"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Golden Eagles Take On Villanova

Marquette will face it toughest road game of the season when they play Villanova at the Pavillion on Saturday. The nation's fourth-ranked team, Villanova owns a 16-2 overall record and is second in the Big East with a record of 7-1. The game will be televised on ESPN Regional with tipoff scheduled for 1pm CST.

Marquette, 16-6 overall and 6-3 in the Big East, is on the road for its next two games -- Villanova, and one week later at Rutgers. In many ways, MU is playing with house money this weekend, with one week to prepare for the stretch run and the team getting healthier. The Golden Eagles are the surprise team in the Big East this season, due in large part to the play of the conference's top freshman, Dominic James. Just ask the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for an opinion on both of these points.

After delivering their best half of basketball since the UConn game, the Golden Eagles appear to be tough, disciplined and improving (witness the measly pair of offensive rebounds surrendered in the second half to the Red Storm). A win at Villanova would propel MU into the national rankings for the first time this season, but the Wildcats are 9-1 at home this season and are a tough, tough bunch.

Villanova is coming off a 79-73 win over Louisville, their fifth consecutive victory. The Wildcats are paced by the nation's best backcourt -- Randy Foye, Allen Ray, Kyle Lowry, and Mike Nardi. Collectively, Villanova's backcourt scores a remarkable 79% of the Wildcats' points. Incredibly, Foye, Ray and Nardi all shoot better than 38% from behind the arc, with Nardi hitting 46% from downtown. Foye leads the 'Cats, averaging more than 20ppg while Ray averages 19ppg. This willl be the best backcourt MU has faced in years. As the Baltimore Sun points out, Villanova's four guards work well together.

The optimist would say that MU is Villanova's mirror-image..........in two or three years. One of the most intriguing aspects of the game on Saturday are the similar strategies that Wright and Crean are using with their respective programs. For the better part of the last year, Crean has been unabashed in his assertion that he's modeling his style of play and team building after Jay Wright's philosophy at Nova. Specifically -- guards, guards, guards. It's working for MU this season, just one year after he proclaimed that the program would never be caught short in the backcourt again.

One of Jay Wright's greatest successes has been his ability build out his backcourt in each of the next few classes subsequent to the Mother Lode he struck with Foye, Ray, Fraser and Sumpter. Many coaches might not be able to 'strengthen a strength' but Wright did it with Nardi and Lowry. While MU is much younger than Nova, the formula is working for Crean as well, and by signing Hayward and Cubillan for next season he's again mirroring Jay Wright's strategy.

Back to tomorrow's game.

Steve Novak busted out of a two game, injury-induced slump with a dominating 29 point, 8 rebound effort against St. John's. Novak was assertive early in the game, and his consecutive 3-pointers in the second half kicked off MU's decisive run. Like UConn, St John's was content to guard Novak with a bigger player - - and they paid dearly for that mistake. Villanova might also have a tough time matching up with Novak, as big men Jason Fraser and Dante Cunningham are not mobile enough to chase him to the perimeter. Jay Wright has a tough decision to make -- perhaps he goes 'small', or maybe he'll throw junior Will Sheridan at Novak.

Quick question: What is MU's greatest defensive weakness? If you answered 'defending the perimeter', you lose! While this game matches up the conference's two best 3-point shooting teams, MU and Villanova also defend the 3-pointer fairly well (both teams hold opponents to 33%). Villanova's biggest advantage in the backcourt is clearly its experience, where the Wildcats are third in the conference in turnover margin, while MU is only 10th.

In addition to Novak, MU's surprising conference record is due in large part to the improved play of Dominic James, the Big East's top freshman. In conference play James is shooting nearly 50% from the field, up from 45% previously. In addition, his scoring is up by nearly 2ppg in conference play, and his A/TO is roughly 1.5/1. Look for James, who should be healthier on but still not 100%, to once again drive and kick on Saturday.

The most intriguing player to watch on Saturday will be Wesley Matthews. Matthews unexpectedly returned to action against St. Johns, delivering four assists and three rebounds. His offensive game was admittedly rusty, and it remains to be seen how much improvement we can expect in such a short period of time. Senior Joe Chapman and sophomore Dan Fitzgerald must continue their effective play for MU to match wits with the deep Villanova backcourt.

Generally speaking, this game comes down to a deep, veteran backcourt vs a deep, young backcourt on the road. Novak is MU's wildcard here, where once again he'll be the toughest matchup for the opposition.

The Villanova Viewpoint created an in-depth preview of tomorrow's game, complete with an historical recap of the two programs. This is a must read.

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