The Marquette Golden Eagles storm into Louisville on Wednesday night with opportunity knocking and an old score to settle.
Marquette controls its own destiny in the pursuit of a first-round bye at next week's Big East Tournament. With two wins this week, the Golden Eagles would wrap up a fourth-place regular season finish in the Big East. First up are the Louisville Cardinals, one of the country's most disappointing teams this season -- and owners of a humiliating 47-point victory over Marquette last season. The game will be televised on the ESPN Full Court package beginning at 7pm EST.
What a difference a year makes. Last season, Louisville embarrassed an undermanned Marquette team 99-52, the worst loss in MU's rich basketball history. Louisville went on to the Final Four, while Marquette limped to a disappointing 19-12 finish. 2005-2006 was supposed to be another banner year for Louisville, but injuries, transfers, and a lack of skilled veteran players snowballed into 17-10 overall record, and a 5-9 Big East record. The Cardinals have lost two of their last three, including a 68-64 loss at West Virginia on Saturday. Once ranked as high fourth in the polls this season, Rick Pitino's crew is now struggling to earn a bid to the Big East Tournament.
Meanwhile, Marquette is playing for tournament seeding. Steve Novak, who needs four 3-pointers to pass Ray Allen as the Big East's single season leader in that category, leads the Golden Eagles on their final road trip of the season. Louisville counters with senior Taquan Dean, who is averaging 16ppg on 45% shooting from beyond the arc. Dean, playing his last game in Freedom Hall, will be honored in senior day events at the game.
While Louisville will rely on emotion to carry the day, Marquette's primary interest will be that extra day of rest in New York City next week. The Golden Eagles are among the hottest teams in the conference after ripping off three straight wins, including a convincing road win at Notre Dame over the weekend. Steve Novak led MU with 21 points and 11 rebounds, his first outing of more than 20 points on the road in more than a month. Novak, who has always shot the ball well in Freedom Hall, led MU in scoring against the Irish despite shooting an uncharacteristic 6-15 from the field.
The victory over the Irish was keyed by MU's defensive pressure on the prolific duo of Chris Quinn and Colin Falls. Wesley Matthews, who locked up Falls for most of the night, will join Jerel McNeal as the likely defensive matchups for the prolific Dean.
A major reason for Marquette's current three-game winning streak has been their ability to protect the basketball. Earlier in the season, Marquette was a turnover-prone bunch but has managed to limit miscues to a manageable 10 per game in the last four contests. Despite being undermanned, the Cardinals remain one of the Big East's best at forcing turnovers, unlike Notre Dame and Georgetown. Dominic James, who has just six turnovers in the last four games, will be called upon to continue his efficient play in the backcourt. Protecting the basketball also helped MU solve another festering problem this season, recapturing second half leads. In each of the last three outings, Marquette's opponents have taken late leads only to have the Golden Eagles respond with clutch play in the closing minutes to secure the win.
The Golden Eagles appear to be peaking at the right time. Improved rebounding, offensive efficiency and defense have all been on display in the current winning streak. On Wednesday night, the Golden Eagles will look to extend the streak before returning home on Saturday to close out the regular season.