For the first time since the memorable Sweet 16 match-up in 2003, Marquette will take on the Pittsburgh Panthers in a game that showcases the two biggest surprises in the Big East.
After losing both starting frontline players from a year ago, Chevon Troutman and Chris Taft, the Panthers figured to be facing a rebuilding season. While it looked like star guard Carl Krauser would join them, he pulled out of the NBA Draft at the last minute and the Panthers have been riding that positive momentum ever since. Pitt started off the season with 15 straight wins before losing their first game last Saturday at the Garden to St. John's. The Panthers currently sit at 16-1, 5-1 in the Big East, rebounding from the loss nicely to handily defeat Syracuse 80-67 on Big Monday.
Having been moved to the off-guard, Krauser has had a phenomenal season, averaging just under 17 points a game to go along with more than four rebounds and four assists per contest. Not to having to worry about being the primary ball-handler, with sophomore Ronald Ramon and freshman Levance Fields playing the point, Krauser has been free to aggressively attack the basket and shoot from three, where he hits at a better than 40 percent clip.
The other major reason for Pitt's surprising season has been the emergence of junior center Aaron Gray. The seven-footer trimmed down to 270 pounds, which allowed him to become a real presence in the post. Averaging 13.1 points and 10.4 rebounds, Gray will pose a real match-up for Marquette's big men. Having scored 20+ plus points in three of Panthers six Big East games, he could be the difference maker in what figures to be a close game.
Although he comes off bench, Pitt's next most dangerous player appears to freshman Sam Young, who averages 8.7 points and 4.2 rebounds a game. Along with being an incredible athlete, Young has an excellent basketball sense, as he finds many ways to get open and score, from below and often times above the rim. Primarily playing the 4 this season, Young could cause trouble for Steve Novak and whoever else on Marquette is guarding him.
Splitting the time at the point, Ramon and Fields both do a very good job of running the offense, and they both have the capability to hit the open shot if left unguarded. Fields in particular will strike from deep, as he shoots 44 percent from three on season.
Starting power forward Levon Kendall has shown flashes of brilliance, the most notable being the 40 point, 12 rebound performance for the Canadian Junior National team in their victory over the United States team. Kendall has started every game this season for Panthers, averaging 7.2 points and 5.8 rebounds a game, but has yet to have the monster game like the one versus U.S. junior team. While his current season high is 14 points, he's the type of wild card who can occasionally come from nowhere to have a great game.
Starting small forward John DeGroat only plays 13 minutes a game, averaging 4 points and 2 rebounds. The Panthers will employ a fair amount of three-guard offense, with Antonio Graves and Keith Benjamin each playing quality minutes off the bench.
Graves has struggled shooting the basketball this season, hitting just 31 percent of his shots, and just 24 percent of his three-point attempts. The 6'2 Benjamin is an explosive athlete, and while he only averages 5 points a game, is another player capable of going off for a big game, especially if Pitt gets many chances to run. Benjamin has scored in double figures in two of the Panthers last three games.
Highly touted freshman Tyrell Biggs spells Gray at the center position, but has not made much of an impact so far, averaging 2.7 points and 1.4 rebounds a game. Biggs does have a nice outside shot that Marquette must respect, and he has the capability to hit shots even while being closely guarded.
With ten players playing double digit minutes, Pitt has a lot of depth to throw at Marquette and wear them down with their tough, bruising style that Krauser and Gray epitomize. The Panthers hold opponents to only 60 points a game on 39 percent shooting. For Marquette to have a chance to pull the upset, they must be hot from perimeter and hope that Steve Novak is close to 100 percent after spraining his ankle last Sunday in practice and scoring just five points in 62-47 win over DePaul Wednesday.
An Eventful Showdown Upcoming:
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