Buzz Williams' Marquette basketball squad enters Big East play with an 8-5 record, tied for worst in the conference with the DePaul Blue Demons.
Marquette has played a tough slate and doesn't have any bad losses, though its only noteworthy win came against George Washington.
The Golden Eagles have dealt with injuries, transfers and suspensions before the new year, but are primed for another finish atop, or near the top, of the conference standings. Villanova and Creighton appear to be MU's main competition, among others, in the hunt for the restructured conference's inaugural championship.
Here's what needs to happen for Marquette to win its second consecutive Big East regular-season title.
Four of Marquette's first six conference games come on the road, with treks to Creighton, Xavier, Butler and Georgetown on the slate. The Golden Eagles will host DePaul and Seton Hall during the six-game stretch to tip off Big East play.
Marquette should shoot to go 4-2, possibly 5-1, during those six contests. Splitting those four road games against perennial NCAA tournaments would be a win in itself, while home games against Seton Hall and DePaul may be the Golden Eagles' two easiest wins the rest of the season.
While the new Big East does not offer the same horsepower at the top of the standings, eight of the 10 teams in the conference have NCAA tournament aspirations. Aside from Villanova, no team has been overly impressive in staying in the NCAA tournament hunt, meaning many down-to-the-wire contests.
Marquette's five non-conference losses will make its hopes of making the NCAA tournament that much tougher, especially considering that the Big East hasn't been great. Nonetheless, Marquette has the talent and coaching to win the conference title that it was projected to win before the season started.
MU's five defeats this season have to Ohio State, San Diego State, Wisconsin, Arizona State and New Mexico. The Ohio State loss ended Marquette's home winning streak at 27 games—the longest active home streak in the nation at the time—as the Golden Eagles struggled to score, notching only 35 points in the contest.
The other four losses came away from home and none were by more than eight points. In the long run, road battles will make this MU squad tougher, something it has appeared to lack at times compared to other recent Marquette squads coached by Buzz Williams.
Before ever playing a game for Marquette, Jameel McKay decided to leave the program and then transferred to play for Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State. Todd Mayo's early-season success has been marred by missed games because of injury and suspension, as MU lost both contests that Mayo sat out.
Duane Wilson recently decided to redshirt his first season as a Golden Eagle, a good move in the long run, but unfortunate for the short term considering Marquette's slim backcourt. Wilson has been hampered by a leg injury, but will be eligible to play for four seasons starting in 2014-15.
Steve Taylor Jr. was also a candidate to redshirt this season with lingering injuries that limited him in the offseason. After sitting out three games, Taylor returned for the New Mexico game to play four minutes, but did not see the floor in its most recent win over Samford.
Marquette has gone a perfect 9-0 in each of the past two seasons for conference home games while finishing second and tying for first in the Big East standings, respectively. In order to reach the peak of Big East supremacy again, the Golden Eagles cannot slip up at home this season either.
Home games of note for Marquette will be against 11th-ranked Villanova, Creighton and St. John's to close the regular season on March 8. Last March, Vander Blue willed Marquette to a three-way share of the Big East title with a game-winning layup to beat the Johnnies at Madison Square Garden.
The rule of thumb to win conference titles is to protect home court, win against inferior opponents on the road and steal a close game or two in between. Marquette will play in its share of close contests based on its hard-nosed defensive style of play, but will need to come out victorious in those battles.
With a perfectly balanced 18-game schedule in a 10-team conference, every team will get the chance to match up twice, once on each team's home court. That is quite different from the 16-team Big East of the past, where some teams had much more favorable conference slates than others.
I don't see any team finishing with a record better than 14-4, as plenty of schools—Marquette included—are much more dangerous on their home courts than they are on the road. Even with only one loss for Villanova, the Wildcats' only noteworthy wins came against Kansas and Iowa on a neutral court.
The former Big East conference was very top-heavy, but also contained a handful of poor teams at the bottom. While the conference doesn't have the same star power this season, there will be plenty of parody between teams fighting for their lives to win the conference title or secure their bids for the NCAA tournament.