Scouting Report: Marquette
Thursday night in Milwaukee, the Vanderbilt Commodores face a moment of truth. They simply must defeat the Marquette Golden Eagles if they want to have a realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Should Vanderbilt lose, the Dores will have no out-of-conference wins to hang their hat on when Selection Sunday arrives. Should Vanderbilt fall short, one of Milwaukee's finest beers wouldn't be enough to drown out the sorrows of the VU hoops community, which was expecting so much from this team when the curtain was raised in early November.
You know the story and its surrounding dynamics. You know that Cleveland State started the season on the wrong track. You know that both Xavier and Louisville slipped away, and that the Indiana State plunged a resume-wounding dagger into the Dores' midsection. If Marquette can't be conquered, the non-conference resume will be completely barren for the Dores, who are already saddled with two bad losses. Getting clipped by the Golden Eagles would leave VU "0 for 3" in terms of this team's ability to claim high-value scalps against quality opponents. A loss here would mean that VU would need to go at least 11-5 in the SEC with wins over both Kentucky and Florida (or at least two total wins in four tries) to feel somewhat optimistic about an NCAA Tournament berth. If Vandy can escape the state of Wisconsin with a win, 11-5 would still be a likely target for the NCAAs, but VU wouldn't need to thread the needle to the same extent; avoiding a bad loss and making the SEC Tournament semifinals would probably form the baseline requirements for a Big Dance card.
This becomes the night, then, when Vanderbilt can either chase away its demons or accept their permanent presence between the ears. This becomes the night when VU can choose to finish a game with strength and decisiveness, not the deer-in-the-headlights look which was so prevalent in the final minutes of regulation and overtime at Louisville. This becomes the night when Vanderbilt can string together additional high-level possessions, unlike the Xavier endgame. This becomes the night when Jeffery Taylor can crave the big shot and embrace a defining crunch-time moment. This becomes the night when the backcourt can insist on being ball-strong in the face of relentless full-court defensive pressure. This becomes the night when 50-50 balls in the final minute of regulation belong to the Black and Gold… for keeps. This becomes the night when the charmin-soft tissue of Vanderbilt basketball can be discarded and exchanged for a mental armor plate of resilience and resourcefulness. This becomes the night when the VU crew can and must change, or face death (otherwise spelled "N-I-T") as the alternative.
It's time to dare to be different. It's time to risk being better. It's time to stop being afraid for a band of basketball brothers that should not be sitting at home when the NCAA Tournament begins on Thursday, March 15, and Friday, March 16.
Marquette is not that distant a cousin of Vanderbilt if you peel the onion a little bit. The Golden Eagles didn't play sledgehammer-based basketball when they reached the Final Four in 2003 under former coach Tom Crean. The team in the state of Wisconsin which likes to bludgeon opponents to death is the University of Wisconsin; Marquette prefers to travel to the NCAA Tournament by a different route, a style based more on pressure defense, guard play, and perimeter shooting. This makes the Golden Eagles and the Commodores appreciably similar squads. You don't find bangers, beef or plodding muscle on either one of these teams; Marquette and Vanderbilt both demand high-energy players with developed skill sets and the ability to play interchangeably on the floor. Post play is a minor ingredient in each team's larger approach to the sport; face-up shooting and floor spacing are far more important.
It's true that Marquette relies more on point guards than Vanderbilt does, with Junior Cadougan taking the baton from former star Dominic James while the Commodores have featured Brad Tinsley as a facilitator for his teammates. However, the differences between MU and VU are less substantial (and glaring) than the common threads which run through these programs. What Crean built in Milwaukee has been sustained by current coach Buzz Williams, as the Golden Eagles have remained in a five-as-one mentality detached from the notion that one superstar should carry the load. Williams, like Stallings, believes in integrated basketball, even though the Golden Eagles' occasional overreliance on the three-point shot can create the appearance of laziness at the offensive end of the court.
