Marquette has won two of its last three away from the BMO Harris Bradley Center and will look to win two straight road games for the first time all season when they face Villanova (17-10, 8-6) at The Pavilion tonight.
The Golden Eagles are tied atop the Big East at 10-3 with Syracuse and Georgetown, who play each other tonight as well. With five games remaining, three of which are on the road, Marquette has little room for error if it wants to compete for its first Big East regular season championship in program history.
The quest for a championship won’t start easily, as the Wildcats have been impressive at home this season. They are 5-2 in-conference with wins over No. 5 Louisville and No. 3 Syracuse (both at the Wells Fargo Center), and 3-2 at The Pavilion. Seating just 6,500, the arena is as tough a place for road teams to compete as any place not named the Carrier Dome in the Big East.
Making this one even tougher is that the Wildcats are playing some impressive basketball this year. Marquette has been one of the biggest surprises in the Big East, but Villanova is right up there with the Golden Eagles. Left for dead after a 4-4 start — including losses to Alabama, Columbia, LaSalle and Temple — the Wildcats are 13-6 since and find themselves firmly on the bubble.
They also have one of the most confusing stretches in the NCAA this season. At one point in the Big East season the Wildcats had lost five of seven, which included two losses to Providence. But the two wins? Back-to-back wins against the presumed two best teams in the conference in Louisville and Syracuse. They enter tonight having won four of five, and two straight.
Two factors have led the Wildcats — picked 12th in the preseason coaches poll — to an 8-6 record, tied for seventh in the league: free throws and defense.
Former Marquette target JayVaughn Pinkston leads the Wildcats in scoring (12.6) and is second in rebounding (5.0). He draws 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes and has a free throw rate of 83.9, both of which are top-10 marks in the country. His 183 free throws attempted are 19th in the country, 59 more than Davante Gardner’s 124. Pinkston plays just 24.8 minutes per game, but he’s efficient inside and will look to get Marquette into foul trouble.
He’s complemented by senior Mouphtaou Yarou, a highly-touted prospect out of high school who never really made the jump to stardom. His numbers are down from last year, but in his last eight games has averaged 11.9 points and 10.9 rebounds. He also gets to the free throw line a fair amount (108 attempts).
The third frontcourt target, sophomore wing Darrun Hilliard, has made a jump in his second season. He does a bit of everything, and has improved his play of late. He has averaged 14.2 points his last eight games and has improved his consistency from beyond the arc, hitting a 3 in 10 of his last 11 games.
When Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek opted for the NBA Draft a year early, there were concerns in the backcourt. Luckily freshman Ryan Arcidiacono came to play this year, to the tune of 11.7 points and 3.4 assists in 34 minutes per game. His percentages (36/34/80) aren’t great, but he has the ability to take over games, scoring 32, 25 and 23 points in three Big East contests.
He’s also a stout defender, helping the Wildcats to the third most efficient defense in the Big East. Along with holding opponents to a Big East-low 40.8 percent from the field, Villanova is grabbing 71 percent of teams’ misses, the second best mark in the conference.
Teams also aren’t getting to the free throw line much, a stat which could help determine tonight’s outcome. Marquette wants to make more free throws than its opponents attempts, and that’s something the Wildcats have accomplished in their own right.
Marquette hasn’t won at The Pavilion in Buzz Williams’ tenure, and it also hasn’t played a single opponent more times than Villanova. These two Catholic 7 teams both have plenty to play for, with the Golden Eagles fighting for a Big East title and the Wildcats needing one more signature win to help their resume.