As the Marquette men’s basketball team pushes toward an NCAA Tournament berth, there’s still one crucial piece missing from its resume: a quality road win.
Coach Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles (16-11, 7-7 Big East) will try to accomplish that tonight when they square off against Big East Player of the Year candidate Kemba Walker and the No. 14/15 Connecticut Huskies (20-6, 8-6 Big East).
The Golden Eagles are a scant 3-8 away from the Bradley Center, including neutral-court losses to Duke and Gonzaga, and missed crucial opportunities to close out games at Louisville and Notre Dame earlier in the season.
With just tonight’s tilt and a meeting at Seton Hall remaining for the Golden Eagles on the road, the team knows this is its last real chance to show its talent.
“Connecticut is one of the top teams in the nation,” senior forward Jimmy Butler said. “It’s at their place, and we have to get a quality road win, so this is a great chance to get one.”
Butler knows the XL Center all too well, where a year ago he finished with 21 points, including the go-ahead basket with 2.4 seconds to give Marquette a 70-68 victory.
Fast forward a year and there are plenty of similarities to this contest. The Huskies are once again ranked and playing solid basketball, while Marquette is looking for a signature road win. But if the Golden Eagles want to re-create history, they’ll first have to learn from a home loss to the Huskies on Jan. 25.
Freshman forward Jeremy Lamb scored a career-high 24 points that night as the Huskies held Marquette in check for much of the game before pulling away late. Walker finished with 14 points and nine assists, but the Golden Eagles know not to expect another offensive letdown from the junior guard, who averages 22.9 points per contest.
“We have to guard him and not let him get going,” freshman guard Vander Blue said of Walker. “It’s going to take team defense. One player can’t stop him because he’s such a great player, so we’re going to have to stop him as a team.”
The Golden Eagles enter tonight’s affair fresh off a 73-64 home win against Seton Hall Saturday night, a win Butler said has the team confident heading into the Connecticut game.
The Golden Eagles got some of their offensive swagger back in the win, shooting 55.1 percent from the field and having five players score in double figures for the first time since they did it in a Jan. 18 win over DePaul, 94-64.
Marquette will have to continue the offensive balance against Connecticut. The Huskies rank second in the Big East in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 39.3 percent shooting while grabbing 40.5 rebounds per game, also second-best in the conference.
“We know we have to turn it up a little bit more and get these games,” junior forward Jae Crowder said. “This is a big game on the road for us coming up. We know if we get this one, it’d be great momentum going forward.”
While the Golden Eagles don’t necessarily need a victory over Connecticut in order to make the NCAA Tournament, especially with three unranked teams on the schedule to close the year out, no one is taking the Huskies lightly.
“We have to win every game from here on out to give us a real good chance,” Butler said. “I definitely think it’s possible if we do what we’re supposed to do, and we know what we have to do.”