The Marquette Golden Eagles, with appearances in back-t0-back Sweet 16s for the first time since 1976-1977, will have no grace period as they kick off their 2012-’13 campaign with the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes.
Here’s our preview of Marquette’s matchup Friday night in the Carrier Classic aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown.
Thad Matta’s group, led by power forward Jared Sullinger, won 31 games last year and advanced to the program’s 11th Final Four before bowing out to Thomas Robinson and Kansas.
Sullinger and senior William Buford are gone, but there’s no shortage of talent in Columbus, as the Buckeyes’ preseason rank indicate.
At the head of the class is junior point guard Aaron Craft, one of, if not the best distributors and defenders in the country. The 6-foot-2 Ohioan has no problem playing full-court defense against opposing teams’ floor general for 40 minutes, and his reputation allows him to reach in and hand-check opponents to grab steals. His 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio was key in finding open shooters on the perimeter, and he shot 50 percent from the field last year (8.8 ppg). He’ll also be playing with a chip on his shoulder in the Carrier Classic, as his brother was deployed to Afghanistanin March.
Buzz Williams called both Craft and small forward Deshaun Thomas All-Americans on Wednesday, an honor the latter has already received in AP voting. The 6-foot-7 wing is one of the nation’s best pure scorers, as he averaged 15.9 points per game last year on better than 51 percent shooting. The lefty played against Jamil Wilson in grade school, and the two should be paired up most of the evening aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown.
While Thomas will provide a matchup problem for Marquette, junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. won’t be much easier. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard was highly efficient from the field last year and rebounds well for his size. He and Thomas are the only real outside shooting threats, but it remains to be seen how that will play out in an outdoor setting.
With Buford gone, the Buckeyes will have to rely on a pair of sophomores who did not exceed expectations in their rookie seasons. Both lanky, athletic forward Sam Thompson and reserve point guard Shannon Scott, a former McDonald’s All-American, should be contributors, but the former is the one to watch for. Thompson can get to the basket and plays great defense and, at 6-foot-7 is another mismatch inside.
6-foot-9 center Amir Williams rounds out the projected starting five, and the project last year will enter a larger role following Sullinger’s departure for the NBA. When he saw action, Williams blocked 22 shots in 29 games while playing just 6.6 minutes per contest. He could make life difficult on Davante Gardner, who must have an efficient night inside for Marquette to have a chance. Evan Ravenel and former Marquette target Trey McDonald will be the first front court subs off the bench for Matta.
The x-factor may be LaQuinton Ross, an inside-out forward who missed half of last season with academic issues. He struggles at times defensively, but has the natural talent to put up points in a hurry.
Where the Buckeyes are good
– Ohio State’s length and athleticism from the top of the roster to the bottom makes them an excellent defensive team. The Buckeyes were the 5th and 2nd most efficient defenses in the country the last two seasons, respectively, and they don’t give up many boards on the defensive end. Craft sets the tone, making it difficult for offenses to initiate offense in half court sets.
– The Buckeyes shot 52.9 percent from the field on 2-pointers last year, 21st best in the country. Sullinger was the main factor in that mark, but Craft, Thomas, Smith Jr. and Thompson shot a combined 57 percent from inside the arc last year. Ohio State is big, and they can get inside and score. In a game where inside scoring will be crucial, this stat becomes even more important. The Buckeyes scored almost 59 percent of their points on 2-pointers last year, the 20th highest mark in the country.
– Marquette’s biggest question mark entering the season is the lack of a known go-to scorer. The Buckeyes don’t have that issue in Thomas. There’s a good chance Friday’s game is low-scoring, so having a scorer like Thomas who could lead the country in scoring is a major benefit.
Where the Buckeyes can be beat
–Senior William Buford accounted for 62 of Ohio State’s 197 3-pointers last year, so that 31 percent must come from somewhere else. There’s no real answer to who will make up for that, outside of Thomas and Smith. But the Buckeyes were 212th in 3-point field goal percentage last year, and scored just 20.5 percent of their points off 3-pointers, 322nd in the country. Wind may be a factor, but outside scoring will need to come from somewhere. If Marquette can pack the paint, the Buckeyes may struggle from the perimeter.
– Sullinger’s importance in drawing double teams in the post freed up a lot of the Buckeyes’ offense, and they no longer have a player who will command that. Ohio State can score, but a lot of it revolved around Sullinger on the low block. Marquette, of course, is dealing with the same problem, but the unknowns remain for the Buckeyes, too.
– As is the case with any Marquette team, speed kills against longer teams. Ohio State, which will start a lineup taller than 6-foot-6, may struggle against a quicker Golden Eagles’ lineup. The Buckeyes set up in the half court when they’re not playing off turnovers, and Marquette’s fresh legs could be beneficial against the Buckeyes’ stout defense.
Three keys to the game
1. Be calm, Junior
Games against Louisville and Florida last season exposed what can happen to Junior Cadougan when flustered. He’ll see that same pressure and then some against Aaron Craft the entire night. In a low-scoring contest, getting a shot on every possession could make the difference between a win and a loss for Marquette. A successful evening for Cadougan would be two turnovers or less. He likely won’t score much on Craft, but if he can find open shooters off screen-action and get the ball to the paint to initiate offense, Marquette will gain much-needed rhythm.
2. Fresh legs against Thomas
Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas has the experience and the stamina to play close to 35 minutes Friday night, if needed. It’s a safe bet that he leads both teams in scoring, but how he manages those points and what he has to do to score them will be important. Expect a heavy dose of rotating individual defenders on him, including Vander Blue, Trent Lockett and Jamil Wilson. Containing Thomas to 15-to-17 points will be key. Any more than that and Marquette will be in trouble.
3. Davante, early and often
In last year’s Carrier Classic, Michigan State and North Carolina combined to shoot 6-of-32 from beyond the arc. With 6 mph winds expected Friday night, 18-to-20 percent from 3 sounds about right between these two teams. Ohio State has question marks defensively inside, and Gardner’s close buckets will lead Marquette. Gardner is as fresh as he’ll be all season, so it would be a major advantage if he can play close to 28 minutes.
Bonus: Adjusting to zone?
Ohio State is known for its man-to-man defense, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Buckeyes play zone Friday night. Outside shooting will be difficult, and Marquette really struggled at times last year adjusting to 2-3 looks. Buzz Williams spent a month this offseason studying zone offenses, so we may get to see if that paid off if the Buckeyes pack it in.