Marquette is hoping to gain a share of the Big East lead, while Notre Dame is trying to continue its unexpected surge to further tighten the crowded race.
A meeting at the Bradley Center would appear to be just what the Golden Eagles need.No. 22 Marquette concludes its home schedule by going for a 25th win in a row there Saturday when it faces the stingy 21st-ranked Fighting Irish.The Golden Eagles (20-7, 11-4) enter the final three games of the regular season tied with No. 10 Louisville for second place in the conference, one game back of Georgetown and one ahead of Notre Dame (22-6, 10-5) and 12th-ranked Syracuse in fourth.The race could become even tighter with the Cardinals visiting the Orange earlier in the day, while the Hoyas host Rutgers in the evening.Marquette seems to have a favorable schedule remaining, visiting Rutgers on Tuesday before ending the regular season at St. John's next Saturday.First, the Golden Eagles will need to beat the Fighting Irish for the sixth time in seven meetings at the Bradley Center since 1997. They stunned ninth-ranked Notre Dame 79-57 in the latest matchup there Jan. 10, 2011. However, they fell 76-59 in South Bend on Feb. 4, 2012, in the only meeting last season.A change of venue could benefit Marquette, which has held opponents to 40.8 percent during its run at home, including 17 straight wins in Big East play.Davante Gardner did his part to keep that run going Monday, scoring a career-high 26 points with eight rebounds in a 74-71 win over Syracuse. That was a welcome change for coach Buzz Williams, who benched the junior forward for all but 11 minutes as he mustered two points during last Saturday's 60-56 loss at Villanova."Against their zone he understands where their gap is," Williams said of Gardner, who hit all seven field goals and went 12 of 13 from the free-throw line Monday. "He just understands space and obviously he did a really good job."Gardner may also be helped by playing at home, where he averages 14.6 points in league play compared to 8.6 on the road.Another big effort may be needed since the Irish have won seven of nine since captain Scott Martin's collegiate career ended with a knee injury. That run followed a 1/3 stretch and has put them in the Big East race."We're in the middle of this thing, and let's keep going," coach Mike Brey said.They're also playing superb defense of late.Notre Dame limited then-No. 20 Pittsburgh to 34.8 percent from the floor in a 51-42 victory Feb. 18. The Fighting Irish followed that up with their best defensive effort of the season in Sunday's 62-41 win over Cincinnati, holding the Bearcats to 31.5 percent shooting.They've allowed only 2 of 20 from beyond the arc while amassing an 83-52 rebounding advantage in those wins."Maybe we're finding our identity here on that defensive end of the floor and rebounding the basketball," Brey said.Jack Cooley leads Notre Dame with a career-high 14.4 points per game, while his 11.0 boards lead the Big East. The senior forward, though, was held to eight of each against Marquette last year, while swingman Pat Connaughton led the way with 23 and 11, respectively.Connaughton has totaled 13 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 4 for 17 from the floor -- 4 for 14 from beyond the arc -- over the past three games.