Perhaps too early in the season, Marquette faces a stiff test at the Bradley Center Saturday, as it takes on No. 10 Ohio State.
The Golden Eagles sit at 2-0 after wins over SWAC schools Southern and Grambling State, but they face an immense step up in competition when the Buckeyes roll into Milwaukee. Ohio State has the ability to give Marquette fits in the backcourt all night long with three exceptional perimeter players.
The first is senior and token "how is he still in college?" player Aaron Craft. The 6-foot-2 point guard enters his fourth and final season at the controls for the Buckeyes. Last year, when they went to the Elite Eight just like Marquette, Craft averaged 10 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game as the unquestioned floor general. He almost led them to the Final Four, but they ran into a Wichita State buzz saw in the regional final, and couldn’t dig out of a 20-point hole.
Flanking Craft is fellow senior Lenzelle Smith, Jr. The 6-foot-4, 215 pound Zion, Ill. native was the Buckeyes third leading scorer in 2012-13, when he averaged 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Smith uses his size to play more of a swing guard role and he is one of the Buckeyes’ most versatile players.
The third perimeter stud for the Buckeyes is junior guard Shannon Scott. Marquette coach Buzz Williams practically freaked out about Scott in his press conference after the win over Grambling Tuesday, and for good reason. Scott has made eight of his 13 field goal attempts this season, and nine of those were three-pointers. Scott’s deadeye shooting could cause Marquette problems all day.
A team with three dominant guards is probably Marquette’s worst nightmare at this point in the season. Defensively, Derrick Wilson, Todd Mayo and Jamil Wilson are solid perimeter defenders, but their backups are all either freshmen or offense-only Jake Thomas. If the new hand check gets any of those three players in foul trouble early, one of Ohio State’s perimeter gunners could start destroying the Golden Eagles.
Offensively, Marquette’s guards don’t need a difficult matchup this early in the season, when they are still trying to feel their way back into college hoops. It took the backcourt 15 minutes to score against Grambling State on Tuesday. Ohio State holds a clear advantage on the perimeter, and Mayo and the Wilson’s will have to work their tails off to overcome it.
Joining the three guards in the Buckeyes’ starting lineup are junior big men LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams. Junior forward Sam Thompson comes off the bench to form a fearsome six-man rotation. All six star Buckeyes are averaging between nine and 14 points per game this season.
While that six-man core could cause the Golden Eagles problems, it also could serve to benefit them. After Thompson, Ohio State’s talent and experience level drops off. Marc Loving, Amedeo Della Valle and Trey McDonald have played some in the Buckeyes’ first two wins against Morgan State and Ohio, but Thad Matta would like to play his top six as much as possible. If Davante Gardner can get the big men in foul trouble, Marquette could steal some big minutes without Ohio State’s best players on the court.
Marquette’s Big Question
Who wins the foul trouble game?
Any college basketball fan hates to see a game decided by fouls, but this game seems like it’s headed that way. Marquette is thin on the perimeter, and the hand check rule could cost it its best defenders. Ohio State really only wants to play six deep as much as possible, but if Amir Williams gets in foul trouble (eight fouls in two games), the Buckeyes won’t be able to do that. Gardner leads the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (16.9!) so far this season, so either way, fouls will play a major role in the outcome Saturday.
Tough game to call here, but Ohio State has five guys in that six-man rotation that can shoot the three, and Marquette doesn’t have anyone who shoots from downtown consistently. The shooting makes the difference, and Ohio State wins 85-79.