Cincinnati has a big game tomorrow night against familiar foe Marquette. Marquette is 4-0 in Big East play, but haven't really had a dynamic performance. Cincinnati is 3-2, but they face a tough 2 game stretch in 3 days with or without injured point guard Cashmere Wright. Wright was held out of practice on Thursday.
To learn more about Marquette than just the numbers, I talked to my good friend Mark from the Marquette blog Paint Touches. The whole staff over there does very good work. It's worth a look. You can follow Paint Touches on twitter by clicking the twitter part that's underlined.
Mark and I talk about the new look Eagles, Davante Gardner, how much better Vander Blue really is, free throws and other things. As always, I appreciate the time Mark has given to answer my questions. A big thank you to him.
Two quick notes. All the stats used are conference numbers only unless noted. My questions are in bold.
Marquette is riding a 6 game winning steak that includes 4 straight to start off Big East play. None of the wins are by double digits. Is Marquette riding a wave of luck in 2013 or are they playing some of their top ball?
I won't shamelessly plug any of my stories, but I wrote yesterday about Marquette's defense and how, for the first time since Buzz Williams took over, the Golden Eagles are a defensive-minded team. In that sense, they are playing their best basketball all year. But as a whole, this has been ugly, ugly basketball. True, it's tough to play pretty against teams like Georgetown and Pittsburgh, but it's just not all there for the Golden Eagles. The lack of a true go-to player (see: Crowder, Jae in 2011-'12) doesn't just hurt Marquette on offense, but defense as well and in the huddle. As far as I can tell point guard Junior Cadougan's the closest thing to a leader they have, but the six-game winning streak has been masked by some ugly, unorganized basketball. As Buzz Williams said Wednesday night, Marquette could very easily be 0-4.
Davante Gardner has been Marquette's best player this season. He's scoring 15 points a game in Big East play. He gets to the foul line a lot, he has the most made free throws in the league and has hit 87%. Gardner is also hitting something like 71% from the field in BE action. A couple of questions. What has enabled him to grow so much as a player? Has coming off the bench been that big a factor?
He's always been a pretty good offensive player, but Buzz Williams has allowed him more court time because of A) his conditioning and B) his defense. He's cut about 25 pounds off his frame since he arrived on campus three years ago and is finally able to guard high ball-screens and get back into the paint. I caution against saying he "comes off the bench," because in reality 6-foot-11 center Chris Otule starts to win the tip (something Gardner couldn't do) and save some of his minutes (he's capped at around 25 per game) early on so he can finish the game. Overall, though, Gardner is as unique a college basketball player as I've ever seen. He's an incredible passer out of the low post, has great touch on free throws and uses his body to draw contact even though it's the same up-and-under move. Every. Single. Time.
What are the various ways that Marquette will get looks to Gardner?
Gardner really only receives the ball on the low block, though he did a 15-footer against Seton Hall, but the way Marquette tries to feed him — since they can't just lob it in to a guy with a minuscule vertical leap — is by rotating the ball around the perimeter. Gardner isn't fast, but he's quick on his feet and can rotate from block-to-block quickly enough to get position after the ball has been rotated across court. Unfortunately for the defense, once he catches the ball on the low block, it's game over. The numbers tell the story.
Marquette has attempted the most free throws in Big East play. In fact, Todd Mayo has more free throw attempts than field goal attempts. How important is it for Cincinnati to keep the Eagles off the line?
Every night Buzz Williams wants his team to make more free throws than their opponent attempts. Williams also knows how to use his team, and that means getting the ball in the paint (hence, Paint Touches) to 4s and 5s, and guards/wings slashing to the basket in half-court sets. Gardner really is the one to watch here, but Vander Blue and Trent Lockett also do a great job of drawing contact around the rim. I'd say outside of limiting Gardner's touches inside, free throws will determine the outcome more than anything.
The Golden Eagles, rightfully so, have an aversion to 3 point shooting. They are getting 17.6% of their points from deep, which is in the bottom 50 in the country. Since most college guards seem to love shooting 3s, what's the deal here? They didn't exactly light it up from deep last year, but this seems worse.
For the first time since 2008-2009, when Wesley Matthews was at the "3," Marquette is predominantly running two-guard sets instead of their standard three. You'll notice Saturday a much taller, forward-oriented team (relative to past Marquette teams…the Golden Eagles will always be "small") that rarely looks for a 3-pointer unless the offense has beaten a defensive rotation, and my guess is you won't see a play drawn up for a 3-point attempt all night. It's simply Williams knowing his personnel. No one outside of Todd Mayo can claim outside shooting is his best trait, and with Mayo still working his way back into the offense (suspended first semester) there just won't be many 3-pointers being taken. And it's an issue that hasn't cost Marquette but will at some point.
