The Cincinnati Bearcats (15-3 3-2) return to Fifth Third Arena looking for their first Big East home win against the Marquette Golden Eagles (13-3 4-0) at 7pm Saturday night.
While stars like Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder have come and gone in recent years the machine keeps plugging along for head coach Buzz Williams and his Golden Eagles. He doesn't have that familiar household name this time around, but what he always puts on the floor is a team that will compete at the highest level for 40 minutes, and more if needed as they have won two of their four Big East games in overtime.
Statistically Marquette really only stands out in two offensive categories to date, but when you are 3rd in the conference in field goal percentage at 46.6% and second in free throws shooting 73.2% you give yourself a chance to hang around and win games late which has been the recipe for success.
They are in the middle of the pack pretty much everywhere else except for perimeter shooting at 14th in the league at 30.1%, but that shows how well they can get in the lane given their inability to stretch the defense and shill shoot a high number from the floor.
Leading the way is junior scoring guard Vander Blue. He leads the team in scoring at 13.7 ppg, but that should be no surprise as he takes far more shots from inside and out than anyone else on the roster. He can be hot and cold with his consistency, but he is the unquestioned leader of this bunch and can put the team on his back late in games to grind out wins.
Junior big man Davante Gardner is the only other double digit scorer at 13.1 ppg while shooting 61.5% from the floor and also leads the team in rebounding at 5.4 a night. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider he only averages 21 minutes a game off the bench and you can bet he will be a heavy focus in the game plan against a Cincinnati front line that lacks depth and tends to get in early foul trouble. Gardner leads the team in FT attempts and shoots an impressive 83.5% from the charity stripe. Gardner played high school ball with Cincinnati senior JaQuan Parker and the two remain close friends. Don't be surprised to see them mixing it up for rebounds throughout this one.
Senior point guard Junior Cadougan sets the stage for Marquette with 4.4 assists a game which rates 8th in the Big East and is also the teams 3rd leading scorer at 9.1 a night. Cadougan isn't much of a deep threat at only 20% on the season and he only connects at 43% from the floor, but he plays with the toughness that defines Williams and his program.
Rounding out the starting lineup is senior center Chris Otule, 5th year graduate student transfer from Trent Lockett and sophomore Juan Anderson. Lockett is an undersized but physical win that scores 6.9 ppg and grabs 4.9 rebounds a night which is good for 2nd on the team. Otule is a bruising presence in the paint, but while he does start it is Gardner that plays the most minutes on the low block.
Joining Gardner off the bench is redshirt junior wing Jamil Wilson and high scoring sophomore guard Todd Mayo. Wilson is 4th on the team in scoring at 9.0 ppg and he has grown into one of the more reliable perimeter threats on the roster at a team high 36% on the season. Mayo missed the first 10 games with an academic suspension that cost him the first semester, but has been rounding into form and has the ability to put up 20 plus on any given night.
On the defensive end Marquette is 8th in the league in points allowed at 61.9 and 10th in field goal percentage defense at 40.5%. They are also middle of the pack in 3 point FG defense allowing 32.2% which is good for 10th in the league.
After a couple of hours examining Marquette, I can't imagine being tasked with doing a scouting report on this team. They don't make any sense on paper with three of their best five players coming off the bench and overall numbers being less than overwhelming. At the end of the day they manage to keep games tight and come away with wins to this point, and a lot of respect has to go to Williams for making things click.
Obviously for Cincinnati a lot will come down to the ability of Cashmere Wright to take the floor, and if he does how sharp he can be after spraining his right knee 4 days earlier. If Wright can hold his own, odds are good Cincinnati can get their first Big East home win in three tries. If not this is a game that will likely come down to the wire without the best option to close games on the floor for the home team.
Look for a game played in the 50s to lower 60s for each team that will be decided in the final 4 minutes. At that point Cincinnati is going to have to dig deep to end the two game conference and three game overall home losing streak.