Pregame Party: Georgetown at Marquette

Buzzwalk Emprie - USA TODAY Sports

Hoyas start Big East play with test at Golden Eagles

Big East play is finally here, as your Georgetown Hoyas tip off Saturday against your once and future conference mate, the Marquette Golden Eagles. Georgetown has questions aplenty to answer entering the new year, chiefly whether it can reliably muster enough offense and depth. The Hoyas will begin to answer those questions in Milwaukee, where they'll play their first road game of the year against a team facing its own questions.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. For Marquette, the uncertainties concern replacing last year's two All-Big East players, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, who led the Golden Eagles last season in minutes, scoring, and efficiency, and, eventually, to 27 wins (their best since the 2003 Final Four run) and a Sweet Sixteen appearance. To date, none of a cast of former complementary players has stepped up to fully, or even mostly, replace the departed stars' production. There have been embarrassing losses (by 33 to a very good Florida team, by 2 to not very good UW-Green Bay) and barely more encouraging wins over directional schools (11 over Southeast Louisiana, 9 over North Carolina Central). Yet there have been bright spots as well, including a win over in-state rival Wisconsin and, more recently, an overtime victory over Connecticut to start conference play. All told, Buzz's bunch enter Saturday's game with a 10-3 record, three consecutive wins, and the same lingering doubts.

Golden Eagles to Know. Marquette has a deep rotation, with nine players who average 13 minutes or more. At the reins is point guard Junior Cadougan (10.2 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.7 TO pg), who's been around forever and drops dimes at a level that puts him on par with some better-known Big East point guards (Tray Woodall, Peyton Siva). Flanking Cadougan are guard Vander Blue (13.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.1 stl pg, 36.8 3FG%), the team's leading scorer, and wing Trent Lockett (7.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg), an Arizona State transfer who's still adjusting to his new home. Relieving those two will be Todd Mayo (6.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg), recently returned from academic ineligibility and still rounding into form.

Down low, Davante Gardner (12.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), is the team's best post, and combines power and skill effectively. Fortunately for Hoya fans, his weight limits his minutes. Swinging between inside and the perimeter Jamil Wilson (8.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) delivers similarly efficient play and more minutes.

When Marquette Has the Ball.

  • Golden Eagles' strength: attacking. Buzz Williams' Marquette teams have always moved the ball well, playing with an energy and pace is always refreshing. Last year's team, which assisted on over 63 percent of made baskets, was the high-water mark, and this year marks only a slight drop-off, as three out of every five Marquette baskets come off of an assist. The Golden Eagles use all this passing to attack the basket; they thrive within the arc, where they earn high-percentage looks and parade to the free-throw line.
  • Georgetown's strength: zone. Georgetown has used its zone effectively throughout the year, particularly against teams that struggle from three. Marquette is one such team. The Golden Eagles connect on just four three-point attempts per game and shoot just 30 percent from three, placing them in the bottom quartile nationally in the latter category. Unless Blue and another shooter can stretch the Georgetown defense, they may be staring at a lot of two-three on Saturday.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Inside the arc. Georgetown has shut down its opponents from two this year, as Hoya foes have shot under 40 percent inside the three-point line. Marquette struggles to connect from distance but excels inside, where the Golden Eagles make 53 percent of their two-pointers, the 32nd-best mark in the country, and also earn 22 free throws per game (and 31 per game over the past three). Who wins the battle of strength-on-strength may determine who wins the game.
    • Pace. The Hoyas deployed their press throughout the non-conference slate, in turn creating a number of transition baskets. Will they continue to do so as the competition improves? Marquette has protected the ball well in the past but has been more error-prone this year, turning the ball over on more than 20 percent of its possessions and yielding nearly 10 steals per game. Still, the Golden Eagles aren't afraid to get out and run, averaging nearly four possessions more per game than the Hoyas. So, a press comes with its risks.
    • The post. Gardner is a beast in the blocks, where he grabs a pair of offensive rebounds per game and draws fouls at a high rate. Georgetown has seen a few other wide bodies this season, including Texas big man Cameron Ridley and new teammate Josh Smith, but more recently has feasted on mid-major-sized fare. Can the Hoyas limit Garnder's looks and keep him off the offensive boards? Will the big man get Mikael Hopkins or another Hoya in early foul trouble?

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Hoyas' strength: working the ball inside. Georgetown's middling offense gets an easier introduction, by Big East standards, to conference play, facing a Marquette defense that ranks just 89th nationally in efficiency. With a front line that frequently measures between 6'5" and 6'8", Marquette particularly struggles to protect the interior, yielding a permissive 46 percent from two. That's where Georgetown has thrived, accumulating a top-30 assist rate by working the ball inside, where five of the top six Hoya regulars make better than 49 percent of their shots.
  • Golden Eagles' strength: defending the three. Georgetown enjoyed a recent resurgence from deep against subpar competition but, even so, the Hoyas still have made under one-third of their attempts from three on the season. And Marquette, far from excelling in any one defensive metric, has enjoyed reasonably poor three-point shooting by its opponents, who have netted just 31 percent of their tries from deep.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Rust or rest? Georgetown will be coming off its longest mid-season break in the JTIII era, playing its first game in fourteen days and just its second in three weeks. The Hoyas have played somewhat worse in games under JTIII with a week or more of rest, though the difference isn't enough to be disturbing. A flat early offensive performance against Marquette could spell doom on Saturday. Then again, maybe the time off allowed the Hoyas to tweak a few things in their offensive sets and get their collective mind right in time to come back refreshed for the new year.
    • Turnovers. Marquette has pressed the Hoyas in the past, and while Georgetown has protected the ball much better this season, doing so against a quick opponent in a hostile arena during conference play is another matter.
    • Otto Porter. I have a sneaking suspicion that Porter is in for a big game. Of course, it's not as though he's had a slump or any reason to redeem himself. It just feels like he's due. An opponent with a questionable inside defense and a 6'5" starting small forward would seem to present a good opportunity for a breakout game.

Prediction. Milwaukee is a friendly place, home to delicious meats, cheeses, and brews. But it hasn't been hospitable to your Hoyas of late, as Georgetown has lost on its last three trips to Marquette since winning a 2008 overtime thriller there. The 2010 trip was a heart-breaker, while the other two have been more one-sided, including a 2009 loss in a season full of them. After that debacle, one intrepid blogger learned (as witness, mind you) that beer, cheese, and brats do not mix for every Hoya fan, and that when they don't, it's best to alert one's fellow passengers of that fact well before disaster strikes. Learning these lessons, with paper towels and gas station cleaning solution in hand, seemed only fitting given the Hoyas' ruined season. But after a four-year exile, I'll be returning to what the Algonquins called the Good Land, feeling a bit more optimistic. Georgetown still has a lot to prove, and won't have friendly ground on which to do it, as Saturday is the first of four road games among the next six contests. But against Marquette, I foresee a staunch Hoya defense and just enough offense will get that rough stretch started on the right note. Georgetown 61, Marquette 57.

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