Originally posted on Bearcats Blog  |  Last updated 1/18/13

NEW YORK - MARCH 11: Cashmere Wright #1 of the Cincinnati Bearcats reacts late in the game against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the quarterfinal of the 2010 NCAA Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 11, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Cincinnati has a big game tomorrow night against familiar foe Marquette. Marquette is 4-0 in Big East play, but haven't really had a dynamic performance. Cincinnati is 3-2, but they face a tough 2 game stretch in 3 days with or without injured point guard Cashmere Wright. Wright was held out of practice on Thursday.  To learn more about Marquette than just the numbers, I talked to my good friend Mark from the Marquette blog Paint Touches. The whole staff over there does very good work. It's worth a look. You can follow Paint Touches on twitter by clicking the twitter part that's underlined.  Mark and I talk about the new look Eagles, Davante Gardner, how much better Vander Blue really is, free throws and other things. As always, I appreciate the time Mark has given to answer my questions. A big thank you to him.  Two quick notes. All the stats used are conference numbers only unless noted. My questions are in bold. Marquette is riding a 6 game winning steak that includes 4 straight to start off Big East play. None of the wins are by double digits. Is Marquette riding a wave of luck in 2013 or are they playing some of their top ball?   I won't shamelessly plug any of my stories, but I wrote yesterday about Marquette's defense and how, for the first time since Buzz Williams took over, the Golden Eagles are a defensive-minded team. In that sense, they are playing their best basketball all year. But as a whole, this has been ugly, ugly basketball. True, it's tough to play pretty against teams like Georgetown and Pittsburgh, but it's just not all there for the Golden Eagles. The lack of a true go-to player (see: Crowder, Jae in 2011-'12) doesn't just hurt Marquette on offense, but defense as well and in the huddle. As far as I can tell point guard Junior Cadougan's the closest thing to a leader they have, but the six-game winning streak has been masked by some ugly, unorganized basketball. As Buzz Williams said Wednesday night, Marquette could very easily be 0-4.   Davante Gardner has been Marquette's best player this season. He's scoring 15 points a game in Big East play. He gets to the foul line a lot, he has the most made free throws in the league and has hit 87%. Gardner is also hitting something like 71% from the field in BE action. A couple of questions. What has enabled him to grow so much as a player? Has coming off the bench been that big a factor?   He's always been a pretty good offensive player, but Buzz Williams has allowed him more court time because of A) his conditioning and B) his defense. He's cut about 25 pounds off his frame since he arrived on campus three years ago and is finally able to guard high ball-screens and get back into the paint. I caution against saying he "comes off the bench," because in reality 6-foot-11 center Chris Otule starts to win the tip (something Gardner couldn't do) and save some of his minutes (he's capped at around 25 per game) early on so he can finish the game. Overall, though, Gardner is as unique a college basketball player as I've ever seen. He's an incredible passer out of the low post, has great touch on free throws and uses his body to draw contact even though it's the same up-and-under move. Every. Single. Time.   What are the various ways that Marquette will get looks to Gardner?   Gardner really only receives the ball on the low block, though he did a 15-footer against Seton Hall, but the way Marquette tries to feed him -- since they can't just lob it in to a guy with a minuscule vertical leap -- is by rotating the ball around the perimeter. Gardner isn't fast, but he's quick on his feet and can rotate from block-to-block quickly enough to get position after the ball has been rotated across court. Unfortunately for the defense, once he catches the ball on the low block, it's game over. The numbers tell the story.    Marquette has attempted the most free throws in Big East play. In fact, Todd Mayo has more free throw attempts than field goal attempts. How important is it for Cincinnati to keep the Eagles off the line?   Every night Buzz Williams wants his team to make more free throws than their opponent attempts. Williams also knows how to use his team, and that means getting the ball in the paint (hence, Paint Touches) to 4s and 5s, and guards/wings slashing to the basket in half-court sets. Gardner really is the one to watch here, but Vander Blue and Trent Lockett also do a great job of drawing contact around the rim. I'd say outside of limiting Gardner's touches inside, free throws will determine the outcome more than anything.   