It’s finally here. As much fun as Ohio State coming to the Bradley Center was (supposed to be), as intriguing as it was watching different philosophies collide at the Kohl Center against Wisconsin and as much as we’re all looking forward to the “new” Big East, tonight may be the most fun matchup on Marquette’s schedule.
The Golden Eagles will play in the first basketball game inside the MGM Grand against New Mexico, and thanks to a 5-4 start with losses in their first four tests of the season it becomes a crucial matchup that could be a deciding factor on Selection Sunday. Marquette must start building its resume at some point, and a neutral-site win against a likely NCAA Tournament team in December will be important in two-and-a-half months.
The Lobos have had a similar start to the season as Marquette, earning a 7-3 record with wins over New Mexico State and Cincinnati and losses to Massachusetts, Kansas and that same New Mexico State team.
We said in Marquette’s non-conference preview that the Golden Eagles would be wise not to sleep on senior Cameron Bairstow, and it appears the blind squirrel found the acorn on this one. Bairstow is averaging a team-best 20.7 points on 55 percent shooting and 6.8 rebounds to go with 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks in more than 30 minutes per game. At 6-foot-9 he’s a matchup nightmare inside, especially playing alongside…
…7-footer Alex Kirk. The junior is averaging 16.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and, more impressive, 2.8 blocks per game. He has seven double-doubles in 10 games and has recorded a block in nine of them, including three games with five swats. Marquette had real problems with Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski (7-foot-2), and they’ll need to watch film on that game and figure out where it all went wrong and how to fix it.
It seems unfair that we’re just now getting to senior point guard Kendall Williams. The senior floor general is averaging a splendid 19.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists in a whopping 35 minutes per game. His true shooting percentage (70.7 percent) is 15th best in the country, and the future NBA guard is hitting on all cylinders and getting to the line: he’s made 19 of 21 free throws the last two games. Mr. Efficient will be on full display in Sin City tonight.
Keep an eye out for freshman guard Cullen Neal and sophomore guard Cleveland Thomas, but those three above account for nearly 73 percent of New Mexico’s scoring. Seriously. That’s a lot. Junior guard Hugh Greenwood will miss tonight’s contest with a wrist injury. His 4.6 points and 5.2 rebounds will be missed as much as his 31.1 minutes per game.
WHAT THE LOBOS DO WELL
— Thanks to Bairstow and Kirk, the Lobos allow less than 42 percent on opponents’ two-pointers, the 19th best mark in the country. As tough as ASU’s Bachynski was, Davante Gardner and Chris Otule will have their collective work cut out for them against Kirk. The 7-footer is popping up in the first round of NBA mock drafts, and it’s because of his inside work. Simply put, the Lobos don’t give up much inside. They’re also 32nd in the country in block percentage (15 percent), led by Kirk’s top-60 mark of 8.9 percent.
— The Lobos have gone to the free throw line 302 times this season, tied for 47th most in the country. Of teams that have played 10 or fewer games, those 302 attempts are fifth most. Williams has gone to the line an incredible 95 times this year, tied for 10th most in the country. The Lobos receive 29 percent of their points from free throws, the eighth highest percentage in the nation. Foul trouble (or the lack of) will be a key determinant for Marquette. New Mexico is shooting 75.5 percent from the charity stripe, too, a top-30 mark.
— The Lobos have star power. Bairstow, Williams and Kirk are perhaps the best three-headed trio Marquette will face all year. What they do well, in this sense, is show consistency. Even in the loss to Kansas, Bairstow and Williams each scored 24 points. Those three are going to be there each game, including tonight.
WHERE THE LOBOS STRUGGLE
— Relying on three players for 73 percent of scoring creates a serious problem when, oh, a superb strategist and excellent defensive team comes to town (or Las Vegas). It’s tough to see a scenario where all three don’t have average-or-better games and New Mexico wins. If Williams can find the weakest link of the three and expose him, the Golden Eagles stand a solid chance of leaving Nevada with a win.
— The Lobos defense is impressive, but they don’t turn over teams. Their 15.2 percent turnover rate is a bottom-30 mark in the country, and their 7.0 percent steal rate is 302nd best. Bairstow and Williams each average 1+ steals per game, but that’s about it. Marquette must take care of the ball against a good defense or it will just be adding fuel to the fire.
THREE KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Figure out how to attack Kirk
Gardner went 7-for-13 against Bachynski, but Otule missed all four shots against the 7-foot-2 big. In all, Marquette made just 20 of 46 two-pointers, far below their 50.5 percent season mark. They must be better against Kirk and Bairstow, and as always Gardner will be the key to that. Otule must play better than he did against the Sun Devils, that much is true.
2. Stay out of foul trouble
With Steve Taylor battling injury and Duane Wilson’s availability a major question mark, depth is still a concern. With the way the Lobos get to the line, it will be important that the likes of Derrick Wilson (against Williams), Jamil Wilson (against Bairstow) and Gardner (against Kirk) stay out of foul trouble. Easier said than done, but the brightest stars must shine in Las Vegas tonight.
3. Keep it up, Juan Anderson
After writing on Anderson earlier this week, it’d be nice to see him put together another solid game in a big matchup. He went for eight points and six rebounds against a big Wisconsin lineup and added 10 points and nine rebounds against George Washington. This is another game where he can make his mark defensively and clean up around the basket. Make us proud, Juan on Juan.