Marquette @ Pittsburgh Preview
Tonight, the Pittsburgh Panthers (26-3,13-3) will play host to the Marquette Golden Eagles in a matchup of top 4 Big East teams. The two teams seem to be headed in different directions, with Pittsburgh making one last run at the Big East regular season Championship and Marquette clinging on for dear life, trying to obtain a double-bye in the Big East Tournament with just two games left. Pittsburgh has won all of their 17 home games this year, and 19 straight dating back to last year. Marquette is coming off back-to-back losses in parts 2 and 3 of “the gauntlet”, and tonight will probably be the team’s toughest game of the year. While winning the Syracuse game will ultimately be more important for Marquette due to tiebreakers, a win tonight would give them the signature win that they are looking for. While Marquette is a 10 point underdog, Big East brawls seem to stay close, so it will be interesting to see how it pans out.
For the Pitt Panthers, the recipe is simple: Blair + Young + Fields = victory. The first element will be sophomore power forward DeJuan Blair. The 6’9″ beast plays even bigger than that and will force Marquette to really crunch down inside which many leave shooters open on the perimiter. Whether or not help comes down low, Blair is going to fight for position inside and get his buckets. You simply can not contain him and have to hope that he is off his game, but no one on the Golden Eagles is counting on it. He has also flashed a mid-range game of some sorts lately, and if that is the case he could become completely unstoppable. He is averaging close to six offensive rebounds a game, and a key to beating Marquette’s defense is getting extra opportunities as seen in the Connecticut game. The second component is Sam Young, the 6’6″ small forward that paces Pitt on offense with 18.4 points a game. He will have his hands full with Wesley Matthews guarding him, but he will manage to get those points with good off the ball movement and passes from Levance Fields, part three of Pitt’s powerhouse offense. He leads the nation in A/TO ratio with a 3.98 mark and averages 7.4 assists. He will go up against the much smaller but pesky Maurice Acker tonight, but should have no trouble controlling the offense and the pace of the game. An X-factor is Jermaine Dixon who, despite the few touches he gets on offense, has very good range from the perimeter. Defensively, Young and Dixon need to step up on Marquette’s scorers in McNeal and Matthews with Blair controlling the paint. If they can shut down McNeal like Louisville did, Pitt could coast in this one.
One player who might have something to say about that coasting tonight is Jerel McNeal. It seems as of late that McNeal is always the “player who needs to step up”, but in crunch time you need your best player to do so, and coming off a 3-19 performance against L’ville, I look for a huge game out of him tonight. With the loss of Dominic James for the year, Marquette’s offense has changed somewhat in the sense of James’ dribble-drive is lost and Acker is more of a rotational player than a playmaker. Still, the offense runs through the wings of Matthews and McNeal and the occasional Lazar Hayward jumper. If Pitt goes to a zone, Hayward will be able to knock down those free throw line shots that he did so well against Notre Dame and UConn. As for Acker, he faces a very tough matchup tonight in Fields and I don’t know how well he will be able to contribute. Fields plays great on the ball defense and is very hard to get around. Offensively, I would look for a lot of ball screens to free up a little space for passes or drives. Wesley Matthews might be limited in the points department with Sam Young on him, but he can make up for it by driving to the hole, either drawing defenders of drawing fouls. With Acker and Matthews facing tough matchups in which they could easily be shut down, McNeal might have to play out of his mind for Marquette to pick up a W. As for the Golden Eagles (23-6, 12-4) on the defensive end, stopping Blair will be key. We all know that rebounds have plagued Marquette every game this year, and the difference in both the UConn and L’ville games were offensive rebounds. Something’s going to have to change if we want a shot at defeating the Panthers. We also saw what Stanley Robinson did to us when UConn picked up offensive rebounds and we focused on Thabeet/Adrien, so don’t sleep on Tyrell Biggs who is averaging 7.6 points per game. Lazar Hayward played outstanding on defense against UConn and L’ville and that will be another factor. He needs to clean up the defensive glass and win battles down low. As for Acker and Matthews, Fields and Young are going to get their averages tonight, but making sure they don’t control the game will also be important.
Let me start this by saying I have a funny feeling in my stomach about tonight’s game. It might be that Marquette needs a win to put them on the map of legitimate contenders, or it might just be those Baja Nachos I had for lunch. Either way, this one could easily a lot closer than the 10 point spread that Vegas has. If, and this is a gigantic if, the Marquette Golden Eagles can stay within 2-3 rebounds of Pitt, or dare I say outrebound Pitt, they have a shot to win this game. I truly believe Marquette was overlooked vs. Louisville because of the loss of Dominic James and that it let the Warriors sneak up on them. This might happen again tonight, and if Marquette can play outstanding defense and rebound as well as they have all year, it could get very close at the end.
In the end, reality beats wishful thinking and I think Pitt will win the rebounding game by about 15 rebounds, making it very hard for Marquette to stay in the game. Jerel might put a season high tonight to keep the Golden Eagles in the game, but Pitt being at home is way too tough.
FINAL SCORE: Pittsburgh 80, Marquette 69
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