In both contests Coach Tom Crean's squad seemed to come out of the gate with more energy, more fire, than Pittsburgh, had the game under control for the majority of the contest, then saw the Panthers storm back late in the second half. Also, in both games MU used superb free throw shooting down the stretch to stave off the late challenge.
While both battles provide Marquette fans with quite a few highlights to look back at, MU must look forward, to tonight's game, rather than backward. What can the Marquette faithful look for in tonight's game?
First, and perhaps foremost, it is not very likely that star guard, and Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Jerel McNeal will suit up. It would be incredibly foolish for Crean to risk any further damage to McNeal's injured thumb in a game that probably means the difference of perhaps one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Even the most optimistic MU fan probably doesn't expect to see McNeal on the court tonight.
It is true, of course, that the 6'2" sophomore didn't play last Saturday either, and MU managed to win. However, Madison Square Garden is not the Bradley Center, and there will not be 18,000-plus fanatics cheering for Marquette. Instead, it is likely that a substantial contingent of Panther fans will be in the Big Apple to support their favorite team.
Furthermore, Coach Jamie Dixon will almost certainly be more diligent in covering Mike Kinsella when he's in the game. It's difficult to imagine the Panthers letting the 7'0" senior get any open looks on the perimeter as they did when he first entered the game last Saturday. His two treys – reportedly the first two of his three-year career at Marquette - definitely energized MU's players and fans alike. (It is also unlikely that Kinsella can continue to shoot as well as he has the past two games, in which he is four for five on three-pointers.)
It is also basically a given that Pitt will try to do a better job of getting its own 7'0" senior, Aaron Gray, the ball down low. Gray seldom touched the ball in the first half of last Saturday's game, but when he did in the second half, he usually caused MU problems. Gray is simply too big and too strong for Kinsella, Jamil Lott, or Dwight Burke to defend in the post, so Barro must stay out of foul trouble.
Crean's game plan last weekend revolved around keeping the ball out of Gray's hands. MU's post defenders overplayed the first-team all-conference player while their perimeter defenders tried to prevent easy entry passes. When Gray did get the ball he was almost immediately double-teamed, and occasionally triple-teamed, as Marquette tried to force him to pass the ball back outside.
Fortunately for MU, four of the Panthers' five perimeter players who saw action had trouble knocking down their shots. Point guard Levance Fields was two of 13, starting off guard Antonio Graves was one of eight, sharpshooter Ronald Ramon was only three of nine (including two of seven from behind the arc), and Keith Benjamin was one of four for a combined total of seven for 34 (20.6%), including four of 20 on treys (20%). Small forward Mike Cook (13 points on three of five shooting, including one for one on treys) was the only effective perimeter scorer for Pitt.
Dixon employed some zone last Saturday with moderate success. Freshman David Cubillan nailed four three-pointers on his way to a career-high 20 points. However, James, Matthews, Fitzgerald, and Hayward were a combined two of 13 (15.4%) from long range, so the Pitt staff might go to the zone a bit more than it did the last time and count on Cubillan being unable to duplicate his long-distance marksmanship of the other night.
Marquette fans have seen complementary role players step up in recent games. Freshman forward Lazar Hayward scored 18 points for a career high against Villanova, Cubillan had a career-best 20 against Pitt, Fitzgerald matched that total – another career high – last night against St. John's, and Kinsella has shot well the last two games. It's probably not realistic to expect any more career-best performances tonight against the Panthers.
Crean has done a masterful job of compensating for the loss of McNeal the last two games. However, any knowledgeable fan knows how difficult it is to defeat a team three times in a season. Pittsburgh will be prepared; the Panthers should also be in a vengeful mood. For them, it's payback time. Plus, they know that it's one thing to lose to MU in an electrically-charged Bradley Center, but it's quite another to lose to Marquette on a neutral court in the conference tournament. Pittsburgh is playing for pride on one hand and a higher seed in the NCAA on the other.
Even the most loyal Marquette fans would consider a win tonight, assuming McNeal does not play, an upset. Even with a fully healthy McNeal, this would be, at best, a tossup. That being said, MU fans also know that, regardless of the result, James, Matthews, Barro, Hayward, Cubillan, Fitzgerald, Burke, Kinsella, and Lott will play like their former namesakes – warriors.
**Eric Silver is also a contributing writer for CHN, College Hoops Net.