI of #24) in the Class of 2004. There's no need to repeat the medical or legal issues that plagued him his first two years in Storrs; the fact is that after not playing for two years and then having a less-than-stellar season a year ago, Price is now a force to be reckoned with.
He is averaging 16.6 ppg in league play (tied for eighth), and he leads the conference in assists at 6.2 apg. His assist/turnover ratio of 3.10/1.00 ranks third. Price, like the rest of his teammates, is more of a scorer than a shooter. He did knock down 4 of 4 treys against St. John's, so he can get hot, but in the other four conference games, he's 4 of 20 (20%) from behind the arc.
The native of Amityville, New York is capable of being his own horror story for opponents. He scored 25 points and had 7 assists against St. John's and dropped 17 points on Georgetown to go along with 9 assists. Any similar performance on Sunday will mean big trouble for MU.
Prices' P-5 score for the conference season so far is an outstanding .965 compared to James's .869, which is also excellent.
Jerome Dyson – the 6'4" sophomore has been inconsistent in league play: he scored a season-high 27 points against Seton Hall, which played the Huskies man to man almost the entire game, but he was held to 8 points by Georgetown, when he played only 19 minutes due to foul trouble, and 5 points by Providence in 31 minutes. It's noteworthy that both the Hoyas and Friars played their usual zone defense.
Like Price, Dyson is more scorer than shooter, though also like Price, he can get hot from the perimeter. The former Top 40 recruit (#36 on RSCI) in the Class of '06 drilled 5 of 7 three-pointers against SHU but is only 1 of 14 from beyond the arc in his last four games.
Dyson is one of the better defenders in the conference. He, not McNeal, leads the league in steals after five games with an average of 3.6 spg, including an eye-popping nine steals against St. John's. If both teams do play man, and the two master thieves match up, it could be a real war.
Dyson seems to score in bunches, and he does so in a variety of ways, including some acrobatic finishes at the rim. Marquette can not afford to let him get on a roll.
The Maryland native does tend to turn the ball over as he occasionally forces the action. In his last five games he has 16 turnovers compared to only nine assists for an assist/turnover ration of 0.56/1.00.
His P-5 score is .643 in league games (though for the entire season it's .783), while McNeal's P-5 score in conference is .758.
Stanley Robinson – after a lackluster and somewhat disappointing freshman year, the 6'9" sophomore forward is having a decent second season. For the year he's averaging 10.6 ppg and 6.2 rpg in 25.6 mpg. However, he's been less productive, at least in terms of scoring, in conference play (7.6 ppg in 26.6 mpg).
The former Top 20 recruit (#18 on RSCI) in the Class of '06 is most effective around the hoop where he can use his height, length, and hops to shoot over smaller 3s. He is a decent ball handler with a variety of moves, but, like Dyson, sometimes uses poor judgment and forces the issue. He also tends to settle for 15-16 footers, which is not the strength of his game. He will even take an occasional three-pointer, and twice in league play he's made 1 of 2 in a game, but, overall, he's only 2 of 8 (25.0%).
He's also not a good free throw shooter, just under 55% for the year and 6 of 9 (66.7%) in conference games. He also doesn't get to the line quite as often as one might expect from a player with his size and athleticism, again an indication that he settles for shots from mid-range.
If the Huskies play man, his length and bounce will make it hard for Matthews to get clean looks, either from mid-range or on drives to the basket. If Calhoun goes zone, his length will still make life difficult for MU because he's so long.
Robinson, like many young players, is out of position at times on defense or simply slow to rotate. However, because of his athleticism he is able to cover up a lot of those mistakes.
Robinson's P-5 score in conference is .617 compared to Matthews' score of .714.
Jeff Adrien – though listed as 6'7", the power forward is probably between 6'5" and 6'6", which makes his rebounding ability even more noteworthy. The muscular junior came to Storrs with a reputation as an athletic, albeit undersized, dynamo, and he has not disappointed.
The former Top 60 recruit (#53 on RSCI) in the Class of '05 leads the Huskies in scoring and rebounding for the year. In conference play he's tied with Price for eighth in the league in scoring at 16.6 ppg and he's fourth in rebounding at 10.2 rpg. He's already had three double-doubles in five games against Big East competition (16 points and 11 rebounds against Notre Dame, 20 points and 14 boards against St. John's, and 16 points and 12 boards against Providence).
Two years ago as a freshman, the native of Brookline, MA had trouble scoring outside of five feet, but over the last two seasons, he's developed a respectable mid-range game. If opponents leave him open, he can drain the 10-15 footer; plus, he is now capable of facing the basket, putting the ball on the floor, and getting to the hoop with a variety of moves. If Adrien were 6'8", he'd be looking at a sure-fire NBA career.
Adrien causes enormous headaches for opposing players and coaches. If MU plays man, Hayward will have his hands full and could easily wind up in foul trouble. The problem is no one else is strong enough to keep Adrien from getting to the glass.