Marquette is a team Vanderbilt should aspire to imitate. No, Marquette is not the gold standard or the final endpoint for the Commodores (VU naturally wants to aim for the mountaintop, the place where elite powers reside in college basketball), but the Golden Eagles get more out of their talent than Vandy does. In three of the last four seasons, Marquette has won at least one NCAA Tournament game. Just imagine how different perception and reality would be in Nashville had VU won its last three first-round Big Dance duels, even if the Dores had lost their second-rounders 48 hours later. Marquette doesn't blow its opponents out of the water, but the Golden Eagles are street fighters beneath the finesse-oriented approach to basketball. There's some hard metal beneath the white velvet gloves, a fact underscored by MU's ability to make the 2010 NCAA Tournament despite losing multiple overtime games and - at one point in the regular season – dropping five games in a seven-game stretch by an average of just two points. Yes, Marquette lost five games by a combined total of 11 points in a seven-game sequence and STILL made the Big Dance. That's the resilience Vanderbilt could only dream of. Marquette plays in a 16-team Big East that offers plenty of cupcakes (South Florida, Rutgers, DePaul, etc.), but the Golden Eagles have to face at least six or seven quality foes each season as well. That's more than what the SEC is usually able to offer. Marquette simply does more within its circumstances than Vanderbilt has in its SEC backyard. Keep this in mind when tip-off time arrives on Thursday night.
In terms of assessing Marquette to this point in the 2011-2012 campaign, the Golden Eagles snapped Wisconsin's 23-game homecourt winning streak by busting the Badgers on Dec. 3, 61-54. On Dec. 19, however, MU went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and was ambushed by LSU, 67-59. What's worth noting about those two games – the most telling results on the Golden Eagles' schedule to date – is that they did not feature the normal starting five for Williams and his staff.
The game against Wisconsin was marked by the absence (internal suspension) of point guard Junior Cadougan. Marquette's team is built to handle the ball if one player leaves. The Golden Eagles always have at least three players on the floor who possess legitimate ball skills. Wisconsin's defense simply didn't rattle MU, and the Badgers own one of the best defenses in the United States.
Marquette's loss to LSU was notable because it occurred without 6-11, 265-pound center Chris Otule, one of the few musclemen on the Golden Eagle roster. Otule is out for the season with an ACL injury he suffered early in December. Otule was never much of a scorer, but he logged considerable minutes in the low-post to give MU defense and shot-blocking ability. The lack of that mountain in the middle will make the Golden Eagles more vulnerable against Vanderbilt.
Forward – Davante Gardner – Sophomore, 6-8, 290 2011-12: 8.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg
Gardner is taking the place of the injured Otule. He's the one brawny low-post defender remaining on Marquette's active roster. It will be hard to get past Gardner, but one thing to consider – given his lack of length – is to play over the top against him and see if lob entries can be made. Stallings and his staff will need to pry open opportunities by creating angles and limiting baseline traffic in halfcourt sets. If Vanderbilt can exploit Gardner and force other Golden Eagles to collapse near the rim, 3-point looks will open up for Taylor and John Jenkins.
Forward – Jae Crowder – Senior, 6-6, 225; 2011-12: 17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.8 assists per game
Crowder is a prototypical Marquette player. He's a tweener at his height but makes himself useful by doing a little of everything. He can shoot from distance (and credibly at that – try 39 percent from long range this season), but he is also an effective passer and an active defender. He demands attention from defenses at all spots on the floor, which is what makes Marquette a hard team to guard. The presence of multifaceted players with loaded basketball toolboxes enables the Golden Eagles to flummox opponents in a tough Big East Conference despite the absence of a superstar player.
Guard– Darius Johnson-Odom – Senior, 6-2, 215; 2011-12: 17.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg
Johnson-Odom isn't necessarily a great pure shooter; he's a solid one – like Crowder, a 39-percent marksman from three-point range – but the outstanding quality of Marquette's best player is his ability to hit tough shots from difficult angles while absorbing body contact. No one on the Golden Eagle roster fills a highlight reel quite like Johnson-Odom. His shot selection can leave much to be desired, but he can make difficult plays look surprisingly routine. This is exactly the kind of player who – if he hits one long-range shot – has to be locked down on the following three possessions. If Johnson-Odom establishes any kind of rhythm, he becomes a nearly impossible defensive assignment.
