The No. 18 Marquette Golden Eagles (20-5, 9-3 Big East) will look to begin a new streak when they square off against the Cincinnati Bearcats (17-7, 7-4 Big East) Saturday afternoon at the Bradley Center.
Darius Johnson-Odom led the way in a second half comeback win, 89-76 over DePaul on Monday night. Head coach Buzz Williams called the Golden Eagles’ second half surge the most important 20 minutes the team has played all year.
“Considering it was a back-to-back road game, considering it was off a loss, it was the most important half we have played,” Williams said. “And that’s what I told our kids at halftime.”
Senior Jae Crowder and redshirt sophomore forward Jamil Wilson, who is starting in place of the injured sophomore Davante Gardner, have picked up the slack on the interior and will have their hands full facing Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates.
The 6-foot-9, 260-pound senior forward is averaging 12.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game this year, but Marquette has held him in check in the past. Gates averages 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in three career games against the Golden Eagles.
Crowder and Wilson have seen increased roles since injuries to redshirt junior Chris Otule’s and Gardner. The two had their most dominant performance of the season Monday against DePaul. Both recorded double-doubles, combining for 32 points and 21 rebounds.
Wilson’s production, in particular, has given Marquette a second interior scorer in Gardner’s absence. Since Gardner injured his knee in the final seconds against Villanova on Jan. 28, Wilson has averaged 11.0 points on 48 percent shooting in his past three games, including a career-high 18 points against DePaul.
“He’s playing big time, and he’s a great player,” sophomore guard Vander Blue said. “I feel like it hasn’t been that big of a change for him. He can play pretty much the one through the five, and he’s doing a great job.”
Past Gates, Marquette will match up against Cincinnati much better than it has other Big East foes. Cincinnati has implemented a four-guard offense since handing out six-game suspensions to Gates, 6-foot-10 junior Cheikh Mbodj and 6-foot-9 freshman Octavius Ellis for their actions in a Dec. 10 on-court brawl with Xavier.
Junior guard Sean Kilpatrick (15.4 points) and senior guard Dion Dixon (13.5 points) have led the way for Cincinnati, with point guard Cashmere Wright averaging 10.8 points and 4.7 assists.
Waiting for the Cincinnati guards will be a Marquette backcourt that has played as well as any backcourt in the conference the past two weeks.
Along with the improved play of junior guard Junior Cadougan and Blue, Johnson-Odom has been a consistent threat for the Golden Eagles. The senior guard is averaging 19.0 points per game in conference play and is drawing 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes, the sixth-most for Big East guards.
“My mentality is to try to get to the paint and try to get in the bonus as quick as possible,” Johnson-Odom said. “That’s when we’re a real good team: When we’re able to shoot free throws and stop the clock. When we’re able to get paint touches and force the other team to foul we’re real good.”
Johnson-Odom will have his work cut out getting to the line on Saturday. Cincinnati opponents average 14.1 free throw attempts per game, fifth fewest in the nation. On Monday, Marquette attempted 23 free throws, making 22.
Cincinnati enters the game losers in three of its past five contests and tied for fifth in the Big East, a game and a half behind Marquette.
Saturday afternoon will be the first of two meetings between these squads. The Golden Eagles will travel to Cincinnati on Feb. 29. Marquette has won three straight games against Cincinnati before the Bearcats spoiled the Golden Eagles’ senior day last year, winning 67-60 at the Bradley Center.