Despite being short-handed and undersized, Marquette remains in contention for its best Big East finish and a coveted double bye in the conference tournament.
With some potentially tough games ahead, the 10th-ranked Golden Eagles likely can't afford to slip up against struggling Rutgers at home Wednesday night if they want to accomplish those goals.Marquette lost 6-foot-11 center Chris Otule for the season to a left knee injury in December, and 6-8 forward Davante Gardner hasn't played since Jan. 28 because of a sprained left knee. The absence of those former starters has left the Golden Eagles (22-5, 11-3) with nine available scholarship players and none taller than 6-7.However, they still managed to outrebound Connecticut 33-30 during a 79-64 road victory Saturday. Jae Crowder had 12 of those rebounds along with a career high-tying 29 points.Darius Johnson-Odom added 24 points to help Marquette stay tied with Notre Dame for second place in the Big East. The Golden Eagles, though, are only one game ahead of South Florida and 1 1/2 in front of No. 9 Georgetown.The top four finishers in the Big East earn automatic berths in the conference tournament quarterfinals and will play up to three games instead of as many as five."Winning five games in a row is tough," Crowder said. "UConn did it last year, so it's possible. But with that double bye, you have a greater chance, so that's what we're striving for."After facing Rutgers, the Golden Eagles will play road games against West Virginia and Cincinnati before hosting Georgetown in the regular-season finale March 3. That makes getting a win over the Scarlet Knights (12-15, 4-10) potentially crucial to their hopes for that double bye and its first top-three finish in the Big East.Rutgers enters this game having dropped five in a row with the past two coming to ranked teams. After being routed by Notre Dame last Wednesday, the Scarlet Knights were more competitive against visiting No. 2 Syracuse on Sunday but fell 74-64.Rutgers got within two points on seven occasions in the second half, the final time with 3:08 remaining before getting outscored 10-2 down the stretch.Sophomore Gilvydas Biruta matched a career high with 21 points after being held to single digits in 11 of his 12 previous contests. Leading scorer Eli Carter (13.4 ppg) was held to seven points on 3-of-13 shooting."I thought as far as the fight and the compete, this was probably one of the more consistent games we've played all month," coach Mike Rice said. "We just didn't finish plays."Rice's team upset a pair of top-10 opponents earlier this season -- Florida on Dec. 29 and Connecticut on Jan. 7 -- but both of those games were at home. Rutgers is 1-7 in true road games and has dropped 16 in a row away from home to ranked foes.The Scarlet Knights have lost five straight to Marquette since winning the initial meeting Feb. 12, 2006. They've also never won in three visits to the Bradley Center and have lost those games by an average of 24.4 points.Johnson-Odom tied a career high with 29 points during a 73-65 victory at Rutgers last season in these teams' most recent meeting.