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by Pat Ralph

Coming into the season, the Villanova men’s basketball team probably looked at their trip to Marquette on Saturday as arguably its toughest conference road game.

However, much has changed since the Big East preseason rankings were released in mid-October.

Picked to win the Big East Conference title this season, the Marquette Golden Eagles have been nothing but a disappointment. Standing at 11-8 overall and 3-3 in the Big East, the Golden Eagles have fallen far from their spot in the preseason Top 25 poll.

After going to the Elite Eight in last year’s NCAA Tournament, Marquette has suffered more from the graduation of guards Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan than most people expected.

So after reading the first four paragraphs, you are probably ready to say it will be a walk in the park for the No. 4 ranked Wildcats, but not so fast.

First off, the Bradley Center in Milwaukee has always been a tough place for opponents to play at and win. This is the Big East Conference; anyone can be beaten on any night.

Secondly, even though Marquette has seven losses, they are all against teams who will most likely be dancing in March.

Let’s take a look:

Ohio State (nationally ranked team who will contend for Big Ten title), at Arizona State (tough team to play at home who will have a say in the crowded Pac-12), San Diego State (underrated, nationally ranked, and extremely well-coached, contender for Mountain West title), at Wisconsin (ditto Ohio State), New Mexico (ditto San Diego State, minus the nationally-ranked), at Creighton (Big East title contender with the best scorer in the nation) and at Xavier (Big East title contender, well-coached).

It is safe to say that Marquette has been tested so far this season. However, the Golden Eagles have no quality wins. Zero. So, one begins to wonder, why have they struggled so much this season?

Marquette’s problems predominantly reside on the offensive end of the floor. They have the lowest scoring offense in the Big East (70.8 ppg), their field goal percentage is way down from where they were last season and their rebounding numbers are also down.

Due to the departures of backcourt mates Blue and Cadougan, the Golden Eagles lack the amount of offensive playmakers they once had. As a result, most of the load has been left on the shoulders of senior forward Davante Gardner. Gardner is averaging over 14 points per game this season and shooting close to 55 percent from the field.

Marquette’s defense has not been great this season, but it also has not been terrible. The Golden Eagles currently lead the Big East in points allowed (64.0 ppg), but they have given up at least 70 points in four of their losses this season.

If the Wildcats can get to the 70-point threshold on Saturday, victory should be in store. However, that is easier said than done in Marquette’s building.

So, what are the keys for Villanova in their matchup against Marquette?  Currently 16-2 overall and 5-1 in Big East play, the Wildcats will need to first and foremost come out ready to play right from the tip-off.

Marquette may not have a great record, but the ’Cats cannot come out flat and give the Golden Eagles an early advantage on their home floor this Saturday. If Villanova finds itself playing from behind for most of the game, they could be on the wrong side of the scoreboard by the end of the night.

In order to come out strong and set the tempo, Villanova must be smart with the basketball. The ’Cats must avoid silly turnovers and stupid plays if they want to come away with the victory on Saturday.

As dedicated Villanova fans have seen, the Wildcats often come out lethargic against teams they are favored against on the road. Look no further than their recent game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.

The ’Cats ultimately came away with a win, but the Villanova team that is nationally-ranked did not show up until the final six minutes.

Add in the fact that St. John’s could not make a shot all night either, and Villanova avoided an upset. They got lucky once, but it cannot happen again on Saturday.

The other important key is to focus the offense around junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston. Averaging 15.3 points per game for the ’Cats, Pinkston has been the go-to guy on offense all season.

Because of his combination of both strength and quickness, Pinkston is nearly unstoppable when he gets the ball on the post. As a result, opponents often have to double-team him and shut down the paint.

However, this allows the ’Cats to open up their 3-point attack. As we saw in the Syracuse game, getting complacent from 3-point land is not a recipe for success for this squad. Establish a presence in the paint early and Villanova will fly home happy.

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