Connecticut’s huskiness cause for Golden Eagle concern

Junior forward Jae Crowder goes up for a layup in Marquette's 94-64 victory over DePaul on Jan. 18. Photo by Cy Kondrick / cy.kondrick@marquette.edu

The last time Marquette blew a double-digit lead against a top-25 team, it had winless DePaul on which to take out its frustrations.  After blowing a 12-point lead at Notre Dame Saturday, Marquette doesn’t have the same luxury with No. 5/5 Connecticut (16-2, 4-2 Big East) in town tonight.

Toward the top of Marquette’s concerns entering this game: slowing down junior guard Kemba Walker.

Walker is the second leading scorer in the country at 25 points per game.  He has scored fewer than 20 points only four times this season.

Team defense will be vital if Marquette is able to slow down Walker, senior forward Jimmy Butler said.

“I think he’s a really, really big part of their team, but they have a lot of other good players that you have to watch for, too,” Butler said. “You can’t just worry about guarding one player.”

Connecticut enters tonight’s game on a five-game winning streak that includes victories on the road over then-No. 12 Texas 82-81 on Jan. 8 and at home over No. 7 Villanova 61-59 on Jan. 17.

Senior forward Joe Fulce said Connecticut’s size is what makes it such a talented team, and it presents the biggest challenge to an undersized Marquette team.

“We’re just trying to stay in with what we do as a team and use our speed to our advantage and stick with what we know to get around their size,” Fulce said. “We’re going to have to crash the boards with them, and we know it’s going to be a very physical game.”

While Marquette has struggled to keep its opponents’ shooting percentages down, Connecticut’s defense has thrived, as the Huskies are second in the conference in defensive field goal percentage at 38.3 percent.

Connecticut’s stellar defensive field goal percentage can be attributed, in part, to its strong shot-blocking abilities – Connecticut is the second best shot-blocking team in the country and best in the Big East at 6.89 per game. Three Huskies average more than 1.4 blocks per game, led by sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi’s 2.2 per, fifth-best in conference.

Redshirt sophomore center Chris Otule said players spent extra time in practice working on their shot fakes, given Connecticut’s natural ability to swat them away.

Oriakhi not only presents challenges for Marquette when they have the ball, but the 6-foot-9-inch forward also is nearly a double-double machine at 11.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.

“He’s good down there on the block,” Butler said of Oriakhi. “He gets out there and runs, he challenges all of your shots; he’s going to get the majority of the missed shots that we do (have) when it comes to rebounding.”

Butler hit the game-winning shot in a 72-70 victory against the then-ranked No. 19/19 Huskies when the two teams met on Jan. 30 last year. Butler said he expects another close game tonight.

“I hope it doesn’t even come down to that,” Butler said. “I hope we play a full 40-minute game, but I think it will come to a one possession game. If it does, I hope I can put out another one like that.”