Surging Marquette has one game left against a ranked opponent before the Big East tournament. It appears to be an ideal opportunity to gain another quality win and build a case for an NCAA berth.
The Golden Eagles look to extend their win streak to six games Thursday night when they try to hand No. 19 Pittsburgh another loss at the Bradley Center.
Marquette (16-8, 7-5) and Pittsburgh (19-6, 8-4) are among the most surprising teams in the nation after both lost four starters from outstanding clubs last season. It’s a distinct possibility that both will return to the NCAAs, with the Panthers a win away from a ninth straight 20-win season.
“All we’ve heard is how young and inexperienced we are,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “I tell our guys that those things don’t matter. We need to play older than we are. Our freshmen need to not play like freshmen. That’s been our rallying cry and what we believe. We have to keep building.”
The Golden Eagles aren’t as secure about an NCAA bid yet. They don’t have any Top 25 opponents on the schedule after facing the Panthers, adding to the importance of Thursday’s game.
“We have six games left in the Big East season,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “We’re assured of playing one in the conference tournament. How many we have to win (to reach the NCAAs), I don’t know.”
Williams should be buoyed by the knowledge that the Golden Eagles are the only Big East team that Dixon - in his seventh season - has never beaten on the road. Marquette has won all three Big East home games against Pittsburgh, which is trying to end a three-game road slide.
With so many different faces playing major roles for both teams, last year’s 90-75 home win for Pitt holds little meaning for this matchup.
“They have seven returning players who are all really good,” Williams said. “We’ll have our hands full from the very beginning.”
The Golden Eagles are 2-4 in conference games against ranked opponents, with every contest decided by five points or fewer. While Marquette was losing those games earlier in the season, it’s been a different story during this win streak.
“When we lost those games, again, we weren’t able to finish,” guard David Cubillan said. “Now, as the season has progressed, we’ve gotten much better, guys have learned from their mistakes.”
Marquette is one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the nation at 42.3 percent, but made only 6 of 16 attempts in Saturday’s 63-52 home win over South Florida. The Golden Eagles turned in their best defensive performance in conference play, limiting the Bulls to 35.5 percent shooting.
The Panthers are eager to see if the success they enjoyed on a perfect three-game homestand will translate to the road. Pitt needed three overtimes to defeat then-No. 5 West Virginia 98-95 last Friday to avenge a 70-51 loss to the Mountaineers on Feb. 3 in its last road game.
Pitt started 5-0 in the Big East before losing four of five.
“Early on in Big East play, we were rolling off to a five-win start and we believed that we could contend for a regular-season Big East championship,” forward Gilbert Brown said. “But, we hit a little bit of a slide and we battled through it. It shows a lot of character of how we fought in practice in order to get back to this point.”
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