Pitt getting ready for surging Marquette
Pitt isn't the only Big East team rewriting expectations this season.
Marquette, a Big East afterthought after losing three of the top players in the program's history, is the hottest team in the conference.
The sixth-place Golden Eagles have won five consecutive to put themselves into NCAA Tournament at-large contention and emerge as perhaps the Big East's biggest surprise heading into the final third of the season.
"They have some forgotten guys who've had great years," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "They've had guys step up."
No. 19 Pitt (19-6, 8-4), also picked in the bottom half of the Big East, will meet surging Marquette (16-8, 7-5) at 9 p.m. Thursday in a Milwaukee matchup of two teams dismissed by Big East coaches last October.
"It shows a lot of character in the players for both teams," Pitt guard Travon Woodall said, "that they are willing to fight after losing a lot of the key components."
Pitt, playing for the first time since its 98-95 triple-overtime victory against rival West Virginia, can clinch a 20-win season for the ninth consecutive year. Few expected such success from the inexperienced Panthers, who lost four starters.
"The seven guys they have that are returning, I think, have been magnificent," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "We'll have our hands full from the very beginning."
Marquette was in the same position, saying farewell to its trio of four-year starters — guards Jerel McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews, who rank first, third and ninth, respectively, on the school's all-time scoring list.
But Williams' team has used 3-point shooting and nifty ball-handling to rise into the upper-half of the Big East while earning resume-building wins over Georgetown and at Connecticut.
Marquette could have an even better record, but it lost four games — to Villanova (twice), West Virginia and one-win DePaul — by a total of six points. Three of the losses came on last possession shots.
Still, in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's most recent NCAA Tournament bracket, Marquette is included in the 65-team field for the first time this season.
Appropriately, the long shot is a big reason why Marquette is winning. The Golden Eagles rank No. 2 in the nation in 3-point accuracy (.423).
Senior Maurice Acker, a 5-foot-7 point guard, is shooting a Big East-best 50 percent from 3-point range. Guard Darius Johnson-Odom, a junior college transfer, is shooting 49.5 percent, which ranks second in the Big East.
In Big East games, Marquette is shooting nearly as well from 3-point range (43.4) as Pitt is shooting from the field (43.6).
"We just got to close out with our hands up and play defense," Pitt forward Nasir Robinson said. "We have to slide our feet and communicate."
The Golden Eagles, who typically play six players 6-6 or shorter, rarely beat themselves.
Acker has only 10 turnovers — to go with 46 assists — in 12 conference games, and senior guard David Cubillan has 34 assists and 11 turnovers in Big East play. They have helped Marquette to No. 4 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Also, senior forward Lazar Hayward is averaging 19.4 points and 10.4 rebounds during the five-game surge.
"It's amazing," Dixon said. "The year Acker is having and Cubillan, it speaks to their fortitude and their determination. Their opportunity comes, and they've taken it, and they've played very well."
Marquette is the only team Dixon has never beaten on the road. The Panthers are 0-3 at Bradley Center since the Golden Eagles joined the Big East four-plus years ago.
Only three Pitt players — Brad Wanamaker, Gilbert Brown and Gary McGhee — have played at Marquette. They combined for six points in a 72-54 loss two years ago that ranks as Dixon's second-worst Big East regular-season loss.
"A lot of us are going in there (with a 0-0 record)," Woodall said. "We're just trying to start off a new winning record. We're not thinking about 0-3."