Since these two teams have met once already this season, MU fans – at least those who visit this site - already have a good idea of what to expect from the Panthers on Saturday night, so there's no need to repeat much of the substance from the earlier Pitt Preview. In reality, little has changed on the Panthers' side. Coach Jamie Dixon's team did lose two games recently, one at home to Louisville and one at Georgetown, but this is still a team to be reckoned with.
There is solid talent at every position, and this is still probably the deepest team in the conference. Not many teams have the luxury of being able to bring quality players like Ronald Ramon and Sam Young off the bench. As deep as the Panthers are, however, three players are probably the keys to Pitt's fortunes in this final game of the regular season.
Center Aaron Gray is still in contention not only for first-team all-conference honors, but also for Big East Player of the Year. He ranks 18th in scoring at 13.5 ppg, fourth in rebounding at 9.1 rpg, seventh in field goal percentage at 55.6%, fourth in defensive rebounding at 6.2 per game, and eighth in blocks at 1.6 bpg.
The seven footer had 16 points (on seven of 14 shooting) and nine rebounds in the first game between the two teams. Fortunately for Marquette, however, he made only two of eight free throws, an area of relative weakness for the powerful center throughout the season.
Gray is so big and so strong, he is almost impossible to keep away from the hoop. He is capable of taking over the game, especially if Barro gets in foul trouble. MU's 6'10" center managed to play 39 minutes in the game at Pittsburgh and had respectable totals of 12 points and seven rebounds. MU will need a similar performance from him to have a shot at pulling out a win.
Point guard Levance Fields could also be a thorn in MU's side on Saturday. The super-quick sophomore ranks eighth in the conference in assists at 4.3 apg, ninth in three-point field goal percentage at 41.0%, and second in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.3/1.0. He is also an excellent defensive player.
Fields had a rough game against MU last time with only two points, two rebounds, and four assists in 27 minutes. Marquette can't count on a similar performance on Saturday. However, Marquette faithful might not be aware that in nine conference games in January Fields made 18 of 38 treys (47.4%), but in February he's made only seven of 23 treys (30.4%) in six games. His deep threes appear to be somewhat flatter than they were earlier in the season when they had a bit more arc.
The X factor for the Panthers, however, might be Ramon. The junior combo guard ranks third in the conference in three-point percentage at an impressive 46.7%. He's also made 88.4% of his free throws, good for second in the league.
Ramon scored 21 points against Marquette the first time around, a total built primarily on hitting four of six treys and seven of eight free throws. If Ramon has an open look and enough time to set, it's actually a surprise when his shot doesn't go in. In the Panthers' two recent losses, however, he made only one of six three-pointers (against Louisville) and three of nine (against Georgetown). If his shot is falling at the BC, MU's task becomes significantly more difficult.
This emphasis on these three individuals is not intended to slight the rest of Pittsburgh's team. Cook, Graves, Kendall, Young, Biggs, and Benjamin have all contributed significantly to the Panthers' #12 national ranking.
Furthermore, the Panthers exemplify the concept that in college basketball, as in all team sports, the whole can be considerably greater than the sum of its individual parts. Relatively few Pitt players rank among the conference leaders in the various statistical categories. However, a look at the team statistics reveals a much more daunting picture of the reasons behind the Panthers' success.
In the conference the Panthers rank:
First in assists at 16.5 apg
First in three-point field goal percentage at 38.9%
First in three-point field goal percentage defense at 28.2%
Second in scoring defense at 59.7 ppg
Second in field goal percentage at 47.2%
Third in scoring margin at +7.5 ppg
Third in rebound margin at +5.0 per game
Third in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.3/1.0.
In essence, MU has a formidable opponent coming into town this weekend.
The bottom line, however, is that even though Pitt needs this game to finish second, rather than third, in the conference, MU needs a win even more. The home crowd at the BC should help, but the outcome will depend primarily on whether or not Marquette's marquee players – James, McNeal, Matthews, and, to a lesser extent, Barro – rise to the challenge. The role players – Hayward, Fitzgerald, and Cubillan – must contribute as well.
MU does not win this battle if it brings its B game to the BC, let alone its C game. That would lead to a repeat of the drubbing at Notre Dame.
On defense, MU can not let the ball get into Gray in the post with the same ease with which the Irish got it into Harangody. Nor can MU allow Fields to get into the lane the way Jackson did for ND. Nor can MU allow Ramon to have the same open looks Falls had at times last week in South Bend.
On offense, Marquette must dribble less and pass more. James and McNeal must shoot better than the 30% they shot against Notre Dame. Plus, Fitzgerald can not once again go one for eight from behind the arc, Barro has to score more than six points, and Hayward has to contribute more than two points on one of five shooting.
One last critical factor: to win, Marquette must avoid foul trouble. MU can not win if Barro plays 17 minutes and Matthews plays 22, as they did against Notre Dame, or if McNeal has to sit major portions of the game because of fouls.
If MU and Pitt both bring their A minus or A game, this could be a rerun of the recent Louisville battle in the sense that the winner won't be decided until the last possession. If that happens, hopefully this time the outcome will be different.
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior" is also a contributing writer for CHN, College Hoops Network.