LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Don’t tell Rick Pitino that No. 8 Marquette’s chances to win the Big East evaporated when star senior Dominic James went down with a broken foot during a loss to No. 2 Connecticut on Wednesday.
Sure, Pitino expects the Golden Eagles (23-5, 12-3 Big East) to have a slightly different look with Maurice Acker running things on Sunday when Marquette visits No. 6 Louisville (22-5, 13-2) in basically an elimination game for the Big East regular season title.
What Pitino doesn’t expect is for the Golden Eagles to suddenly fall apart. Acker, in a way, is James-lite.
“(Acker) may have some of the same attributes except he’s not a senior,” Pitino said. “Both are lightning quick, both have quick hands, capable of making the outside shot. He’s a little better free throw shooter than Dominic and Dominic has obviously been around longer. We know they’re very talented, but they’re losing a senior and that’s a great loss.”
Just not necessarily a devastating one.
Pitino knows firsthand how a major injury to a team leader can bring the rest of the group together. While coaching at Kentucky in 1997 Pitino lost do-everything guard Derek Anderson to a knee injury. The Wildcats managed to make it all the way to the national title game before losing to Arizona in overtime.
“You tell them you’re not going to replace a Derek Anderson, who led us in almost every statistical category, but you replace him by other people picking up the pieces and lifting their game to a new level,” Pitino said.
The Golden Eagles won’t lack for volunteers. They nearly beat UConn, with James spending the second half as a cheerleader. They still have plenty of experience in seniors Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dwight Burke and junior Lazar Hayward. And with a few days to emotionally recover, Marquette coach Buzz Williams doesn’t expect a hangover.
“We will be accountable as a team, as men for our work from this point forward despite the public perception of ‘feel sorry for Marquette,”’ Williams said.
Pitino sympathizes, but he isn’t exactly feeling sorry for the Golden Eagles — they’re simply too dangerous, even without James. Though undersized, Marquette has been able to stay in a four-way scramble atop the Big East with Louisville, Pittsburgh and UConn behind an up-tempo offense and the kind of pesky defense that relies on quickness to rattle bigger, stronger, slower teams.
“They’re very tenacious defensively,” Pitino said. “If you put the ball down in traffic against them they’re going to strip it.”
Marquette is the Big East’s highest scoring offense, averaging 80 points a game, and is second behind West Virginia in turnover margin. Rather than being intimidated by its distinct size disadvantage, the Golden Eagles have turned it into a strength by attacking. They lead the Big East in free-throw attempts because of the way they relentlessly try to get to the basket.
“You’ve got to be smart with them because they’re not a typical team,” Pitino said. “If they come on the break and it’s three vs. four, they don’t pull it up, they go at the seam and try to score or get fouled. They change ends like a blur.”
The Cardinals, however, have gotten pretty good at slowing even the fastest teams down. Louisville is holding opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the field and appear to be getting better as the season goes along. The Cardinals have won four straight and have developed a chameleon-like way of winning.
They topped 90 points in wins over DePaul and Providence and then used their defense to stop Cincinnati and Georgetown.
“I think our parts are catching up to the whole,” Pitino said. “Now it’s not just (Terrence Williams) or Earl (Clark). All the parts are coming together and that’s what we were hoping to see. … There are certain games we can win and do battle with a Pittsburgh and there are other games we can do it running.”
They’ll probably have to do both if they want to win their first Big East regular season title. Louisville came close a year ago, falling to Georgetown in the regular season finale, handing the Hoyas the crown. The Cardinals finish the season with a home game against Seton Hall on Wednesday and a trip to West Virginia on Saturday.
Though Pitino has stressed the importance of not looking ahead, he knows his players understand what’s at stake.
“We certainly follow the standings,” Pitino said. “Our players know Connecticut beat Marquette and will play Pittsburgh again. They understand that.”