No. 5 Villanova and Marquette are set for two crucial head-to-head matchups over a 17-day span, the first one coming Wednesday night in Milwaukee.
The Wildcats (7-1, 2-0 Big East) sit atop the conference standings having won five in a row. Villanova already owns a pair of victories over Top 25 opponents, Arizona State and Texas.
Marquette (5-4, 1-2) has lost two in a row and after earlier producing wins over two Top 10 opponents, Wisconsin and Creighton.
Marquette, which is coming off a 91-88 loss at Xavier on Sunday, knows it will need a better defensive effort, primarily on the perimeter. In the Golden Eagles’ three conference games so far, they have allowed their opponents to shoot 42.9 percent or better from 3-point range, thereby nullifying their own solid offensive performances.
“We’re not going to win in the Big East if we’re letting teams shoot the percentage that Xavier shot,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “We didn’t play with the effort or execution we needed to win. That’s something we need to fix, and we need to fix it soon.”
Villanova’s effective guard play has played a major role in the Wildcats’ hot start.
Collin Gillespie’s ability to shoot from deep (41.9 percent on 3-point attempts) and get tough points inside (81.3 percent on free throws) presents a tough challenge for Marquette’s own guard tandem of Koby McEwen (15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3 assists per game) and D.J. Carton (12 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists).
But Gillespie (14.5 points, 4.3 assists per game) is one of three Villanova guards, along with Justin Moore (13.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists) and Caleb Daniels (12.9 points), averaging double figures in scoring.
“Teams pay so much attention to Collin (Gillespie) that it really frees Caleb and Justin up to make plays,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has been a offensive catalyst for the Wildcats in the paint. Robinson-Earl leads Villanova in points (16.6 per game) and rebounds (7.6 per game) while shooting 54 percent from the field.
Robinson-Earl finished with 25 points in Villanova’s latest game — an 88-68 win over Saint Joseph’s on Saturday — while playing with a protective mask after sustaining a broken nose in the Dec. 16 contest against Butler.
“I’ve broken my nose before in eighth grade, so the mask I was wearing today was from eighth grade and one I’ve worn before,” Robinson-Earl said. “It’s different, but you’re so concentrated on the task at hand, it doesn’t really bother you as much as it might look.”
Wojciechowski said he needs to see his guards feed the ball into the post and do a better job on the boards after giving up 12 offensive rebounds to Xavier.
Dawson Garcia is one of the Golden Eagles’ top frontcourt performers, averaging 13.1 points and 6.6 rebounds. Jamal Cain (9.6 points, 6.6 rebounds per game), Justin Lewis (8.6 points, 6.6 rebounds) and Theo John (8.3 points, 6.7 rebounds per game) also are making key contributions.
“We want to play through the post, and I thought our guys were efficient offensively when we got the ball down there,” Wojciechowski said.
–Field Level Media