Buzz Williams knew it was coming and he warned his team.
Accomplishing its team goal of 13 Big East wins just days before playing at Cincinnati last season, Marquette – ranked seventh in the nation at the time – was blitzed. The Golden Eagles never got Cincinnati’s lead under double digits in the second half and lost 72-61.
“I told the team ‘Guys they are about to beat our head, they are about to beat our head. I’m trying to motivate you, but they are about to smack us,’ ” Williams said. “We had no energy, no passion … I thought they smacked us from start to finish.
“I thought it was the worst game we played last year.”
This year’s Cincinnati team presents a similar challenge, but has been far from flawless at home. After starting 12-0 and being ranked as high as eight in the AP poll, the Bearcats are just 3-3 in their last six games.
Cincinnati has lost three straight home games and has yet to win a Big East game at home, but the Bearcats are 3-0 in conference road games.
None of Cincinnati’s non-conference wins were overly impressive, and some feel its hot start was a product of an easier early season schedule.
Since its mini-skid, Cincinnati has fallen out of the AP poll and is ranked 24th in the USA Today Coaches poll, but Williams still feels the Bearcats pose a lot of problems for Marquette.
“Their roster is the most unspoken BCS team, I think they have 11 high major players,” Williams said. “Really good, really tough, really strong, can score it in a myriad of ways. I think defensively they are outstanding.”
Leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick is back and again leading Cincinnati in scoring at 17.3 points per game. However, second leading scorer and senior point guard Cashmere Wright may miss Saturday’s game.
Wright sprained his right knee early in the second half of Tuesday’s 75-70 win over DePaul and had to be helped off the court. Bearcats coach Mick Cronin told the Associated Press on Thursday that if Wright plays at all, he will be limited.
“Obviously there’s minor adjustments we’ll make that are some pluses, some minuses,” Cronin told the Associated Press. “We probably become a bigger, more physical team when he’s out of the lineup. We played a lot of quality minutes without him (at DePaul). We did a lot of good things without him on the floor.”
Wright’s scoring average is up to 17.8 points per game in conference play and with Kilpatrick shooting just 32.4 percent in his last six games, Wright has shouldered much of the offensive load for Cincinnati. Before leaving with the injury Wednesday, Wright scored 20 points on 8 of 11 shooting.
Even without Wright, Marquette will have to be sharp on the glass to get its second straight road win. Cincinnati is the sixth best rebounding team in the country, averaging 42.9 rebounds per game. On the other hand, Marquette is 164th in the nation at 35.4 rebounds per game, but the Golden Eagles haven’t been outrebounded in any of their four Big East games.
“We’ve hugely increased rebounding as a team,” Marquette forward Jamil Wilson said. “You’ve got four or five guys getting five to seven, 10 rebounds sometimes.
“As a team in practice, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on that. Our drills aren’t to score the ball. It’s to get a clean stop. You have to get a rebound or a clean steal or make the team turn it over.”
Just like Williams, Cronin had high praise for his counterpart. With a win over Cincinnati, Marquette will be 5-0 in league play for just the third time since the school joined a conference in 1989-90.
“Buzz does a great job,” Cronin said. “As usual, his team is probably underrated due to the fact that they lost a couple of really good players but they didn’t lose a great coach and their culture of winning.
“They find ways to win. When you play Marquette, you are playing their culture of winning more than anything else. It’s the jersey more than the guys wearing the jersey. We have to be prepared for their competitive nature.”