6. Marquette vs. 11 Utah State Preview
Well Marquette fans, it’s finally here. The moment that every student, alumnus, coach, and player have been waiting for is upon us, as the Marquette Golden Eagles get their 2009 NCAA Tournament underway Friday in Boise, Idaho. They will look to win their opening round game for the second year in a row as they square off against the Utah State Aggies (30-4), ranked 11th in the West Regional. The Aggies are led by 26-year-old senior Gary Wilkinson, who is averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds per game for the year. He leads an offense that is ranked 324th in terms of pace and will use over 200 plays on offense. There are so many plays that assistant coaches hold up whiteboards with the specific names of plays on them, meaning Buzz and the rest of the MU staff better have done their scouting this week. Marquette comes in losers in 5 of 6 games, despite the losses coming against 3 #1 seeds and 2 #3 seeds in this year’s tournament. Still, Marquette knows that the losses were unacceptable and that there is no time but now to right the ship and get back on track. The game will feature two very different paces, and whichever team establishes their pace early have the advantage in what looks to be a very close game.
Just as has been the case all year long when playing Marquette, the front court for Utah State will be vital to their success, just as it has been all year long. The aforementioned Wilkinson dominated in the post this year, using his long arms and big frame to create space on defenders. He is undoubtebly their primary option on offense and the Aggies will look to establish him very early in the game. Surrounding Wilkinson in the starting lineup are the next best options in PG Jared Quayle and PF Tai Wesley. In an offense like Utah State’s, Quayle’s job is unbelievably important and the transfer has come in beautifully and ran the show. Wesley could provide big problems inside for Hayward, as his 240 lb. frame makes for a tough matchup when he posts up and pivots inside. On offense, Utah State will look to get the ball in the post and work from there, which could free up outside jump shooters Pooh Williams (38.8% 3pt) and Tyler Newbold (40.1% 3pt) for easy looks. Efficiency is the name of the game for Utah State as they are among the nation’s best in field goal percentage, so look for them to find the best shot possible and knock it down. They do not get a lot of possessions because of their style of play, but when they have them they make the best of it.
The Golden Eagles (or Bald Eagles) come in to the game today directed by Buzz Williams, making his first tournament appearance. Whatever you just read about Utah State, pretty much do the opposite and you have Marquette’s game plan. From the moment the ball is tipped, Marquette will try to keep the pace of the game up-tempo and faster than to what Utah State can react to. This will start with the play of Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews on the wings as they still try to break out of their terrible shooting slumps. It has been said over and over again, but they need to realize that they are not Dominic James and that he isn’t coming back. Yes, the style of play has changed dramatically and they have been asked to do a whole lot more (despite Acker and Butler helping the cause), but they need to let the game come to them, especially Jerel. Going back to the game today, think back to the Syracuse game to what the Golden Eagles can expect to see out of Utah State. ‘Cuse played a very compact 2-3 zone that worked pretty well and forced Marquette to take outside shots which they failed miserably in (7-30 from 3pt). They will see more of the same and will need to connect on more of those to keep the pace fast and force USU to come out and contest those shots. While I give the Syracuse comparison, the Aggies are not as quick meaning that good passing should leave to holes in the 2-3 zone, leading to drives. They’ll need to attack the rim strong and try to get Wesley or Wilkinson in foul trouble because Utah State does not go very deep on the bench at all. *Note* I’d be shocked to see them stay in a man-to-man defense. Overall, the key component to tomorrow’s game will be keeping the pace up. Not only will that take Utah State out of their game but it is also something that they have not seen from any team this year. If Marquette can get this game into the high 70’s they should have no problem disposing of the Aggies.
It was very hard for me to do when predicting this game, but I can truly say that I took an unbiased approach to breaking down the game. Utah State won 30 games this year. 30! I don’t care what conference you play in because regardless it is an excellent feat. But I’d take 24 in the Big East any day, and Marquette’s level of competition has been far superior this year. Look for Jerel McNeal to go off in this game and break out of his slump versus a very slow Utah State defense. I know I have been calling for a big game out of Jerel (and I don’t count his Nova performance as big), but this has to be the game where he comes out. It’s no longer that you are done playing in Madison Square Garden if you can’t finish at the hoop, but rather being done in a Marquette uniform. Sure, it’s the same for Gary Wilkinson on the other end, but I can’t see a letdown from a team in Marquette that has more talent than their opponent. A lot of the tournament relies on patience and tenacity down the stretch, something that Jerel and Wesley have done throughout their Marquette careers. I look for Lazar to get to the elbow on offense and knock down those shots, while Acker will continue to step up his play. Marquette did an awsome job in transition on offense against Villanova, and Utah State isn’t even close to as fast as them. The Golden Eagles are going to come out firing, play good enough defense against the trickey Aggie offense, and take this game. Marquette 71, Utah State 64