My assignment was to give five questions for this Marquette team as they head into the meat of their conference schedule. The questions are supposed to help determine if the Golden Eagles can make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament.
The thing is, there aren’t five burning questions this team needs to answer—there’s just one.
Can they keep it up?
Or, more specifically, will they come up against a big man that they can’t handle?
This is a team that’s incredibly aware of both its shortcomings and its advantages.
They’re lacking size, but feature a backcourt that hasn't been matched by any other team in the country. It would be hard to make an argument against Jerel McNeal as the top guard in the nation. Dominic James is arguably the fastest player in the country, and actually seems to get faster with the ball in his hand.
The number one question entering conference play was how well Marquette would be able to handle the much larger front-courts of Big East teams like Pitt, Louisville, UConn, Notre Dame and Georgetown.
Marquette’s answer? So far, so good.
Despite a glaring size disadvantage, the Golden Eagles have managed to start their conference schedule 8-0.
How crucial is the size difference? In Saturday’s game, Marquette’s biggest man was 6’8” Dwight Burke, who played 26 minutes. Burke wouldn’t even be the fourth biggest guy on Georgetown.
After Saturday’s win, coach Buzz Williams was quick to point out that if MU continues to let opposing teams shoot 56 percent, they’ll lose a lot more games. He knows that his team needs to improve. He makes sure they know it, too.
But how does a team out-sized and out-shot dominate the second half of play? By out-rebounding the Hoyas and taking 25 more free-throws. Marquette had 30 points from the charity stripe. Georgetown had eight.
In any given game, Marquette features four players in James, McNeal, Lazar Hayward, and Wes Matthews that can put up 20-to-25 points. Teams can’t defend that.
And while those four are doing most of the offensive work—Marquette did not have one bench point during the Notre Dame win—it’s the lesser-known players that are making a difference on defense.
Maurice Aker was named team player of the week against Notre Dame despite not scoring a single point. The honor was given because he held the Irish’s Kyle McAlarney to just nine points.
On Saturday, McNeal posted 26 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, five blocks, and three rebounds. What player, in any conference, is putting up numbers like that? Remember, too, that McNeal isn’t even the primary ball-handler.
One of Marquette’s biggest strengths is its ability to steal balls without committing
fouls. This is where the team’s quickness and the tempo they play show up in the box score. They aren’t afraid to push the pace or move the ball into the paint. They get inside and allow those oversized defenses to foul them.
That defensive pressure has been the key to Marquette’s ability to over-power bigger teams.
However, despite the 8-0 start, there are those out there who think Marquette is a “pretender." They point to Notre Dame and Geogetown’s poor conference records as proof that the Golden Eagles have yet to get a marquee win.
Since when do dominant wins over Notre Dame and Georgetown get you no credibility in not only the Big East, but the NCAA as a whole?
The early-season losses to Tennessee and Dayton will continue to haunt Marquette in their quest to be considered a legit team. Their win over Wisconsin early in the season continues to hold less credibility as UW continues its slide.
Every team in the Big East has a stretch in the conference schedule that is daunting. Unfortunately for Marquette, their most difficult stretch comes in the final five games of the season. A poor run there could leave a foul taste in the mouths of the NCAA selection committee.
However, that five game stretch doesn’t look as scary as it once did. It opens at Georgetown, a team they just beat convincingly. UConn comes to Milwaukee, now one of the loudest and hardest to play places in the country.
From there, Marquette faces perhaps the toughest test of any Big East team, as they have Louisville and Pitt back-to-back on the road. They close the season out at Syracuse, which is a far less scary game than it seemed at the beginning of the season.
What first looked like a five-game minefield could now be Marquette’s path to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After all, it’s been universally accepted that the Big East is men’s basketball’s toughest conference. If a team is the best of the toughest conference, shouldn’t they be rewarded?
It will be interesting to see what the selection committee does, should that occur. Marquette’s non-conference schedule doesn’t compare to teams like Pitt and Louisville, but if the Golden Eagles come out on top of the scrum, I’m not sure how they could be left in the cold.