Nearly every time I've written about Marquette this season, I've found it necessary to evangelize on this team's behalf. "The Golden Eagles are better than you think!" "This offense is elite!" "Don't be surprised if Marquette upsets Team X ... in fact, it might not even be an upset at all! Hi-oh!" And so on.
All of those things are still true. I'll keep saying them until they're not. In the meantime, though, it'd be nice if Marquette backed up all this tempo-free excellence and deserving praise with a few more notches in the win column, too.
The Golden Eagles lost to No. 5 Connecticut 76-68 in Milwaukee last night. There's no shame in losing at home to the same team that beat Texas in Austin just three weeks ago, but Marquette has to see this one as a blown opportunity. Not only did Connecticut guard Kemba Walker have his worst game of the season (14 points, 5-of-16 shooting, 0-of-5 from 3), but Marquette led by five with about eight minutes remaining. That's when UConn went on its run, a 13-point outburst that gave Connecticut a late 68-60 lead from which the Huskies never looked back. UConn closed the game on a 21-8 run, and that was that.
This was not as devastating a defeat as the one Marquette suffered at Louisville on Jan. 15. Jimmy Butler and company thoroughly controlled that game and appeared set to cruise to a victory before Louisville rallied all the way back from an 18-point deficit with seven minutes left in the game, eventually winning 71-70 thanks to guard Preston Knowles' last-second heroics.
Marquette should have won at Louisville. It could have won Tuesday. The Louisville game was a gut-punch all-timer; Tuesday night's loss was merely a letdown. Either way, that's at least two major missed opportunities for wins over ranked teams -- not to mention Saturday's loss at Notre Dame, in which the Irish put together a 13-2 run in the second half to erase Marquette's halftime lead -- opportunities the Eagles desperately need to seize if they're want to start impressing pollsters and selection committee members as much as they've impressed those who track per-possession statistics. In the eyes of the former, Marquette is a bubble team. In the eyes of the latter -- as John Gasaway noted this week -- Marquette is one of the best four or five teams in the Big East.
Those are two disparate perceptions, and they're happening because, much like last season's Eagles, Buzz Williams' team only ever seems to play close games. Tuesday night's eight-point loss tied for the largest margin of defeat Marquette has suffered all season.
At some point, though, it's not enough to just be a tough out. It's not enough to compete on a tempo-free basis. Bottom line, you have to win games, and when you have chances to beat ranked teams, sooner or later you have to take them.