Marquette needs win to keep title hopes alive
MILWAUKEE — Sitting at the Al McGuire Center during Marquette's media day in October, Vander Blue said it was time for the Golden Eagles to win championships.
Four months later, Blue and his Marquette teammates are in a three-way tie for first place in the Big East.
Standing in nearly the same spot this week, Blue thanked Connecticut for upsetting Syracuse, allowing the Golden Eagles to stay in first place but then quickly moved on to Saturday's critical showdown with No. 16 Pittsburgh.
If it is truly Marquette's time to win its first Big East championship, the 18th-ranked Golden Eagles need to protect their home court against a team just a half-game behind them.
"It's the biggest game of the year for us," Blue said. "We really need this one. Right now we are trying to separate from the pack. UConn helped us, but now we need to do our part. (Syracuse losing) means nothing if we don't handle our business on Saturday. We don't want to worry about what other teams are going to do. We want to put ourselves in a position to be in a good spot."
The Panthers have been one of the hottest teams in the nation since Marquette went to Pittsburgh Jan. 12 and pulled out a 74-67 overtime win. Pittsburgh has won seven of eight since, with its only loss a heartbreaking 64-61 defeat on the road against Louisville.
Senior point guard Tray Woodall -- who played just four minutes against Marquette after suffering a concussion in a collision with Derrick Wilson -- is healthy and playing well, averaging 12.7 points per game in Pittsburgh's three-game winning streak.
"I think he's done it in a variety of ways," Pittsburgh coach Jaime Dixon said of Woodall. "He's picked his spots, penetrated and hit some shots. He's hit free throws down the stretch. Defense is the biggest thing we need from him. We're only as good as he is defensively."
Marquette was also without its point guard for the majority of the first meeting, as Junior Cadougan didn't play in the second half after suffering a leg injury. Wilson played 31 minutes with just one turnover in his absence.
Last time around, Pittsburgh limped in losing two of its last three. The Golden Eagles know they are going to face a much improved Panthers team, one that, too, has its eyes on a conference championship.
The Panthers are the best defensive team in the Big East, allowing just 54.4 points per game. Pittsburgh also leads the conference in scoring margin, outscoring its opponents by 16.6 points per game.
On offense, the Panthers are tied for the Big East lead in field-goal shooting at 48.3 percent and are the third best 3-point shooting team in the league. Pittsburgh leads the league in rebounding margin, outrebounding opponents by 8.0 per game, and also averages the second-most assists per game in the Big East.
All and all, Pittsburgh is a talented team that is peaking as it comes into the BMO Harris Bradley Center looking to improve on its 4-2 road record.
"They're really good," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "If you study their numbers, they are as good as anyone in the country. We were fortunate to win in overtime and we almost gave it to them in regulation. They are the hottest team in our league, and their statistics back it up."
With seven teams within a game of the conference lead, Marquette is looking at Saturday as a chance to begin to separate from the pack. The Golden Eagles play three of the seven teams before the conference tournament and all are home games. If Marquette -- which has won 22 straight games at the Bradley Center -- can continue to protect its home court, a league title can be attainable.
"I just want to make history," Blue said. "Being in the position we are in right now, we are in a great position. Having teams like Syracuse and Pittsburgh at home where we are good, that's going to help us. We have to go into every game thinking it's a tournament game. We can't go into any game thinking less.
"We have to make sure we are locked in on Saturday. It's a must-win situation. We can't look further ahead because that's when you get confused and slip up."
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