Guard – Junior Cadougan – Junior, 6-1, 205; 2011-12: 7.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 5.5 apg
Marquette showed that it can beat elite opposition without Cadougan. The team's best win of the year – at Wisconsin – unfolded when the junior from Toronto was dressed in street clothes. Nevertheless, Cadougan is a speed merchant who adds to MU's quickness and makes this team the embodiment of what it means to be "pesky." The playbook for handling Cadougan is the same for any other high-octane point guard who doesn't look to score very much: Stop dribble penetration and try not to swarm him when providing help defense. If Cadougan can be contained in a man-to-man defense and his ability to feed teammates for open looks can be curtailed, Vanderbilt's defense will be doing its job.
Guard – Vander Blue – Sophomore, 6-4, 200; 2011-12: 10.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.4 apg
The stat line is telling for this second-year player. Blue is a well-rounded basketball craftsman who will always have a place on the floor because he's anything but a Johnny-one-note athlete. Blue aids the gang-rebounding effort for the Golden Eagles; he helps Cadougan in distributing the ball on a team where just about everyone is a proficient passer; and he owns a strong, compact body that can maneuver to the basket for scoring opportunities. Blue is unique on the MU roster in that he does not look for three-point opportunities (he's taken just 12 long-distance attempts this season), but that's a function of his insistence on finding other ways to help his team. Whoever draws Blue needs to keep him off the boards on Thursday.
Because Gardner is spelling Otule at the power forward/center spot, the Golden Eagles' bench is thinner. Williams turns to his reserves mostly for defense, as shown by the low-number, high-energy styles of "grunt guys" Jamil Wilson and Derrick Wilson. If MU ever looks to its bench for scoring punch, the man Williams brings onto the floor is Todd Mayo, a freshman who has taken at least five shots in each of his past five games. To repeat, however, Marquette's bench is a defensive bench. The Golden Eagles need bodies who can contain opponents while giving Johnson-Odom and Crowder some timely breaks, especially near the TV timeouts that emerge four times per half.
Keys to the Game
1) Handle the pressure in more ways than one. Vanderbilt outplayed Louisville and the Cardinals' collection of high-energy athletes for 38 minutes on Dec. 2. The Commodores then fell apart precisely when victory was in their grasp. This time around, VU gets to play another Big East team on the road, and one with a style that's not too dissimilar from Louisville's modus operandi. Vanderbilt's guards and wings need to be ball-strong in the face of extended defensive pressure. Jeffery Taylor needs to own big moments the way he so markedly failed to do against Louisville. Late-game situations demand strong takes to the basket and the ability to earn foul shots. Handling the pressure of the moment and handling Marquette's pressure defense are two challenges that can be met by the same ingredient: mental toughness.
2) Force threes on defense, don't allow them. Playing high-level defense puts a team on a high wire of sorts. There's a fine line between allowing threes (in other words, conceding good shots) and forcing them (in other words, causing a team to hoist low-percentage shots). The Commodores might play good defense, only to see Darius Johnson-Odom hit an off-balance trifecta. VU can't allow those kinds of moments to carry a disproportionate amount of weight. The Dores need to make sure that if one of the Golden Eagles' many shooters hits a bomb, the next possession forces the ball to be routed to a different MU player. Vanderbilt should welcome standstill 3-point attempts by Marquette in which the Golden Eagles are closely guarded and do not have a free shooting hand. What Vandy can't afford is to allow the Golden Eagles to slip free in transition or use ball fakes to create open space; either one of those scenarios will produce the uncontested (free-hand) triples which could get the Dores in trouble. As long as Marquette's threes are attempted within a context of nonexistent ball movement and squared-up VU defense, the visitors from Nashville have a very good chance of blunting MU's attack.
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