After losing Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom to graduation and the NBA at the end of last season, expectations lowered a bit for this year's Marquette squad. Not to say that expectations were low, as most thought they'd still be an NCAA Tournament team, but no one was giving them a chance to win the Big East.
10 days from now the Big East regular season will have concluded, and for the time being, Marquette sits in second place only behind the Georgetown Hoyas. Monday night's win over Syracuse kept those Big East title hopes alive, but there is still work to be done.
If Marquette is able to manage a Big East regular season title, Buzz Williams surely must be considered for Big East Coach of the Year. No, this year's team does not have the stardom of a year ago, but to this point they've been just as effective as evidenced by their 11-4 league mark.
First things first, Marquette must win their remaining three games to give themselves any chance to win the Big East. One loss puts them out of the league race and two losses could very well move them from receiving the all important Big East Tournament double-bye.
The Golden Eagles match up with rival Notre Dame this Saturday in Milwaukee, looking to get revenge for last season's blowout win for ND in South Bend. Saturday marks Senior Day for Junior Cadougan, Chris Otule and Trent Lockett. Marquette has not lost at home since December 2011 against Vanderbilt.
The final two conference contests come on the road, at Rutgers and St. Johns. Rutgers is only 4-11 in Big East play, while St. Johns is 8-7 and in need of a marquee home win to pad their tournament resume. Neither are sure wins, but both are certainly attainable.
Marquette's first opportunity to regain a tie atop the Big East standings came on Wednesday night, as UCONN nearly upset Georgetown in double overtime. The Hoyas came out victorious, though there are still plenty of opportunities for top notch Big East teams to lose within the next week and a half.
Georgetown's remaining schedule comes against Rutgers, at Villanova and against Syracuse. Villanova has knocked off Marquette, Syracuse and Louisville at home this year and also in need of every win they can get to make the NCAA Tournament. The Hoyas conclude their regular season at home vs. Syracuse, whom they knocked off this past Saturday.
Louisville also has an 11-4 league record, with remaining games at Syracuse, and against Cincinnati and Notre Dame at the KFC Yum! Center. Syracuse knocked off Louisville earlier in the year and would love to finish off a season sweep.
Marquette split their season matchups with Georgetown, but lost their only battle against Louisville. The following scenario would give Marquette a share of the Big East title and #1 seed in New York.
Marquette beats Notre Dame, Rutgers, St. John's
Georgetown beats Rutgers, Villanova, but loses to Syracuse
Louisville beats Cincinnati and Notre Dame, but loses to Syracuse
Syracuse beats Louisville, DePaul, and Georgetown
1) Marquette 14-4
2) Georgetown 14-4
3) Syracuse 13-5
4) Louisville 13-5
If you hadn't heard of Davante Gardner before Monday night's game against Syracuse, you should know his name now. Gardner had nearly a perfect night shooting, hitting all seven of his shots from the field and knocking down 12 of 13 free throw attempts, only missing one as result of a technical foul on CJ Fair.
Gardner also pulled in eight rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end, while playing 33 minutes. This surpassed his season-high 30 minutes vs. Pitt and is well above his 21.3 minute season average coming off Buzz Williams' bench.
Gardner is second on the team in scoring at 12.1 points and first on the team with 5.0 rebounds. Gardner is "Automatic" from the charity stripe, converting on nearly 86 percent of his attempts. The 6'8", 290 pound junior from Suffolk, Virginia knows how to use his wide frame to his advantage and is a key to Marquette's success the rest of the way.
One distinct difference between Marquette and Syracuse's numbers on Monday was free throw shooting. Syracuse was only 5-for-7 from the line, while Marquette got into the teeth of the 'Cuse zone and drew contact leading to a 29-for-35 shooting performance from the charity stripe.
As shown previously, Davante Gardner led the way going 12-for-13. No Golden Eagle missed multiple free throws, though seven players converted at least one attempt. Without hitting the front ends of one-and-ones and leaving no empty possessions, Monday's result could have gone the other way.
Going right at Jack Cooley and trying to draw early fouls on him this Saturday could help put Marquette in good position to continue the nation's second longest home winning streak.
Per usual, Buzz Williams played a deep bench in Monday's win. He even went as far as playing 11 players, as 10 has been the number lately with Jake Thomas' decrease in playing time. In this game, Thomas played seven minutes and had a very rare four-point play that kept Marquette close in the first half.
Sophomores Juan Anderson and Derrick Wilson only saw the court for two minutes, well below their season averages. On the contrary, Junior Cadougan played a workman's-like 38 minutes, while Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner played 33 minutes off the bench.
Steve Taylor Jr. and Todd Mayo each played a productive 16 minutes also coming off the bench. Vander Blue struggled and only played 23 minutes, while starters Chris Otule and Trent Lockett combined for 30 minutes between the two.
Williams is started to sway away from his set rotations, which I like. For example, earlier in the year Gardner and Otule would only sub in for each other, while now there are times where both players are on the court together.
When your bench scores 55 points to your starter's 19 points, you have to play the hot hands. And that's exactly what Williams did against Syracuse.