"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

Friday, March 18, 2011

Warriors and Musketeers battle in Cleveland

Former Midwestern Collegiate Conference cohorts Marquette (20-14) and Xavier (24-7) renew hostilities on Friday night in the first round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

Up front, let's address some of the presuppositions that have made for such good banter these past five days:

First, we're not buying any potential home court advantage for Xavier. Cleveland hates Cincinnati, or something like that. Not only that, but Cleveland is 250 miles from Cincinnati as compared to 450 miles from Milwaukee. 250 miles is not exactly in the neighborhood.

Second, we're not buying that Marquette's depth matters all that much. After watching the tourney games on Thursday, we're convinced fans can order a pizza and have it delivered during the same commercial break. So while the Musketeers only go seven deep, they'll get plenty of rest.

Third, we think this is the best match-up of the opening round. Need proof? The guys who run numbers on these kinds of things can't decide who will win. Nate Silver gives MU only a 48% chance of advancing. CrackedSidewalks fave Ken Pomeroy reckons MU has a 52% chance to advance by a single point. Then, we have the Harvard guys who give MU a whopping 74.22% chance to advance on Friday night.

Fourth, we're not buying into the logic that Tu Holloway is the best guard MU has faced this year. Look, Holloway is really good but Marquette won't be fazed. The Warriors have already derailed the extraordinary individual play of both Kemba Walker and Marshon Brooks, the top two scorers in the Big East. In four combined games, these lead guards went a combined 29 for 77 from the field, just 38% against MU. Marquette will be confident.

What we have is a true tossup game. While we hope the Harvard guys are the smartest of the bunch, they're wrong. To wit, fans would be hard pressed to find a match-up where the Four Factors are any more similar.

We're struggling to find separation for either team so let's look at why Xavier will win.
  1. MU struggles to prevent efficient offenses from shooting well. Xavier has an efficient offense (#29 nationally). Although Xavier doesn't shoot well from three, someone will probably go off and have a banner night from behind the arc. (See Marra, Mike).
  2. Marquette protects the ball well, but Xavier plays the Dick Bennettesque pack defense that helps slow the pace (which serves as kryptonite) and never forces turnovers.
  3. Xavier's rebounding strategy. Essentially, the Musketeers forego offensive rebounds to limit the opponent's transition game, and they pack it in to crush the defensive boards. This will slow MU's transition game and put the Warriors in the dangerous half-court oriented battle. We know pace is important to MU, and Xavier plays slow.

Now, let's consider why Marquette will win......
  1. Marquette's offense shines. The Warriors have only had six games this season with an eFG% less than Xavier's average (46%). MU will be the second best offensive team Xavier has faced this season (Florida). By the way, Xavier isn't even close to the best defense Marquette has faced all year (they're the 13th best).
  2. Foul Trouble. This is really a combination of variables but they relate. Since we know that MU needs to force Xavier into a quicker pace, the Warriors harrass the Muskies for just enough turnovers and attacks the hoop relentlessly. This aggressive style puts Xavier players in foul trouble and opens up the game.
  3. Marquette delivers a Three-Star Performance. The Warriors win by outscoring teams, not by generating stops at a breakneck pace. When MU has been 'on' the most this season, three players have elevated their games at once. Usually the formula is Jimmy F. Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. However in recent weeks we've seen that valuable contributions from Chris Otule and Junior Cadougan can factor into big wins, just as earlier in the season Dwight Buycks did. If three stars deliver, life will be good.
Tonight's game should be a white knuckler between two good teams that match-up well against one another. With the new-found confidence from a pair of must-win games in the Big East tournament and knowing they can neutralize high-scoring lead guards, our guess is the Warriors find a way to advance.

Tipoff is scheduled for 6:27pm Marquette Standard Time on truTV (Directv channel 246). The inimitable Gus Johnson will call the action. To warm up for the game, be sure to spend hours on the Gus Johnson Soundboard.

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