In October, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman made it clear that she expected the new league to immediately snatch a spot toward the top of the college basketball hierarchy. The conference boss didn’t preach a two-year, three-year or five-year vision.
Nope. Ackerman emphasized that the league could win big in 2013-14.
She was right.
Although the conference didn’t end the nonconference season with the splash some had anticipated, there are still four Big East squads ranked in the top 50 of ESPN’s RPI (Georgetown, Creighton, Xavier and Villanova).
But Marquette, the preseason favorite to win the inaugural title in the new Big East, might not be a top-100 squad anymore. The Golden Eagles were ranked 95th in the RPI before Thursday night’s 86-79 loss at Xavier.
They had a chance in that game.
They were down 46-34 with 17 minutes, 14 seconds to play.
Nearly 10 minutes later, a Davante Gardner layup tied the game 60-60. It was a remarkable rally in a hostile environment.
And suddenly, Marquette began to look like the old Marquette again.
That team that appeared to be the best program in the conference, along with Creighton, before any games were ever played. That squad that brought back Gardner and other pieces from a team that won a slice of the former Big East crown and reached the Elite Eight in one of the most stunning runs of last year’s NCAA tournament.
That achievement seems ancient now, with Buzz Williams’ squad owning a modest 9-7 record after it failed to finish against the Musketeers.
It’s important to note that three of those seven losses came against squads currently in the top 15 (San Diego State, Wisconsin and Ohio State). And losses to New Mexico in Las Vegas and defeats on the road against Xavier and Creighton were not inconceivable, either. The loss at Arizona State, Marquette’s worst of the season, wasn’t horrible.
Many non-elite teams would incur similar damage if they’d faced that slate.
Marquette should be elite, though. Thursday was another opportunity for the Golden Eagles to shake their funk and compete against a program that has gone from Big East sleeper to legit contender.
Now, it seems, the Golden Eagles are a second-tier team in the Big East. Only a sliver of potential remains. They don’t have any signature wins. And their RPI proves as much.
If they’re going to turn the corner, it has to happen soon.
But that won’t happen if they continue to approach late-game deficits with poor shot selection or if they give up 86 points again or if they can’t find playmakers when they need them.
In the final minutes of Thursday’s loss, Gardner had room to drive to the lane. Instead, he took a bad 17-footer near the top of the key. Why? Jake Thomas went 5-for-11 from the 3-point line against Xavier, but he passed on a wide-open 3-pointer late. Why?
Offense was an obvious concern entering the season. Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett had all departed. That was more than 30 points per game for the Golden Eagles. In games like the one Marquette was in Thursday, it’s at definite a disadvantage because it lacks the offensive diversity that it was blessed with last season.
But the collective absence of those players, Williams told local reporters earlier this week, is no excuse for the team’s struggles.
“Junior [Cadougan] was not that good a player,” Williams told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Vander was OK. Trent Lockett statistically was average.”
Still, Marquette is ranked 118th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. The Golden Eagles entered Thursday’s game with the Big East’s worst scoring offense (71.4 points per game).
Marquette, however, was also holding its opponents to 63.1 PPG, the top mark in the league. Against Xavier, Marquette had no answer for NBA prospect Semaj Christon (28 points). The Musketeers shot 52 percent from the field.
The Golden Eagles have given up 70 points or more in four of their seven losses.
Their problems are on both ends of the floor.
The good news for Marquette is that the young talent on its roster should blossom in the coming years. Freshman Duane Wilson redshirted after suffering a leg injury. First-year man Deonte Burton had 13 points in Thursday’s game. JaJuan Johnson, the 27th-rated player in the 2013 class per Recruiting Nation, will continue to grow.
Right now, they’re just members of a program that hasn’t met the preseason standard and is at top of the list for disappointing teams in college basketball.
There’s still time for Marquette to have a revival and catch the winning spirit. That’s college basketball. The teams trapped in a ditch in early January can climb out of it by February. And maybe that will happen with this Marquette squad.
Thursday’s game wasn’t exactly promising, though.
It was more of the same.
Marquette just didn’t have enough. Again.