Marquette has been dynamite on the defensive glass. This has been a reversal from past seasons. What makes this team stand out?
Jamil Wilson put it best Wednesday night when he said "our emphasis on rebounding is changing our team." And he's right. The aforementioned three-forward lineups have meant a commitment to the boards, and Marquette is no longer a liability when a shot goes up. Juan Anderson has been the most pleasant surprise given his minutes, but Trent Lockett is saving himself from ridicule by hitting the glass hard, and Davante Gardner puts himself in perfect position on Marquette's missed shots. His basketball IQ is off the charts. And that's not even mentioning fifth year senior Chris Otule or former Simeon star freshman Steve Taylor. But really, it's those three-forward lineups (and solid guard rebounders in Mayo/Blue) that are helping Marquette. Subsequently the Golden Eagles' pace has slowed considerably, allowing a more concerted effort on the defensive glass.
Vander Blue had a lot of hype behind him out of high school but had a slow start to his career. He's been a big breakout player with 14.5 points a game. What's been the catalyst?
Fantasy sports ruined the perception of Vander Blue. I'll explain. Last year Blue was Marquette's best defender not named Jae Crowder, he rebounded extremely well for his size and was second on the team in assists. But because he didn't score from outside, missed some bunnies around the rim and has had his off-the-court issues, the things he did well took a back seat. To some — those fantasy nuts — points are the way to value a player's worth. Blue has finally put the offense together, working on his outside jumper over the summer (for the third straight year) and, to be frank, maturing as an upperclassmen the younger players look to. He was very close with Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom, and those two seemed to have rubbed off on him. It all came together for him and he's been Marquette's best all-around player, and it's great to see for a kid who came in with unrealistic expectations.
If the Catholic 7 broke off this year, would it be disappointing for you if the schools never played again? I would be. Always love playing Marquette.
Of course. I've got cousins in Cincinnati and it's always a good time going back-and-forth the week of the game. More than that, though, I think Mick Cronin and Buzz Williams would hate if it's the last time these two teams play. Williams is always applauding Cronin any chance he gets, and from the few times I've heard Cronin speak on Williams it seems to go the other way, too. But I do love playing teams like Cincinnati, Connecticut, Villanova, etc…those teams Marquette resembles in terms of style, how they're built, and how they're coached. I hope it's not the last time, but of course it very well may be.
The Bearcats and Golden Eagles met twice last year. Once was a blowout in Marquette's favor. The second was a rugged Cincinnati win on senior day. That game also ended a Marquette winning streak. How do you see the only regular season meeting of this year going?
The key to beating Marquette this year is going to be an overpowering offense that gets up 10 or so points and never looks back. From what I can tell, that team isn't Cincinnati. Still, Marquette has looked just average on the road, taking a Pittsburgh team without Tray Woodall to overtime was a nice win, but nothing earth-shattering (and nothing Cincinnati didn't do). Obviously the health of Cashmere Wright will be a major factor, but I think Marquette struggles on the road in this one. I've been a fan of Cincinnati's interior play for some time (maybe Justin Jackson's block party has something to do with that) and I believe they find a way to shut down Gardner. Give me Cincinnati with a low-scoring, grind-it-out win in the final minutes.
Thanks again to Mark. Be sure to visit Paint Touches. Thanks to all of you for reading and supporting the cause. Go Bearcats.
The Bearcats match up with the Marquette Golden Eagles tomorrow night. It’s the rematch of the Marquette domination a couple weeks ago up in Milwaukee. To get a feeling of how things are going with Marquette, I asked my good friend Mark from the Marquette blog Paint Touches a few questions. Here is their site and twitter.
Mark and I talk about what Marquette has been up to since the last meeting, Jae Crowder, DJO, the Big East Player of the Year race, the Big East tournament and there is a heartwarming story about Buzz Williams thrown in. Many thanks to Mark for helping me out today. Questions in bold.
