Losses to Cincinnati and Seton Hall had Marquette fans seriously questioning this teams' resume, and whether or not it was good enough to get into the NCAA Tournament. A 9-9 conference record, with an unimpressive 18-13 overall mark, meant that if noise was not made by Buzz's team in Madison Square Garden, the NIT might be a realistic option for the Golden Eagles.
Their journey started against the Providence Friars, a team Marquette had handled with great ease in the regular season, winning 86-62 at the Bradley Center on February 27th. Their second encounter at the Garden: more of the same. You could tell what type of night it was going to be early for the Friars, with the Golden Eagles taking a 17-0 lead to start proceedings. Marshon Brooks, the record holder for most points in a Big East game with 52 earlier this year against Notre Dame, was once again contained fairly well, even though he scored 20 points. Brooks said after the game, as he did after the first game, that Marquette defended him better than any other team this year.
After this game, confidence was high for the team, and it looked like a NCAA Tournament berth was all but inevitable. Another win against West Virginia would leave no doubt. The Golden Eagles had already beaten Bob Huggins' Mountaineers, 79-74 on New Year's Day, behind Jae Crowder's 29 points and Darius Johnson Odom's 21. One of those guys would make a difference, but in the second half, Junior Cadougan put on a clinic of how to control the tempo of a game, and how to bring your team back into a game. His aggressiveness in transition was the difference for Marquette, and on one of those fast breaks, he found the other hero: Darius Johnson-Odom. DJO hit two huge threes for the Golden Eagles, and they proved to be the difference. Joe Fulce also came off the bench to hit a big three, and Jae Crowder's trey gave the Golden Eagles the lead late in the second half.
Prior to DJO's two threes late in the second, Cadougan and Davante Gardner were Marquette's two leading scorers. If someone told you that, you'd think they were in trouble, right?
Gardner was a beast down low, showing his efficient way of getting to the basket, going perfect from the field, and continuing his way of being extremely efficient in limited minutes.
Buzz Williams got something he hadn't gotten much throughout the year from his team against West Virginia: timely shooting. It's no secret closing out games isn't Marquette's strength, but they even hit most of their free throws down the stretch, all but ensuring that they would be heading to the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday night brought a rematch that Buzz Williams and all of Marquette nation had been waiting for: the Louisville Cardinals. The quote after the West Virginia game from Buzz Williams that gave you an idea of how much his team wanted another shot at Louisville after what he called the "meltdown": "It tells you how big of a God we have."
The fact that he is thanking God for giving them another game against the Cardinals means that Marquette was going to come out hot and ready to roll, right? Well, kind of. The Golden Eagles got out to a 11-3 lead early on, but after that, nothing went right.
Seriously: nothing. Every chance Marquette had for an and-1 underneath the basket rolled out, along with it seemed any other shot that flirted with going through the hoop.
The Golden Eagles were seriously lucky in the second half that the game did not become an absolute slaughter (my definition of slaughter is over 30). Kyle Kuric missed countless wide open shots, as did a number of his teammates. Mike Marra had the best game of his life, scoring 22 points, shooting 6-10 from 3.
Throughout the game, Marquette decided to stop giving the ball to Chris Otule and Davante Gardner, who played a combined 29 minutes. It seemed like the team decided they were going to come back from the perimeter, instead of looking for high percentage shots down low. Terrence Jennings, Gorgui Dieng, and George Goode (Louisville's top three big men) all had 2 fouls in the first half, but still Marquette didn't go down low. Otule didn't attempt a shot, and Gardner shot 4, a couple of which came late in the game when the result was settled.
After the big tandem of Otule and Gardner played so well in the first two games of the tournament, they stopped getting the ball. Inconsistency was once again the team's problem.
So now that they are in, how far can they go? We've seen they can play with any team in the country, but can they beat anybody in the country?
Success in the tournament comes with being able to string good performances together. The closest three game run they've gone on was their wins against Notre Dame, the 34:16 against Louisville, and then their blowout against DePaul. Otherwise, not many good runs have been put together by the Golden Eagles.
Knowing this team's tendency to compete until the final whistle and ability to keep games close, no matter who they play: the Golden Eagles will make all their fans sweat when watching them in the NCAA tournament.