Perhaps it is fitting that Pitt plays at Marquette for the final time on this day. Pitt leaves for the ACC and Marquette prepares for being in the Big Priest in 2014, it is unlikely the two shall see much of each other beyond the rare tournament meeting.
The history of both schools very rarely crossed until that fateful Sweet Sixteen game in 2003. That followed their joining the Big East and the games became battles. Was it a rivalry? I can’t say that. But the games were always tough. Few were sure things one way or another. And today as it ends it happens to be on the game where the Golden Eagles honor their 2003 team.
Pitt is feeling more confident going into this game. Playing well. Healthy and liking their chances.
“We feel we’re a better team now than we were then, but we’ve got to show that and put that out on the floor,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We’ve got to guard the penetration and rebound. We got outrebounded the last game, but I made it clear to the guys that we haven’t won many games when we were outrebounded.”
Not only did Marquette hold a 38-33 rebounding edge, but Pitt also had no answer for Golden Eagles guard Vander Blue, who made 9-of-10 free throws and scored 22 points.
Blue, a 6-foot-4 junior, leads Marquette in scoring at 14.6 points a game. Stopping his dribble penetration will be key.
To that end, Pitt will probably throw out a zone more frequently.
Dixon’s 2-3 zone defense could be a key for the Panthers in the final weeks of the season, and especially so in a game at 1 p.m. today at No. 18 Marquette.
For one, the Panthers had trouble stopping the penetration of Marquette’s guards in the first game Jan. 12 against the Golden Eagles at Petersen Events Center. Vander Blue, who scored 22 points in Marquette’s 74-67 overtime victory, got past Pitt defenders repeatedly for easy buckets. The other reason for using a zone against the Golden Eagles is their poor outside shooting.
Marquette enters the game last in the Big East Conference in 3-point shooting percentage. The Golden Eagles make just 29.5 percent of their attempts from behind the arc.
Part of what Marquette does will center on the battles inside. Not simply the penetration by the perimeter players but how Pitt’s frontcourt is positioned for rebounds and simply clogging the lane. Marquette has actually been getting some production of their own inside as Chris Otule has finally had a healthy season.
To put Otule’s career in perspective, he has played 79 games in five years. Twenty-two of those games, all starts, have occurred this season. For the first time since 2010, his body is not betraying him.
As a result, Otule has been quite effective lately. In the loss Monday night to No. 15 Georgetown, he scored eight of Marquette’s first 11 points. Before that, he dropped six quick points on DePaul with short hooks, almost before the Blue Demons knew what hit them.
“I think a lot of it has to do with how hard you want to go on the court,” Otule said. “Like I said at Georgetown, you can’t go into every game thinking about how many points I’m going to score and how many rebounds I’m going to get. You’ve got off what you’re in control of, and you’re in control of your energy every game.
Otule is 6-11. In his time at Marquette he has broken both feet and last year suffered a major knee injury. This is his fifth year at Marquette and is eligible for a sixth. That is an injury ravaged career.
It also means Otule does not play for long stretches. He can go hard, but only for about a max of four minutes.
As for this game, it matters for Pitt in more than simply the Big East standings. It has implications for seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
Marquette’s RPI is 15, compared to Pitt’s 31. That’s the highest RPI of any of the Panthers’ final five regular-season opponents.
“It is not just critical for their RPI, but their NCAA Tournament seeding,” said CBS Sports bracketology analyst Jerry Palm, an RPI expert. “This is a team that Pittsburgh would be competing with in roughly the same part of the bracket. If they can win games like that, it helps them in terms of the seeding.”
Palm projects Pitt as a No. 5 seed and Marquette No. 6, as does Sporting News in its most recent field of 68 prediction.
That the Panthers are starting to gain national notice has something to do with their ranking among the nation’s leaders in both offensive efficiency (seventh, 1.133) and defensive efficiency (12th, 0.869).
“That’s something the national writers pay close attention to, and people are going to think there’s something behind it,” Sporting News national college basketball analyst Mike DeCourcy said. “They have great ability and potential to be in good shape when selection time comes. I certainly don’t think a 5-seed is their ceiling, or their floor.”
With St. John’s (15-9) and DePaul (10-14) the only other remaining road games, the Marquette game also is Pitt’s last chance to beat a ranked team away from Petersen Events Center. And every win away from home, including neutral sites, helps with the NCAA Selection Committee. The Panthers are 4-2 on the road and 2-1 at neutral venues this season.
As for Marquette, they are coming off an embarrassing loss to Georgetown. One where they managed to turn the ball over 19 times. Against a team that doesn’t force turnovers. There is no doubt they will be trying to put that game behind them.
1 pm game on CBS.