Pictured: Not Mark
Since we’ve last seen Marquette, they stomped UConn and Rutgers before adding a degree of difficulty in the West Virginia win. How locked in is this team right now? It’s as locked in as I’ve seen them all year, and it’s unbelievable considering their injuries to the front court. The full court press Williams showed off at times earlier in the year has become a staple to not only the defense, but how the offense gets going as well. Losing 290-pound Davante Gardner made Marquette one of the faster teams in the country, and having “big men” Jae Crowder and Jamil Wilson running all over the court to trap has changed the complexion of the team. Offensively, there just isn’t a better duo in the conference than Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. Crowder’s inside-out game has made him a nightmare cover, and Johnson-Odom is red hot from outside. Aside from that, Vander Blue and Jamil Wilson have responded to bigger offensive roles since Gardner went out. Junior Cadougan remains one of the more underrated passers in the country, as Marquette is 16-0 when he hands out six or more assists.
The suspensions for the WV game were only for a half, anything serious stemming from them?
The reasoning behind the suspensions isn’t known (and won’t be), but I can assure you if Marquette was not dressing only nine players (including the four suspended), the suspensions would have been for the entire game. Buzz Williams was not trying to be soft or lenient, it was that he needed to field a lineup. That being said, the coaching staff and team have moved on from whatever violation occurred and it isn’t anything serious.
I spoke with Associate Head Coach Tony Benford about it on Monday and he said, “Just like your own kids, sometimes kids make mistakes. Like we tell them on the court, ‘When you make a mistake, move on to the next play. When you make a mistake off the court, move on and make sure you don’t repeat that same mistake.’”
Ever since the Cincinnati game, Jae Crowder has been one of the best players in the country. What has clicked for him lately?
Without getting too “Marquette cliche” here, his ability to play as the underdog has fueled him. When Gardner went out, he moved inside almost exclusively and has been nothing short of perfect as a post defender. Many focused on him being undersized defensively, but his defender is also oversized when Crowder has the ball. He is such a tough matchup because of his speed and strength and, again, without being too Marquette cliche, he’s as hard a worker as I’ve seen in a Marquette uniform. He just won’t be denied.
He is one of the smartest players in the country and I can not recall the last time he took a bad shot. Consider he is shooting 79.4 percent from inside the arc in his last four games and it all makes sense. He picks his spots perfectly and moves without the basketball in the paint so frequently that his opponent can’t keep up for 40 minutes. In his past nine games, only twice has he turned the ball over more than once. One was a two-turnover performance in a rout over Rutgers and the other was against West Virginia, when he was basically playing by himself on offense for 20 minutes. Efficiency has been the name of the game for Crowder, and it has been a pleasure to watch.
Is there any doubt in your mind he’s going to be the Big East Player of the Year?
He should be, given that he has been far and away the best player on this year’s team, Darius Johnson-Odom included. His efficiency numbers are off the chart, he is playing out of position as a 6-foot-6 forward with no depth behind him and he is peaking down the stretch when Marquette has needed him most. But it’s hard to argue with Kevin Jones and the national attention he has received for leading the Big East in points and rebounds. Crowder has picked up some national steam as of late with his performances on national TV against Connecticut and West Virginia, but the combination of having a player like Johnson-Odom next to him and Jones’ excellent core numbers may hurt him. At the end of the day, I believe he will be named the player of the year.
Before his suspension, Darius Johnson Odom had put up 20 in 4 straight. How do you think the Bearcats can slow down the duo?
Another suspension would help. In all seriousness, keeping Johnson-Odom away from the 3-point line is the best case scenario. He really isn’t a fantastic dribbler and is prone to poor decision-making at time. Pressuring Johnson-Odom is easier said than done, but it’s the one way he can be slowed. Give him any room and the result will be a pump-fake and drive or 3-pointer.
For Crowder, it’s honestly difficult to think of anything that would slow him at this point. He’s so disciplined that he isn’t going to take a bad shot early in the shot clock if given the chance, so tempting him to take a 3-pointer won’t work. Putting a bigger body on Crowder has worked better than teams who try to play small and run with him. That isn’t ideal for a Cincinnati team, but it might be the key if a player such as Justin Jackson can check him for 12-15 minutes.
One would think that Cincinnati wouldn’t get caught up in the speed game, unlike the first meeting. How different a team are the Eagles in a slow down type of contest? Marquette has played fairly well in its half court sets because of the interchangeable parts. They have five players who can shoot the 3-pointer on the court at all times, and Jae Crowder loves to battle inside. Junior Cadougan has been excellent in getting to the lane and finding the open man, while Vander Blue does the same in a lesser fashion. Yancy Gates will play a huge role in stopping any half court sets, not just because he can contest shots but because he can throw off timing when Cadougan and Blue ultimately get to the lane.
