My communications class being canceled this morning has allowed me to do a quick write-up on what will be Marquette’s biggest home game of the year. The Golden Eagles (23-4, 12-2) enter tonight’s contest 1/2 game behind the Connecticut Huskies (25-2, 13-2) in the Big East standings and will look to deny Jim Calhoun his 800th win in his storied career. Marquette is perfect at home at 16-0 while UConn is 9-0 on the road. Something has to give tonight between these two teams and it will be interesting to see whose tempo takes over this contest.
For Connecticut, it starts and ends with 7’3″ center Hasheem Thabeet. He averages 13.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game to go along with a 64% field goal percentage. Defensively, he is second in the nation in blocks at 4.4 per game. To put that in perspective, Marquette as a team averages 3.3 blocks per game. Thabeet’s presence inside will be key on both ends of the court in an attempt to take advantage of Marquette’s height problems inside. In addition, Thabeet will keep Marquette out of the lane on drives and force them to alter shots, leading to poor percentage takes. But don’t think the Huskies stop with Thabeet. A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien round out UConn’s version of the “Big 3”. Adrien is about as physical of a 6’7″ player as you will find and will provide a very tough matchup for Lazar Hayward on the offensive end. A.J. Price provides excellent senior leadership at the point guard position but will face a tough matchup against Dominic James tonight. 6’9″ Stanley Robinson rounds out UConn’s front court and freshman Kemba Walker has stepped in nicely for the injured Jerome Dyson. UConn’s keys to the game tonight are to play the 2-3 zone better than they have all year. It would absolutely shock me to see them come out in a man-to-man look against a Marquette team that is quicker than them and clearly undersized. Thabeet will have to anchor the middle and stop drives inside, forcing Marquette to beat them with jumpshots. Offensively, Jeff Adrien could fly under the radar and have an excellent game for the Huskies. As has been the case all year when guarding them, Thabeet will be doubled on most possessions, leaving Adrien open on the weakside or Price and Walker open for outside jumpers. Marquette’s guards have the advantage over a slower UConn back court so look for a slowed down half-court offense that starts in the post for UConn. If UConn can find Thabeet and Adrien early, it will force Marquette to double down and change up their defense.
For the Golden Eagles, the key to tonight’s game is Jerel McNeal. No, he won’t guard Thabeet or Adrien but the tempo of the game relies solely on what he does with the ball offensively. McNeal, Marquette’s leader throughout the year, will finally get the national spotlight that he has deserved all year and I look for him to succeed. Hayward, James, and Matthews are all excellent players and should be applauded for how they have each contributed to MU’s success this year, but tonight is McNeal’s time to shine. It is obvious that, unless we traded for DeJuan Blair this morning, guard play will be the key to winning this game. Marquette can beat the UConn guards off the dribble and get into the paint about as much as they want, especially in a 2-3 zone. Unfortunately, that’s the easy part. Waiting for the seniors will be a front court whose average height is 6’10” as well as one of the best shot blockers in the nation. I want Marquette to be as physical as they can with the front court, Thabeet especially. His gift is his curse and he will, at times, be too aggressive going for blocks and pick up fouls. He is at his best when guards shy away and try to float shots over him (ask Johnny Flynn) and Marquette will have no success doing this. I believe McNeal and Matthews are best suited to do this with their size, and it will be important to get to the lane. Another key to the game will be passing. Out of every game I have seen Marquette play this year, they pass better than their opponent each night. This doesn’t necessarily mean an assist, but the extra pass is always a crisp, line drive to the chest. Tonight, against the zone defense, this could be huge in looking for open jumpers. Sam Young was able to do this against the Huskies last week and even though we didn’t have a Blair to account for like Pitt did, McNeal and Matthews could be the equivalent to this when they drive. Because of this, I look for Lazar Hayward and Dominic James to be open on the perimeter. Lazar is free to shoot but what this will also do for James is make the zone out of position, and no one changes direction better than James. Marquette MUST use their speed tonight because they are faster than UConn. Transition offense will be key as well in keeping UConn out of their zone defense. Defensively, Dwight Burke needs to man up like he did last year against Roy Hibbert. He’s giving up size, strength, and athleticism, but he will need to find that extra boost of energy somewhere because he will be playing more than his average amount of minutes tonight. Using the Luke Harangody or Dante Cunningham approach tonight will not work. Thabeet is 7’3″ and a pure center. He isn’t going out farther than the free throw line and the only possible defenders are Burke, Hayward, maybe Matthews and potentially Hazel tonight. Help-side defense will obviously be important tonight, so look for Jimmy Butler and Lazar Hayward to step up on defense. Their guards do not scare me as long as we close out nicely. Against Pitt, A.J. had way too many open looks against a sluggish Pitt back court. There will not be a letdown from the senior guards tonight in that category, and if Marquette can force early turnovers it could change the whole pace of the game, and definitely the momentum.
I once viewed Connecticut as the most talented team this year, pre-Dyson injury. Thabeet and Adrien have stepped their game up in his absence, but I believe it has left their guards vulnerable on defense. What a perfect set-up for the Golden Eagles. The Bradley Center will be absolutely rocking tonight with an estimated 19,000+ in attendance. I will be waiting in line at 2:00 and already have chills just thinking about the statement the Golden Eagles could make tonight. Marquette must use their speed tonight but will have to work for every bucket against an excellent UConn defense. This game won’t get past the 70’s for either team so every bucket will be important. For weeks on end, I have been saying how Marquette can’t stay with UConn in any phase, but I am starting to lean the other way now. Look for McNeal to go crazy tonight and, on the other end, Adrien is going to put up monster numbers. All in all, UConn is an excellent squad with a lot of talent and as I play out scenarios in my head I can see this game going either way. I’m actually just typing more so I don’t have to think of a prediction for the outcome tonight.
In the end, better inside play beats better outside play and I just think UConn’s front court is too much for the Golden Eagles to handle. It will come down to the wire no question, but UConn slips by in the end to stay on top in the Big East.
Connecticut 80, Marquette 77
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