Wednesday, March 04, 2009


March 4, 2009

Pittsburgh looks to stake their claim to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and this week could decide that fate. The Panthers will host Marquette tonight and UConn on Saturday at the Peterson Events Center on the Pitt campus. At 13-3 in the Big East and 26-3 overall, the Panthers could set a school-record with their 14th Big East win in a season tonight.

Marquette has lost four of their last seven games since starting out the Big East season 9-0 in conference play. The last two were played predominately without Dominic James, who was lost for the season four minutes into their 93-82 home loss against UConn one week ago tonight. While the shock of the realization that James' college career is over at Marquette, the remaining Golden Eagles vow to fight on, led by seniors Jerel McNeal and Wesley Mathews.

Here are some pregame stories and previews on tonight's contest:

Former Great Sees Plenty of Potential (Tribune-Review)
Panthers Land in Enviable Position (Post-Gazette)
Pitt Readies for Short-Handed Marquette (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Panthers close Out Regular Season at Home (Tribune-Review)
No James, But Plenty of Fight (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

Last Sunday, Marquette began to pick up the pieces after James' injury with a game at Louisville. Marquette fought hard, losing 62-58 on the road, but the absence of James was very clear, especially on offense. The Golden Eagles managed just seven assists as a team (James averaged over 5 a game himself) and shot just 34% from the floor. Jerel McNeal, the all-time leading scorer in the history of Marquette basketball, seemed to try and take too much onto himself and was just 3-19 from the floor against the Cards. The loss of James certainly puts more onto the shoulders of McNeal and Wesley Mathews, as well as junior forward Lazar Hayward as they lack depth of productive players ready to contribute at the highest level of the Big East.

Pittsburgh got their own injury scare on Saturday night as DeJuan Blair banged knees with a Seton Hall player and was in obvious pain and limped off to the Pitt locker room. Blair had two major ACL injuries in high school, but the good news in this instance was a hyperextended knee and the 6-foot-7 Big East Player of the Year candidate should be close to full speed for tonight's game.

The Panthers have a clear advantage with Blair and Sam Young in the frontcourt and their depth off the bench in the backcourt also could play a big role in this contest. Marquette will try and counter the Panther strengths by applying constant ball pressure against Levance Fields and his backcourt mates with Maurice Acker, James' replacement, McNeal and Mathews extending their pressure and being aggressive on defense, trying to force turnovers and convert the extra opportunities into points. Pitt turned the ball over 18 times in their loss to Providence last week and 23 more times in the win over SHU, so that is something to keep a close eye on.

While Marquette will look to turn Pitt over for extra chances, Pitt will pound the offensive glass for their extra chances. If Pitt can get into their offense they will be very tough to stop. Their offensive rebounding prowess, easily the best in the country, has made Pitt one of the top two most-efficient offenses in the country, despite not being a great shooting team. it is almost a case of just getting shots up to the rim for Pitt might be part of the offensive plan, because they rebound nearly 40% of their misses and should be able to control the boards against a small Marquette line-up.

The other factor is foul trouble on Blair that could put this game into jeopardy for the Panthers. Marquette is likely to try and draw Blair away from the basket and hope he picks up some ticky-tack fouls trying to stay with the smaller and quicker MU players.

The NCAA basketball betting odds have the Panthers as a 10 1/2-point favorite to pick up conference win #14 tonight at the expense of the short-handed Golden Eagles. While MU has plenty to play for, they are likely to come up short in this one on the road.

NBE Blogger Prediction:

Pittsburgh 71
Marquette 60



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