Wednesday, December 05, 2007

It's Papist Week!

Yes, the annual build up to the showdown between the forces of fun, frivolity, intellectual achievement, tolerance, and reasonably thrifty tuition (deep breath in) and the forces of overt seriousness, empty piety, inability to get over the 70s, freeway interchanges, and undeserved positive reputations.

(An aside-- Marquette and UW operate the only two law schools in Wisconsin. Based on how people talk about Marquette law, I always thought they were about even with UW quality-wise. However, recently I discovered that while UW law is tied for 31st in the prevalent national ratings system, Marquette is 97th! Way worse! That puts Moo behind such academic luminaries as SUNY-Buffalo, Georgia State, and the University of Toledo. Ouch. If you'd be taking an academic step-up by transferring to Georgia State, you know you're in trouble.)

On the basketball floor, however, Marquette appears to boast the stronger, or at least more defined, squad this year. After NBA teams discovered that MU point guard Dominic James was really quite wee and couldn't shoot consistently, the former Big East freshman of the year opted out of the draft and came back for his junior season. He, once again, is joined in the backcourt by dynamo Jerel McNeal and Madison Memorial product Wesley Matthews, each also juniors. This trio is joined by forward Lazar Hayward and guard David Cubillan, both sophomores, and both players who have shown dramatic improvement thus far this season. Some of the usual suspects return in forwards Ousmane Barro and Dan Fitzgerald, and someone I'm not familiar with, a heavyset 6'8" forward named Dwight Burke, is playing a fair amount.

Looking at the individual stats for these guys reveals some interesting tidbits. First, unfortunately for UW fans, Jerel McNeal has cut down on his main weaknesses-- turning the ball over and fouling. His improved turnover rate makes him a far more valuable player for the Gold, and has actually elevated his offensive efficiency above Matthews' and even James'. He also is more involved in the team's offense than any other player. McNeal is fouling less as well, averaging only 2.8 fouls a contest after racking up 3.5 last season. This may explain why, despite his great defensive skills, he's no longer corralling as many steals, having ceded the team's theft lead to James.

Second, despite McNeal's improvement, he's not that an efficient offensive player, and neither is James or Matthews. In fact, Wes appears to have been pretty poor on offense this season, posting an atrociously low offensive efficiency rating due to turning the ball over far too often. Appropriately, he has let the two improved sophomores, Cubillan and Hayward take more shots and get more involved in the offense. These two turks are actually MU's best offensive players so far. Cubillan's been shooting decently (almost always from outside) and hardly ever been turning the ball over, and Hayward's been making nearly 63% of his two point shots. And he's taken 43 two pointers, which is not a small number.

Third, while the team appears to ignore Barro on the offensive end, he is their most effective defensive player. He leads the team in defensive rebounding, and is easily the squad's best shot blocker. Oddly, he hasn't been playing all that much this season, as Marquette appears to be favoring an intensely diminutive line-up with five guys 6'6" or under (McNeal, James, Matthews, Cubillan and Hayward) leading them in minutes. That seems ripe to change against UW, unless Bo decides to match small ball with small ball.

To date, college basketball stat head Ken Pomeroy rates Marquette as a brutally efficient offensive team, with the third most efficient offense in his adjusted ratings. Marquette plays pretty solid defense as well, as Pomeroy's rating has them listed as the twenty-fifth. (These are all available via the Basketball Prospectus website, conveniently linked to your right.) And those filthy team numbers, again, unfortunately for UW fans, were not garnered against an all patty-cake schedule-- the Gold put up its best offensive numbers against Rob Jeter's UW-Milwaukee team, and Oklahoma State. Hmmm... trouble.

However, UW is actually slotted just ahead of Moo in Pomeroy's most recent overall ratings, and that's due to their defensive dominance. Even including the Cameron Indoor debacle, Wisconsin rates as the third most efficient defensive team in the nation. Offensively, as any UW fan would expect, they're fair to middlin', rating 48th nationally.

