The Golden Eagles are led by one of the most explosive backcourts in America, with sophomores Dominic James (5-11, 175) and Jerel McNeal (6-3, 185) combining for more than 30 points-per-game. McNeal missed the first game of his collegiate career in Thursday's loss to Providence after colliding with teammate Wesley Matthews in practice, and while his presence may be somewhat questionable in Sunday night's lineup, odds are the athletic two-guard will be back on the floor in the Bradley Center.
James is one of the top lead guards in the nation, averaging 16.7 points and 4.4 assists-per-game, though so far this season he's knocked down just 30.4% of his three pointers. Still, he is a strong, quick, and sometimes dominant player with the ability to take over a game, much like he did in an early season win over Duke in Kansas City. In that game, James and McNeal used their superior quickness and strength to help force 19 Blue Devil turnovers, and James made 9-of-15 shots to finish with 25 points and seven assists in the 73-62 win.
McNeal averages 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 3.4 steals-per-game, making him one of the most complete guards in the nation. According to Marquette's website, he is one of only four players in America to average better than 13 points, four rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
The third scoring option for the Golden Eagles is Matthews (6-5, 200), a sophomore swingman who pumps in 11.7 points-per-game and scored a team-high 14 points against Providence. However, despite leading Marquette in scoring against the Friars, Matthews made just 6-of-18 shots in the game, while James knocked down only 3-of-11 shots, including a 1-of-8 performance from downtown, en route to 12 points.
The Friars blew the Golden Eagles off the court in all facets of the game on Thursday, holding Marquette to 31.1% shooting from the field and boasting a 42-25 rebounding margin. They also swatted nine Marquette shots, using their superior interior play to counter the excellent perimeter players for the Golden Eagles.
Marquette struggled against the Friars zone defense, and Tim Welsh chose to be the aggressor. Instead of making his players try to match up against the perimeter oriented Golden Eagles, Welsh instead chose to create his own mismatches, often playing three big bodies at once against the smaller, quicker Marquette team. The ploy clearly paid off, as the Friars cruised to the win.
What Welsh recognized, and so too should Jim Boeheim, is that the Golden Eagles do not have much of an inside presence. Ousmane Barro (6-10, 235) is the top post player for Marquette, averaging 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while making over 60% of his shots from the floor, but depth up front is definitely an issue for Tom Crean's squad.
Jamil Lott (6-7, 225) and Dan Fitzgerald (6-9, 200) have split time as the starting power forward, with Lott getting the nod 11 times and Fitzgerald the other five this season, though neither averages 20 minutes per game. Fitzgerald has been the more productive player despite getting fewer starts, averaging 6.3 points and 4.4 boards-per-game, while Lott averages 2.7 points and 2.4 rebounds.
Buffalo native Lazar Hayward (6-6, 215) might be the most valuable player off the bench for the Golden Eagles, averaging 6.8 points and 3.9 rebounds while giving Crean another body to fill the three and four slots. Freshman David Cubillan (6-0, 180) got the first start of his career filling in for McNeal against Providence, and is the Golden Eagles top three point shooter. This season he has nailed 20-of-44 tries, good for 45.5%.
Marquette and Syracuse are similar in many ways. Each team has talent and can compete with the best when that talent clicks. However, each team has glaring holes and has suffered some inexplicable struggles, such as Marquette's loss at home to North Dakota State on December 2. The Golden Eagles also enter Sunday night's game with 238 turnovers against 230 assists, which is never a ratio a coach wants to see. Additionally, opposing teams have been scorching from downtown against the Golden Eagles, knocking down over 37% of their shots from deep this season.
Still, the Golden Eagles use the speed, strength, and quickness of their perimeter players to their advantage very well. They force 20.4 turnovers-per-game and so far this season have out-rebounded opponents by a margin of 4.1 despite playing a three-guard set the majority of the time and lacking quality depth inside. This game may well be the biggest test of Josh Wright's career, as he has yet to square off against a point guard like Dominic James. The sophomore will hound Wright all over the floor and will prove a handful anytime the Orange switch to a man defense.
If McNeal is healthy, it could also spell trouble for the Orange. He is a pest defensively and will be in the face of any Orange player he guards. His strength and speed will overwhelm a player like Andy Rautins, which might mean Jimmy B would be better off going with Eric Devendorf or Paul Harris for the majority of the game.
Devendorf has been coming around of late, scoring 17 in each of the last two-games and starting to more closely resemble the cocky baller who gave opposing teams fits last season with his body control and scoop shots from all angles around the hoop. Harris, meanwhile, is the best matchup physically against the strong, quick perimeter players for the Golden Eagles. His defensive presence is essential if the Orange hope to contain the trio of James, McNeal, and Matthews.
Marquette does not shoot the ball particularly well, and given their athleticism on the perimeter and the way they struggled against the Providence zone on Thursday, look for far more 2-3 than man-to-man on Sunday night. The Golden Eagles made a woeful 4-of-23 triples against the Friars, and haven't faired much better all season. Some teams are built to play against a zone (West Virginia, for instance), and some teams are not. Marquette is a team that is not.
Sunday's game is meaningful for both teams involved. Neither wants to open the Big East schedule with two straight losses, particularly with Marquette's upcoming slate and Syracuse's forthcoming trip to Rutgers, where the Orange always seem to struggle mightily. The fact that this is Syracuse's first long road trip and that Marquette generally plays very well at home, the North Dakota State game notwithstanding, it will be a difficult task for the Orange to walk out of the Bradley Center victorious.
Still, Syracuse showed more signs of life in their loss to a top Pittsburgh team than Marquette showed in an overall dismal performance against Providence. The Orange obviously still have some issues to address. The continued lack of depth in the Syracuse frontcourt is still cause for concern, as is the way Demetris Nichols struggled to score against Pitt, as well as his teammates' inability to get him the ball in places where he could make a few easy baskets.
That being said, the Orange played with the No. 10 team in the nation, and very easily could have won the game given a few different bounces of the ball, and it was a loss where some positives can be salvaged.
It will be a tough one for sure, but if the Orange can come out in the first half the same way they did against Pitt, they will be in good shape. Marquette, after all, is 1-3 this season when trailing at the half.
Prediction: Syracuse has its hands full with James, McNeal, and Matthews, and Cubillan becomes the latest undersized player to go off for three or four triples, but the Orange scrap and claw and come away with a hard fought 6-8 point victory.