The Golden Eagles, rightfully so, have an aversion to 3 point shooting. They are getting 17.6% of their points from deep, which is in the bottom 50 in the country. Since most college guards seem to love shooting 3s, what's the deal here? They didn't exactly light it up from deep last year, but this seems worse.   For the first time since 2008-2009, when Wesley Matthews was at the "3," Marquette is predominantly running two-guard sets instead of their standard three. You'll notice Saturday a much taller, forward-oriented team (relative to past Marquette teams...the Golden Eagles will always be "small") that rarely looks for a 3-pointer unless the offense has beaten a defensive rotation, and my guess is you won't see a play drawn up for a 3-point attempt all night. It's simply Williams knowing his personnel. No one outside of Todd Mayo can claim outside shooting is his best trait, and with Mayo still working his way back into the offense (suspended first semester) there just won't be many 3-pointers being taken. And it's an issue that hasn't cost Marquette but will at some point.   Marquette has been dynamite on the defensive glass. This has been a reversal from past seasons. What makes this team stand out?   Jamil Wilson put it best Wednesday night when he said "our emphasis on rebounding is changing our team." And he's right. The aforementioned three-forward lineups have meant a commitment to the boards, and Marquette is no longer a liability when a shot goes up. Juan Anderson has been the most pleasant surprise given his minutes, but Trent Lockett is saving himself from ridicule by hitting the glass hard, and Davante Gardner puts himself in perfect position on Marquette's missed shots. His basketball IQ is off the charts. And that's not even mentioning fifth year senior Chris Otule or former Simeon star freshman Steve Taylor. But really, it's those three-forward lineups (and solid guard rebounders in Mayo/Blue) that are helping Marquette. Subsequently the Golden Eagles' pace has slowed considerably, allowing a more concerted effort on the defensive glass.   Vander Blue had a lot of hype behind him out of high school but had a slow start to his career. He's been a big breakout player with 14.5 points a game. What's been the catalyst?   Fantasy sports ruined the perception of Vander Blue. I'll explain. Last year Blue was Marquette's best defender not named Jae Crowder, he rebounded extremely well for his size and was second on the team in assists. But because he didn't score from outside, missed some bunnies around the rim and has had his off-the-court issues, the things he did well took a back seat. To some -- those fantasy nuts -- points are the way to value a player's worth. Blue has finally put the offense together, working on his outside jumper over the summer (for the third straight year) and, to be frank, maturing as an upperclassmen the younger players look to. He was very close with Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom, and those two seemed to have rubbed off on him. It all came together for him and he's been Marquette's best all-around player, and it's great to see for a kid who came in with unrealistic expectations.   If the Catholic 7 broke off this year, would it be disappointing for you if the schools never played again? I would be. Always love playing Marquette.    Of course. I've got cousins in Cincinnati and it's always a good time going back-and-forth the week of the game. More than that, though, I think Mick Cronin and Buzz Williams would hate if it's the last time these two teams play. Williams is always applauding Cronin any chance he gets, and from the few times I've heard Cronin speak on Williams it seems to go the other way, too. But I do love playing teams like Cincinnati, Connecticut, Villanova, etc...those teams Marquette resembles in terms of style, how they're built, and how they're coached. I hope it's not the last time, but of course it very well may be.    The Bearcats and Golden Eagles met twice last year. Once was a blowout in Marquette's favor. The second was a rugged Cincinnati win on senior day. That game also ended a Marquette winning streak. How do you see the only regular season meeting of this year going?   The key to beating Marquette this year is going to be an overpowering offense that gets up 10 or so points and never looks back. From what I can tell, that team isn't Cincinnati. Still, Marquette has looked just average on the road, taking a Pittsburgh team without Tray Woodall to overtime was a nice win, but nothing earth-shattering (and nothing Cincinnati didn't do). Obviously the health of Cashmere Wright will be a major factor, but I think Marquette struggles on the road in this one. I've been a fan of Cincinnati's interior play for some time (maybe Justin Jackson's block party has something to do with that) and I believe they find a way to shut down Gardner. Give me Cincinnati with a low-scoring, grind-it-out win in the final minutes.    Thanks again to Mark. Be sure to visit Paint Touches. Thanks to all of you for reading and supporting the cause. Go Bearcats. 
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