Season On The Cusp

One hundred years ago, Marquette’s third basketball season was canceled due to World War I. There were not enough players to fill out rosters on teams around the Midwest, including the Hilltoppers’, under head coach Jack Ryan, so the university decided there would be no basketball during the 1918-19 season. The uncertainty carried over into the 1919-20 campaign, nearly making it a season on the brink, as the team did not begin play until January of 1920.

A century removed from the program’s only canceled season, Marquette came into this season with high expectations, which were reflected in its improved nonconference schedule and actually getting votes in the AP (No. 27) and Coaches (No. 30) preseason polls. The team was on the verge of making history of its own under coach Steve Wojciechowski: winning its first outright regular season Big East Conference Championship.

After completing a season sweep of Butler at the Fabulous Forum Feb. 20, combined with Villanova’s loss at Georgetown, Marquette sat alone atop the Big East with an 11-2 record, a game ahead of the 11-3 Wildcats, who are defending National Champions.

The month of February always presents a sense of urgency to teams in conferences around the country from the American Athletic (AAC) to the West Coast Conferences. Teams trying to rack up quality wins against big name opponents to improve their NET numbers, as well as strength of schedule, power index, BPI, KenPom, etc.

As February leaks into March, there is a sense of desperation by teams trying to make their case for NCAA Tournament consideration. In many cases these desperate efforts are too little, too late. The last chance to keep hope alive is the conference tournaments, where teams hope to go on a run to win three and four games in a row to get that precious automatic bid.

For one-bid conferences such as the Missouri Valley, the Patriot League or even this year the Pac 12, there are no second chances or other at-large opportunities. It’s winner take all.

Marquette, which had been hanging around the top 10 of both the AP and Coaches’ polls recently, had a good chance to solidify its first place perch and projected No. 3 seed in the Big Dance, but ran into a speed bump in Philadelphia when Villanova upset Marquette Feb. 27. Eighteen turnovers (including seven by star Markus Howard) undid MU on Villanova’s Senior Night. MU has not won in Philly since 2012, which was also the last year a Marquette team swept Villanova.

MU still had its chances to finish in sole possession of first place in the Big East with three games remaining to two for Villanova. But Marquette’s turnover troubles continued March 3 with a six-point home loss to Creighton, which needed a win to keep its hopes alive for the Big Dance.

Despite Howard’s 33 points, Marquette turned the ball over 22 times (six by Howard) and just seemed out of sorts against the aggressive, trapping defense of coach Greg McDermott’s Bluejays (16-13, 7-9 Big East), who took the game to MU on both ends of the floor. It was the first time this season MU had lost two games in a row.

The Big East has had a down year this season. It is not as highly considered as the ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Big 10, which will certainly impact the number of NCAA bids the conference receives as well as the quality of those bids. Yet, the 10-team conference has been as competitive as it ever has been since downsizing to its present size before the 2013-14 season. There have been no gimmes at all – at home or on the road.

With an overall record of 23-6 (12-4 Big East), this is the third season of 20 or more wins and second straight 20-win season under Wojciechowski, now in his fifth year as head coach. Though the team did not receive an NCAA bid last season, it did go to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), advancing to the quarterfinals before losing to Penn State at the McGuire Center. It finished 21-14 overall.

While Howard, Sacar Anim, Theo John, Sam Hauser, Greg Elliott, Matt Heldt and Jamal Cain all earned NIT experience, only Howard, Anim, Heldt and Hauser have NCAA Tournament experience, having lost to South Carolina in the first round two years ago.

Marquette and Villanova remain atop the conference while the other eight teams are bunched together, scratching and clawing their way to a .500 or better conference record.Madison Square Garden is once again host for the Big East Conference Tournament, beginning March 13. The World’s Most Famous Arena could give one of those teams, St. John’s, a leg up as it fights for a bid, seeing as though it is the Johnnies’ de facto home court. No teams are looking forward to playing Chris Mullin’s team in The Gahden, including Marquette, which was swept by St. John’s this season.

Before the tournament gets underway, Marquette has two regular season games left: March 6 at Seton Hall and March 9 in Milwaukee against Georgetown, which is MU’s Senior Day.

Since its recent two-game slump, Marquette has slipped in the top 25 polls (No. 16 from No. 10 in AP; No. 15 from No. 9 in the Coaches poll) and in bracketologists’ NCAA projections, dropping from a No. 3 to a No. 4 seed. Despite that slippage, both Jay Bilas and ESPN‘s Myron Medcalf list the team as one of 16 with a chance to reach the Final Four in Minneapolis. MU also checked in at No. 14 in NBC Sports top 25 and Sports Illustrated‘s Power Index, as of March 5.

What Marquette has going for it is good health, and it is among the top 10 in the country in three-point shooting percentage. This is also the best defensive team Wojciechowski has had in his time at MU. His previous teams were forced to outscore opponents because the defense was subpar. Wojciechowski has a solid rim protector in the 6’9″ John, a raw sophomore talent who is learning how to stay aggressive without fouling. John is spelled by Nebraska transfer Ed Morrow, who has given the team a big lift under the basket with his powerful rebounding prowess.

But turnovers have continually hurt the team all year. Over the last four games MU has given up the ball 15, 14, 18 and 22 times. There have been 10 games this season where it has committed at least 17 turnovers. According to the website Big East Coast Bias, MU is 243rd in the country with 13.8 turnovers a game, which could keep Marquette from a deep tournament run. Howard, who is averaging over 25 points a game, is in the running for the Bob Cousy and Wooden Awards as well as Big East and National Player of the Year honors. The flip side of his outstanding junior season is that he is second in the country in turnover percentage (15.9%) and has committed 3.9 turnovers per game among players with the highest Usage percentage. (Howard is at 36.5% Usage.) That is 17th highest among all players, according to Big East Coast Bias, which added that Joe Chartouny (34.8%), John (20.05%) and Joey Hauser (20%), all rank in the top 15 in highest turnover percentage in the Big East. In order for the team to advance in the Big Dance, the turnovers have to be cut down.

Finally, Marquette does not have a true point guard. It was hoped that Fordham graduate transfer Chartouny could come in and complement Howard at the point, but his inconsistent play has kept him anchored to the bench. While he led the NCAA in steals last season, Chartouny has just shown flashes of his old self when spelling Howard. His ball handling has not been solid and he has not shot the ball consistently with confidence.

Marquette still has an outside chance at getting that first outright Big East title, but it will need help. Seton Hall would have to defeat Villanova in the Pirates’ final home game of the year, while MU must win its final two games of the year at Seton Hall and in its home finale against the Hoyas.

How well Marquette finishes the season and Big East Tournament will go a long way toward determining its eventual seeding. A No. 3 or No. 4 seed should allow MU to advance past the first weekend of the Tournament since Buzz Williams took the team to the Elite Eight during the 2012-13 season. All of the aforementioned caveats point to this as a season on the cusp. A basketball team that is still a year away from breaking through for a deep run in the tournament. As a result, a Sweet 16 finish is certainly within the realm of possibilities based on what the team has accomplished in and out of conference this season and considering its obvious weaknesses.

It is also important to keep in mind that Wojciechowski has yet to win his first NCAA Tournament game as a head coach. While Wojo, as he is affectionately known, has looked much more confident in huddles and on the sidelines, he needs to get over the hump and win that first game on the big stage of the Big Dance. As all coaches know, getting that first win in the tournament is the toughest.

This season on the cusp is giving all of us a glimpse into the potential of this team as it prepares for great seasons ahead in this new Marquette century.