Marquette-Syracuse preview: Plenty on the line tonight

Both Marquette and Syracuse squandered opportunities to remain in first place on Saturday, and one team will have the chance to make up for it when the two teams square off tonight in Milwaukee.

The Orange saw an NCAA-best 38-game home winning streak disappear after Otto Porter scored 33 points for Georgetown in a 57-46 Hoyas win. Syracuse shot 34 percent, committed 16 turnovers and missed 16 of its 20 3-pointer in the loss, dropping the Orange to 10-4 and a tie for second in the Big East.

Marquette also began Saturday atop the Big East, but a similar offensive disappearing act did in the Golden Eagles in a 60-56 loss at Villanova. They managed to shoot 45 percent, but committed 19 turnovers and 19 fouls, leading to 17 Villanova point off turnovers and 25 free throw attempts.

Can Vander Blue rise to the occasion against his toughest opponent (and zone) to date?

Can Vander Blue rise to the occasion against his toughest opponent (and zone) to date?

Both teams are in tough spots and desperately need wins down the stretch to have a shot at a Big East title. Marquette split the season series with the Hoyas (11-3) and the Orange will play them once more, so both teams are still in position to challenge for a regular season championship.

The deciding factor tonight likely will be Marquette’s ability to score against the Syracuse zone. In 2012-’13, the Orange have played zone defense almost 93 percent of the time, when opponents are shooting just 33 percent from the field. Jim Boeheim’s famous zone look is sure to give the Marquette offense fits, as the Golden Eagles have struggled mightily when opponents leave man-to-man looks.

And if Saturday were any indication, the Golden Eagles may be burned if they can’t take care of the ball. In Big East play, Marquette has turned the ball over on 20 percent of its possessions, the fifth worst mark in the conference. Conversely, Syracuse is turning over opponents on 23 percent of possessions, the second best mark in the Big East. If the Golden Eagles aren’t careful, Syracuse’s press and zone could make life difficult.

And at the top of the list of individuals who Marquette must watch out for is sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams. He’s fourth in the country at 3.0 steals per game, and his 5.1 steal percentage is 15th in the country. He has recorded a steal in all but one game, and has 18 games of three or more steals. He’s also second in the country at 8.0 assists per game, and his 12.5 points and 4.9 rebounds complement him as one of the top players in the conference.

Not to be forgotten in the backcourt is senior Brandon Triche. He leads the Orange with 14.7 points per game, and he’s an experienced player who won’t be fazed by the atmosphere tonight. He’s second on the team in 3-point makes, too.

The only 3-point specialist ahead of him is stretch-forward James Southerland. He missed six games due to academic issues, but has averaged 14.2 points and 3.2 3-pointers since his return. Marquette has the personnel to match up with him, but he’s a tough guard no matter who draws the assignment.

Southerland comes off the bench, but one man who has left the bench in favor of the starting lineup is junior forward C.J. Fair. His 14.2 points on 48 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds lead the way for a frontcourt who has missed the departures of Fab Melo and Kris Joseph.

Underclassmen centers Rakeem Christmas, Jerami Grant and DaJuan Coleman rotate with Fair inside, and all three stand 6-foot-9. As is the case most years, the Orange allow a fair share of offensive rebounds to opponents but these three could give Davante Gardner and Chris Otule trouble on the blocks.

Christmas, Baye Keita and Fair make up an interior defense leading the country in block percentage (19.9). Their 6.8 blocks per game are fourth in the country, and combined with Carter-Williams’ steals few shots come easy against the Orange.

The easiest shots will come at the 3-point line, where opponents are shooting 31 percent in conference play. That may not play into Marquette’s hands, though it may be necessary to keep pace with the Orange’s transition offense.

The winner of tonight’s game still has a chance to compete with Georgetown for a Big East title, while the loser will be in jeopardy of missing out on a top-4 seed in the conference tournament. The stakes are high enough, and it will also be the last regular season conference matchup between the two teams.

Game on.

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