As fun as beating up on SWAC teams was, Marquette gets its first true test of the season Saturday when it takes on No. 10 Ohio State at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Golden Eagles most recently knocked off winless Grambling State, 114-71, led by 17 points from Chris Otule, 16 more from Steve Taylor and an impress 14-point outing from freshman Deonte Burton, who played a bench-high 22 minutes in the win.
But coming to Milwaukee this weekend is a team with national-championship aspirations, and one that has looked impressive through two weeks. Relatively easy wins over Morgan State and Ohio got the Buckeyes’ feet wet, and now they bring a veteran-laced group with plenty of experience into their first road contest of the season.
As an objective basketball fan, it’s hard not to love the kind of player senior point guard Aaron Craft is. At 6-foot-2, the Findlay, Ohio, native has averaged 30 or more minutes each season and owns a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.24, all while improving his other numbers across the board as one of the best defensive floor generals in the country. Whether Derrick Wilson is a scorer, distributor or non-factor, Craft is going to make life hell for the Marquette offense; he does it to everyone, and not even Buzz Williams is exempt from his pesky nature.
Craft isn’t the only point guard worthy of note on this scouting report. Junior Shannon Scott has been an excellent complement to Craft, and the former McDonald’s All-American will see minutes behind the defensive stalwart. Early in the season Scott has shown solid range (five 3-pointers) that wasn’t seen last year (11 3-pointers in 773 minutes), so be on the lookout to see if Scott stays aggressive from outside.
Junior wing LaQuinton Ross improved as a sophomore, but it was his NCAA Tournament that opened eyes to who he can be as the Buckeyes’ top scorer — a tall task considering they’ll need to replace Big Ten leading scorer Deshaun Thomas. Ross averaged 17.6 points on 50 percent shooting and made seven 3-pointers in Ohio State’s final three NCAA Tournament games. Early in 2013, Ross has averaged 12 points in 26.5 minutes. He’s going to be a handful for whoever is pegged with guarding the 6-foot-8 athlete.
If Marquette is worried about sharpshooters besides Ross, look no further than Lenzelle Smith Jr. The senior saw his efficiency decrease in an expanded role last season, but he still managed to average 9.2 points, 1.3 3-pointers and 4.8 rebounds, solid numbers for the 6-foot-4 guard. Without Thomas around, Smith will be asked to be the Buckeyes’ No. 2 scorer, and his 18-point outing in this year’s opener was a good start.
Buzz Williams went hard after Sam Thompson four years ago, and it appears Williams knew what he was doing. The Chicago native was been last year as a sophomore with the Buckeyes, and now it’s his time to take on a larger role. He has perfect “switchable” length and athleticism, and that’s where he’ll try to do his damage Saturday afternoon. He’s best on offense in transition, and if he can add a few points to his stifling defense he could be the X-factor.
If there’s one area the Buckeyes are weak(er), it’s in the frontcourt. Amir Williams isn’t part of the reason. The former reserve now starts at center following Evan Ravenel’s graduation, and he has the size and touch similar to Davante Gardner to make a real impact inside. He’s not a scoring threat — though he did have 14 points and 10 free-throw attempts against Ohio — and will prove to be a real test for the talented Marquette frontcourt.
Past Williams, 6-foot-8 Trey McDonald, who chose Ohio State over Marquette, will see action upfront. Look for freshman Marc Loving and sophomore Amedeo Della Valle to see some action, though Matta keeps his rotations pretty shallow, especially in bigger games.
What the Buckeyes do well
— Defensive efficiency: Though Deshaun Thomas did lead the Big Ten in scoring last year, and the Buckeyes were fourth in the Big Ten in scoring, their defensive prowess has helped them to 94 wins, two Elite Eight apperances and a Sweet 16 the last three years. In those seasons, Ohio State has ranked in the top-16 in defensive efficiency. Defensive rebounding and forcing turnovers have keyed this run, and few teams in the country do both as well as Matta’s bunch.
— Take care of the ball: Playing at a below-average pace, the Buckeyes have taken care of the ball well the last three seasons. It’s no wonder that Craft has been a key part of that, as Ohio State has been ranked in the top-30 in turnover percentage over that span, including the 10th best mark (16.2) a season ago. With a veteran, experienced group, don’t expect the Golden Eagles to score many points off turnovers.
— Play their pace: There’s no actual statistic, but it’s not often you see the Buckeyes playing off their pace. Marquette won’t try to turn tomorrow’s game into a track meet, but it’s Craft and a host of smart players that allow the Buckeyes to play their own style, especially when they get going defensively. Note that five of the Buckeyes’ seven losses came in games that went above their average of 65 possessions. That’s more coincidence than anything, but interesting nonetheless.
Where the Buckeyes struggle
— Frontcourt depth: Aside from Amir Williams, there aren’t many bangers on the Ohio State team. Ross and Thompson both have size to play in the paint on both ends and Trey McDonald is getting his feet wet. The Buckeyes will play a more perimeter-oriented game against Marquette, which will be a contrast of styles against the frontcourt-oriented Golden Eagles. If Davante Gardner and Chris Otule can establish themselves inside, it’d key a fast start.
— Proven scorers: Most teams face this question each season, and Ohio State is under the spotlight as much as any team after losing Thomas. That has moved Smith and Ross into No. 1 and 2 scorers, bumped up from No. 2 and 3 a year ago. This early in the season it’s unknown whether they’ll fill their new roles, but it doesn’t hurt that the team is still trying to find its scoring identity.
Three keys to the game
1. Don’t let Aaron Craft dictate the game
Good luck with this one. Craft is as good a court general as you’ll find in the country, and he does it playing Matta’s style, harassing opponents’ point guards and scoring when he needs to. What Marquette must do is initiate offense away from Craft and get the ball out of his hands on the other end. Easier said than done, as Craft is rarely outmanned, especially by one player. This will be a team effort — as well as Williams’ biggest task.
2. Feed Davante Gardner early
The new interior-foul rules have meant major dividends for Marquette’s best post player, and against an Ohio State team that doesn’t have much depth to show for, getting Williams in foul trouble could spell doom for the Buckeyes. Past that, the Golden Eagles need easy buckets against a stout Ohio State defense; that means Gardner needs to pick up quick points so Marquette isn’t relying on outside shooters.
3. Finding a currently unknown X-factor
Two years ago freshman Todd Mayo scored 15 points in Marquette’s win in Madison. Last season Vander Blue broke out of his early-season slump to score 21 points in the Golden Eagles’ first true “test” of the year in a loss to Butler. Now Marquette is tasked with finding the next X-factor (Blue turned out to be more) who could use Saturday’s performance as a jumping-off point to begin the season. Early candidates are Juan Anderson, Deonte Burton and Steve Taylor. As we said in Five Point Play yesterday, a Jamil Wilson box score blow-up could vault him into a giant fifth season.