Marquette has broken a three year tournament drought and will face the South Carolina Gamecocks on Friday. Marquette got a tough draw in the sense that, although this is nominally a neutral court game they will be taking on the Gamecocks in Greenville, South Carolina. Gamecock fans will likely flood Ben Secours Wellness Arena as South Carolina hasn’t been to the big dance since 2004. For all intents and purposes this is a road game for Marquette. The Golden Eagles were 4-6 on the road this year in conference play; their lone impressive road win was at Creighton, who they beat 102-94 back in January. This is the first trip to the tournament for these coaches with each of their respective teams.
The Gamecocks are coached by Frank Martin who has turned around a moribund program that went 9-27 in conference play his first two years as head coach. The Gamecocks reached the tournament on the strength of their conference play, particularly in January when the Gamecocks won 7 out of 8 conference games highlighted by a win over the then #19th ranked Florida Gators. Since February 17th however South Carolina has lost 5 of their last 7. Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski and the Golden Eagles enter the tournament as winners of 4 out of their last 7 with wins over fellow tournament teams Creighton and Xavier. Despite Marquette finishing a little stronger neither team has a lot of momentum heading into the game as both teams dropped their opening quarterfinal conference tournament games.
On the court the Gamecocks are led by SEC conference player of the year Sindarious Thornwell. Thornwell is a 6’5 guard who averaged 21 points per game to go along with 7.2 boards and almost three assists. Thornwell also led the SEC in steals. Needless to say stopping Thornwell will be Marquette’s number one defensive priority. Marquette will also have to contend with PJ Dozier, a 6’6 sophmore guard that averages 13.6 points per game which makes him their second leading scorer. The size of Dozier and Thornwell could give Marquette problems if they are allowed to get to the basket as Marquette is very thin up front and does not have a lot of rim protection. A third guard, Duane Notice, a 6’2 senior from Toronto led the team in mins and chipped in 10.1 points per game. Like most teams in the tournament South Carolina is very guard heavy and gets a large portion of their scoring from the backcourt.
The S.C. front court is young and the minutes are dominated by freshman Maik Kotsar and sophomore Chris Silva. Silva will most likely matchup against Luke Fischer as Silva is the most talented big on South Carolina’s roster. Silva is a significant defensive presence with his length and motor. Espn.com’s scouting report on Silva is effusive in their praise of his athletic ability “Silva is an absolutely explosive athlete. He runs the floor like a deer, bounces off the ground like it’s a trampoline, and plays at the top of the box. He’s got an equally long build which makes him a constant threat to come up with momentum changing plays on both the offensive and defensive sides of the floor.” Like many young bigs however Silva struggles with getting into foul trouble and he led the SEC in fouls while only logging the 81st most minutes per game in the conference. If the experienced Fischer can get Silva into foul trouble early the gamecocks would not be able to replace his defensive prowess and athleticism.
As important as it is for Marquette to contain Thornwell and to attack Silva to get him into foul trouble this game will most likely come down to how well Marquette shoots the three ball. South Carolina has been excellent in defending the arc as they are ranked 5th in the nation in terms of opponent three point field goal percentage. They also do a great job of preventing three point attempts and rank 37th in the country by that metric. This is matchup of strengths; Marquette’s adjusted offensive scoring is 120.9 per 100 possessions good for 8th in the country while South Carolina’s defensive adjusted efficiency is 88.5 which is third in the nation. In layman’s terms Marquette can score, South Carolina stops you from scoring. The bookmakers have pegged this as a very close game and I believe it will be. In the end Marquette should have just enough offense to get past the Gamecocks in round one and move on to face the Duke Blue Devils in round 2.
I don’t think I’m really going out on a limb here saying Duke should dispatch the Troy Trojans on Friday with relative ease and set up a very interesting round two matchup with Marquette. As many basketball fans know Steve Wojciechowski played for Mike Krzyzewski then apprenticed under him for years as an assistant coach. Coach K has his Duke Blue Devils on a hot streak as they enter the tournament winning four games in four days to capture the ACC tournament. The last three wins came against Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame, teams that sit on the 2, 1 and 5 line to begin tournament play. As always, Duke is supremely talented and supremely confident entering the tournament.
Most conversations about Duke this year have revolved around the always controversial Grayson Allen but Dukes leading scorer is actually the sharpshooting Luke Kennard. Kennard averages 20.1 points per game shoots 50% from the field and 44% from behind the arc. Marquette will have to contain penetration as Dukes drive and kick offense can be devastating. Aside from dealing with Kennard Marquette will have to stop the aforementioned Grayson Allen. Allen only leads the team in one major category (assists) but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He is third in points, third in steals and fifth on the team in rebounds and he is an excellent defender. The impact he has on the team is best shown in the 12.5 win shares (win shares is the estimated number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense and defense) he has in his career at Duke. Basically he does a little bit of everything for the Dukies. Another shooter Marquette will have to be aware of is Frank Jackson, another guard who contributes 10.7 points per game and shoots it at 39% from deep. Marquette will have a tough time helping off any one of these guards as all three can bomb away from downtown.
The Duke frontcourt is also loaded with talent and again a large onus will be on Luke Fischer to play well and stay out of foul trouble when facing the likes of Amile Jefferson and possibly Jayson Tatum. When Fischer and Jefferson do matchup it is a rare instance of impact seniors playing against each other. Jefferson has had a very good year averaging 10 points and 8 boards and putting up a very impressive 62.1% effective field goal percentage (this statistic adjusts for the fact a three point field goal is worth more than a two point field goal) while not even attempting a single three pointer. Dukes other forward Jayson Tatum has been scorching hot as of late and could provide a major matchup problem for Marquette. Tatum averaged 16.9 points per game during the season but is averaging 22 per game in his last four. Tatum is a slasher who can get to the hoop, a plus defender who can get out and run but also has an effective jump shot that defenders have to respect. Marquette may have to try a variety of defenders on Tatum to see who is most effective at slowing him down.
This possible second round matchup would be very difficult for Marquette in the fact that Duke can match Marquette’s strengths in being able to score and shoot the three. Marquette has been in plenty of shootouts but will need to play better defense than they have for most of the year. Marquette has occasionally gone to zone to throw a different wrinkle at teams and they may look to sporadically use this to create turnovers and give the Blue Devils a different look. As much as I would love to see the Golden Eagles advance to the sweet 16 I can’t see them getting past this red hot Duke squad.