Like Dyson, Adrien sometimes forces things a bit and gets into trouble, which often leads to turnovers. He's averaging 3.2 per game, which is unusually high for a power forward.
Still, if there's one Husky capable of dominating this game on the offensive end, it's Adrien.
His P-5 score after five games is .803, while Hayward's is .760.
Hasheem Thabeet – the 7'3" sophomore has improved considerably in the past year. Overall, he's averaging 10.2 ppg (9.6 ppg in conference games) and 7.6 rpg (6.2 in conference).
While his offensive game has improved, Thabeet's true impact is on the defensive end of the court. He is averaging 5.0 blocks per game over the five league games, including 10 against Notre Dame. In that game, he completely neutralized opposing center Luke Harangody as the Irish star made just 5 of 24 shots and failed to score in the second half. Even when he doesn't actually block a shot, his presence intimidates players into not even attempting to shoot or forcing them to alter their shots.
It is difficult to imagine any of Marquette's interior players being able to finish against the native of Tanzania. Even more problematical is the likelihood that MU's guards will be unable to get to the rim without having their shots slapped out of bounds or, even worse, into the hands of one of UConn's guards to head the other way on a fast break.
The presence of both Adrien and Robinson, both of whom are averaging 1.6 bpg in league play, would already make it difficult to score inside, but with Thabeet patrolling the lane, the task becomes truly daunting.
Fortunately for MU's 3 Bs (Barro, Burke, and Blackledge), all of whom will likely spend some time at the 5, the former Top 100 recruit (#64 on RSCI) in the Class of '06 is not the force on offense that Harangody, Caracter, and Padgett are. But he is averaging in double figures, and he did score 15 points against Seton Hall.
Thabeet has also become a better free throw shooter, 70.1% this season versus 51.3% as a freshman. And he's getting to the charity stripe more frequently – 5.4 free throw attempts per game compared to 3.7 attempts last season. In the past, a strategy of fouling the big man to keep him from making a five-footer made sense, but teams are paying a steeper price for that tactic this year.
Thabeet's P-5 score presently stands at .656 in league contests compared to Barro's .633 and Burke's .420.
Doug Wiggins – another Top 100 member of the Huskies' terrific recruiting class of 2006 (#55 on RSCI), is a lightning quick 6'1" combo guard who provides tremendous spark off the bench.
Like UConn's starting tandem of Price and Dyson, he is more scorer than shooter, but he is capable of scoring in bunches. In each of his last two games he scored 15 points. Against Georgetown, he hit 6 of 7 field goals, including all three of his three-point tries, then hit three more, in eight attempts, against Providence, as well as adding 5 assists. He played 30 minutes against the Friars as Calhoun played a three-guard lineup a good portion of the game.
Wiggins is also a pesky defender. He does a good job of staying in front of his man, and he's capable of causing turnovers as his total of 8 steals in five conference games indicates.
In short, there is very little drop off when he comes in to replace one of the starting guards.
Wiggins' P-5 score for league games is an impressive .794 compared to .663 for Acker and .444 for Cubillan.
The Bottom Line
There is no question that Marquette needs to win this game if it wants to stay in the hunt for a league championship. However, even more importantly, after two blow-out losses on the road, MU needs to prove to itself that it can play well away from the friendly confines of the Bradley Center.
However, this game may be even more crucial for the Huskies. A loss would drop them to 2-4 in conference games, and it would also be the second of back-to-back losses on its home court.
UConn fans have to be wondering how a team that nearly beat both Georgetown and Notre Dame on the road, can lose at home to Providence by 12 points. Of course, the answer to that question is simple. The Friars were incredibly hot from behind the arc – 14 of 24 for 58.3% - while the Huskies shot a miserable 4 of 19 (21.1%) on three-pointers.
Of course, this was not the only time UConn shot terribly from long range. Against Notre Dame the Huskies made only 2 of 17 treys (11.8%), and against the Hoyas they were 5 of 16 (31.3%).
It will be fascinating to see how the two coaches approach the game defensively. Will Calhoun rely primarily on zone defense(s) despite the fact that all three of his primary guards are quality man defenders? If he watched MU's struggles shooting the ball against WVU and UL, then he may well take the zone route.
And what about MU's Tom Crean? While he has used one or more zones sporadically this season, the staple of MU's defense is pressure man to man that pushes teams out on the floor away from their comfort zone. However, it's obvious that the book on the Huskies is to take away the inside by packing it in and forcing them to shoot from deep. Which path will the MU coach take?
To win this game Marquette must hit at least close to 40% of its outside shots because it simply is not going to get much inside. It also has to be tougher on the defensive glass because Adrien, in particular, but also Robinson and Thabeet, are good at attacking the offensive boards.
Even if James were 100%, which doesn't seem likely, Marquette would have to be viewed as an underdog in this game. Without him, the Huskies would have a huge advantage.
Still, even if James plays little or not at all, MU fans should not despair. All they need for a bit of inspiration and hope is to recall what its bitter in-state rival (no, not UWM) did at Texas without leading scorer Trevon Hughes.