So this looks like a game where the irresistible force, Marquette's super efficient offense, led by Hayward's and McNeal's twos, James' steals, and Cubillan's steady hand and effective outside shooting, meet the immovable object of UW's defense. Then you throw in other factors, that MU's D has been better than UW's O, and that MU played Duke far tougher than UW, but that game was on a neutral floor, and this game is in Madison, where UW's been very successful both this season and generally under Bo, that UW looks like the deeper team, but MU has more backcourt depth. It all comes out to a bit of a wash. Plus, it's a little early in the season for team stats to tell us all that much.

Looking at individual match-ups, things actually look decent for UW. In the backcourt, Hughes bothered the Warriors' backcourt trio last year with his physical D, and will likely do so again. If he can play under control (against McNeal probably) and avoid turnovers while being smartly aggressive, it'd be a solid boost. Then I think Hughes will be able to take his man to the rack, dish a few passes and draw some fouls. UW could then do it's whole "get the other team's key players in foul trouble" thing. Flowers and James will likely match-up, and the key thing there is for Michael to be smart with the ball and avoid foul trouble. He's been turning it over at an alarmingly high rate so far this season, perhaps out of a desire to do a little too much on the offensive end. James is also caging a lot of steals, and will look to drive on Michael. UW is not thick with legitimate guards right now (I count only three), and will need Michael to play lots of good minutes. The Hoft will probably guard Wes, and I'd call that one a bit of a draw, though Joe's having a better year so far and is far more careful with the ball. Both are solid defenders who are not super aggressive offensively. Joe will have to, as per usual, bide his time and be smart on the offensive end.

The guys I'm really worried about are the relative unknowns-- Hayward and Cubillan. I have little memory of this Hayward character for Marquette, and his shooting from close range is impressive. Landry will probably draw him, and while he's going to have to play a solid defensive game, UW's bigs must look to help out. I don't know who'll match-up on Cubillan and I'm worried he's going to get lost in the three-guard shuffle, and get open to nail timely threes.

Fitzgerald and Barro and Burke will probably rotate around in the frontcourt. Barro will probably defend Butch pretty well, but he fouls a lot too and the game is in Madison. Fitzgerald plays decent position defense and can hit open jumpers. Him getting matched-up on Butch is a bit of a worry for the Badgers' defensively, as I can see MU looking to set him up outside, and Butch and/or Stiemsma (who likes to camp out in the lane defensively) having trouble getting there. But Butch should be able to post him up on the other end (though his bunny missing habit is very worrying).

While the catalyst for MU may be Cubillan and Hayward, the X-factors for UW are Leuer and Bohannon. After not playing a lick agianst Georgia, Leuer played nearly a whole half against Duke, and 17 minutes against Wofford, being productive offensively in both outings. Hopefully, his floor time will continue to increase. MU has no one on their roster who's size and skill set comes close to Leuer's, and I think he'll pose a match-up problem for them. He could take Barro outside, drive by Fitzgerald, or post up Wes or Hayward.

Bohannon, on the other hand, didn't play against Marquette last season, as Bo went with the more athletic Hughes. I doubt that'll happen this year, as Kam is gone and Marquette essentially starts four guards. In the past few games, Bohannon looks to be more confident offensively, taking jumpers when they're there, and has been driving for some nice midrange shots floaters. (I bet he nailed a ton of those in high school with guys pressing him on the perimeter.) J-Bo isn't a phenomenal athlete, but he has a great touch from all over the court. If he could surprise the Gold with some offense, and not be a liability on defense, it'd be a huge boost for Wisconsin.

So, I think it'll be an interesting game, a contrast in personnel and styles. There are a lot of questions to answer: Will UW match MU's small ball line-up or will they try to exploit their size advantage? Can UW's excellent D bottle up MU's terrific offense? (Duke couldn't do it, by the way.) Did the various Duke games reveal anything about either team? Do their various rankings (UW is 23rd and 29th, while MU is 15th and 11th) mean anything? Which players will step up on each team? How much is the Kohl Center homecourt advantage worth? (As a UW fan, I hope it's a lot.) This looks like a tough, dramatic game that will go down to the wire.

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