There’s no denying Marquette lives by transition offense, but it certainly doesn’t die by it. The Connecticut game (66 possessions) is a prime example. However, three of Marquette’s five losses have had 65, 66 and 64 possessions, respectively. Slowing tempo is certainly the key to beating the Golden Eagles.
There are a lot of expectations being thrust upon this team. Do you think they can handle them down the stretch into the Big East and NCAA Tournaments?
I think they can because of how disciplined they are under Buzz Williams. Two things could keep them from accomplishing this, though. Davante Gardner is progressing slowly from his knee injury and it has forced Marquette essentially to play six deep, with spurts from freshmen point guard Derrick Wilson and wing Juan Anderson. It has worked so far, but one has to wonder about whether the pace Marquette thrives on (71-72 possessions) can last playing undersized and undermanned.
Also, this “third team’s” chemistry, with no Gardner or Chris Otule, has been phenomenal. Gardner is a key ingredient but roles will be shifted when he returns, and that may be an acclimation process that happens on the go entering the NCAA Tournament. That sounded more negative than intended, but if Gardner returns and acclimates well there are few teams (Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas) that would be able to keep up with a hot Marquette team.
There have been a lot of great articles written about Buzz Williams lately. Do you have a personal Buzz story to share?
Absolutely. Buzz’s Bunch is a basketball camp for children with special needs and their families. He hosts a camp in the summer for over 150 children, and the children and their families pick one of three games on the schedule to attend. Before the game, the coaching staff, players and cheerleaders come on the court and shoot around with the kids and their families for about an hour, taking pictures and signing autographs on shirts the children receive.
My brother, Luke, is a two-time cancer survivor and a member of Buzz’s Bunch. He went to the first summer camp and introduced himself to Buzz and had an unbelievable time. His favorite memory was Lazar Hayward swatting one of his 3-point attempts. That year, Luke attended one of the games and went up to Buzz and said hello. “Hey, Luke!” Williams responded. Buzz remembered Luke from the summer camp.
Williams has always said Buzz’s Bunch will be the only thing he has his name on at Marquette and what his lasting legacy will be at the school. He is absolutely sincere about it. Every single time he talks about Buzz’s Bunch he gets emotional, which you can see in this video explaining the camp, and his response when asked about the camp this year. Trust me, take seven minutes and watch the video.
How do you see the game going on Wednesday?
With Georgetown’s win over Notre Dame on Monday, Marquette can now clinch second place in the Big East with a win Wednesday. That being said, any road game can be a struggle, and the Golden Eagles will need to avoid a slow start. It hasn’t happened lately, but any big is capable of going off against the undersized front court. Yancy Gates is a prime candidate, and his recent performances would imply he’s ready for a break out game.
If Marquette can force turnovers again, the game won’t be close. But given that Cincinnati could really use this win on its resume, I expect it to come down to the wire. It helps to have two of the best closers in the game in Johnson-Odom and Crowder, and ultimately I expect Marquette to pull out a seven-point win. 77-70, if we’re counting.
Moving to the rest of the league real quick, how do you see the Big East tournament playing out next week? Who would you say are the favorites?
Maybe it’s because of Kemba Walker’s performance last year, but I really believe Connecticut could make another run in two weeks. Jim Calhoun should be back and the talent is there. Ryan Boatright has changed the offense and Jeremy Lamb has been overlooked because of the Huskies’ struggles. It helps having two solid bigs in Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond to man the paint, and if they can get any production out of Tyler Olander and Roscoe Smith, I could see them playing into Friday if the matchups are there. They should finish 9-9 and hold tiebreakers over West Virginia and Seton Hall, which would give the Huskies a bye in the first round. Syracuse would be the matchup in the quarterfinals, but they are my sleeper pick.
I could see Marquette struggling if matched up against Louisville in the quarterfinals, and Notre Dame is really losing it down the stretch. They peaked early and it could result in an early flight home from New York.
The favorites are Syracuse and Georgetown and, aside from Connecticut, I could see Cincinnati making a run if it gets hot from outside and forces turnovers. In the end, I’ll take Georgetown over Syracuse on Saturday.
Honestly had no clue that there was a personal story about Buzz Williams. That was very nice. Speaking of very nice, this was a pretty great job by Mark. I really appreciate him taking the time. Check out Paint Touches.