BOISE — Marquette coach Buzz Williams said he's never seen anything like it. He said no team he's played against — not even those from the mighty Big East Conference — is as difficult to coach against as Utah State.
"Other than the players and the trainer who tracks their efficiency, I don't think anybody knows exactly what play they're running," Williams said, referring to the complex set of plays the Aggies run based on flip cards real and pretend. "I haven't been able to figure that out."
Defending those plays, especially when Utah State pounds the ball inside to Gary Wilkinson and Tai Wesley, is what Williams said will be his team's biggest challenge this morning.
USU's powerful interior duo is cause enough for most teams to lose a few winks trying to sleep. But the Aggie playset, which Williams said he counted at least five variables for each play, means his defense will have little opportunity to rest.
The No. 6 seed Golden Eagles, on the other hand, present as many challenges for the No. 11 Aggies as any team USU coach Stew Morrill can remember facing in the past season or two.
"Well, their skill level and athletic ability jump out at you," Morrill said. "It's real easy to say, 'OK, it's a Big East team and they're extremely athletic.' But you've got — at that level and that league — you got to be more than just athletes. You've got to have really good basketball skills."
Marquette, indeed, is a skilled basketball team. The Golden Eagles shoot the ball well; they defend ferociously and attack the rim as hard as any team in the country — drawing fouls and earning an average of 26.1 trips to the free throw line per game.
Playing solid help defense without committing to many fouls will be of utmost importance for the Aggies.
"You've seen a lot of games where Tai Wesley has got in foul trouble," Morrill said. "And that's not a plus if we have him or a number of players sitting over by me."
To prevent that, players such as Pooh Williams and Tyler Newbold will be required to be aggressive yet in control as they try to limit the drive-and-kick plays designed to get All-Big East players Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews high-percentage looks.
"As an athlete and a competitor, you want to play against guys like that," Newbold said. "You want to compete against guys like that. So we're both looking forward to that opportunity and looking forward to playing well against them."
The game between the Aggies and Marquette may come down to which team can exploit the other's weakness most effectively.
While the Aggies will have a hard time containing the explosive Golden Eagles' guardline, Marquette will struggle with Wilkinson and Wesley.
"We will have an advantage inside," Wesley said. "Coach has been telling us that they crowd hard with their perimeter players. So we'll probably look to go inside-out first and try to attack them on offense that way."
MU's Dwight Burke is 6-foot-8 and a strong player but not an offensive or rebounding threat. If the Aggies can get him in foul trouble, there is little depth on the inside for Marquette to rely on. 6-6 Lazar Hayward is a ferocious rebounder at 8.6 per game, but will struggle to contain either Wesley or Wilkinson.
That likely means USU will see some double-down defense.
"That's the game we played all year, and I think we have always had an advantage in the post," Wilkinson said. "I think that's one of our largest strengths, and then our outside guys are deadly."
Also making matters difficult for Marquette is the loss of starting point guard Dominic James. The senior ran the team well and averaged more than five assists per game while scoring nearly a dozen points every time on the floor.
He broke his foot, though, a few weeks ago, and the Golden Eagles are still a team trying to transform itself and find a new identity with 5-8 Maurice Acker running the show.
"We miss him," Marquette's Williams said. "But I think that with each passing day we have continued to get better and learn to be more efficient within what we have to do on both ends of the floor."
Neither team is particularly deep, with playing rotations down to eight or nine players for both teams and the starters getting the overwhelming bulk of the minutes.
The ability to keep key players fresh and out of foul trouble will be critical for Utah State's chances to advance.
"I think it's just going to be about playing solid defense and then help defense," Wilkinson said, "isn't so much about fouling but creating harder shots or getting in the way."
Aggies on the air
Utah State (30-4) vs. Marquette (24-9)
Taco Bell Arena, Boise
Friday: 10:30 a.m.
TV: CBS; Radio: 1230 AM, 610 AM, 95.9 FM