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Marquette meaningful in multiple ways

Vander Blue (right) and Marquette face Davidson in an NCAA Tournament game Thursday, March 21, 2013.

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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 8:21 p.m.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon preaches that every game is critical to his team, but none more so than the next one.

That's especially true for his No. 16 Panthers against No. 18 Marquette, which represents a meaningful game in a multitude of ways.

Not only does No. 16 Pitt (20-5, 8-4) have an opportunity to beat another nationally ranked opponent on the road Saturday in Milwaukee, but Marquette (17-6, 8-3) has a higher Ratings Percentage Index and is battling the Panthers in the Big East standings and beyond.

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.”

Not when Pitt has won seven of eight games since a 74-67 overtime loss to Marquette Jan. 12 at the Pete, including a home victory over No. 6 Syracuse.

Marquette marks one of two home losses for the Panthers this season. Pitt avenged the other by winning at Cincinnati, 62-52, last Saturday after losing to the Bearcats in their Big East opener.

Dixon doesn't discuss Pitt's RPI or projected seedings with his players, nor does he place more value on beating one Big East opponent over another.

“We've got a lot of good wins. I don't know if you can pick and choose which ones,” Dixon said. “You've just got to keep winning, obviously. The more, the better off you are.

“It's always up for argument, whether they look at ratings or RPI. I think they're probably looking at all of them when these guys select their decisions.”

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.

“Pitt isn't going to get overly dinged in terms of seeding (for playing) a weak non-conference schedule, because it does have some quality wins,” Palm said. “The committee definitely wants to see if you can beat NCAA-quality tournament teams away from home. That's the best thing you can do for your seed.”

Dixon takes a different approach, telling his team that if it's not getting better, it's getting worse and to take advantage of every opportunity.

“We're trying to win,” he said. “We understand that winning is a good thing, and we've got plenty of road wins. You've got to win every game you can, and that doesn't change.

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