A win is a win.
That is what Marquette Basketball fans must tell themselves after their team's underwhelming performance in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament. To their credit though, they still found a way to win (and at this point of the season, that's all you're remembered for).
We live to play another day, but will we live to see Monday? That will be determined in less than 48 hours, when the Golden Eagles match up with No. 3-seeded Missouri. And all of a sudden, I can't help but think I'm watching the same movie again. It was not but a year ago that we watched the 2008 version of Marquette Basketball squeak past Kentucky in the first round, only to have their hearts ripped out by Brook Lopez and Stanford in the second. For the second consecutive year, MU stands on the threshold of the Sweet 16, with a beatable No. 3 seed parked between them and their goal.
Fans of this program might have dreams of a Final Four still in their heads, and the players and coaches might fully believe in that, too, but everyone else has had the same expectation since Marquette Madness on October 20th – make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
For Marquette to have arguably the most decorated recruiting class that in the history of the program (statistically speaking), and for them to NEVER to make a Sweet 16 in four years, would be an absolute atrocity. I will get up on a table and clap my hands for Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal, Dominic James, and Dwight Burke, for the things they have accomplished, and for the pride they have all given us at our fine university. Four consecutive NCAA Tournament berths are fantastic, all-conference accolades every year are wonderful, and priceless moments of euphoria during games in their time here will never be forgotten. However, there's one chapter missing from this remarkable ride to perennial relevance.
In the last three NCAA Tournaments, it has been the Golden Eagles that have watched an opponent make their own post-season memories. Who could forget Alabama's Jean Felix putting up a career-high 31 points out of nowhere to end the 2006 season at least one game too early? Or what about Michigan State making the Golden Eagles look like a JV team on their way to a double-digit first round win? And last year's loss to Stanford does need to be rehashed again (it still hurts). Every year it has been one excuse or another as to why this program could not get over the hump.
2006: Too inexperienced (Big 3 in their rookie season). 2007: Too hurt (McNeal had a broken hand). 2008: Too small (The Lopez's had a field day).
My question is simple: When is this group going to say enough is enough and put on a performance that launches them to the next level? Is our point guard hurt? Yes. Are we undersized? Of course. Do we have a short bench? Absolutely (and getting shorter).
But guess what… very few teams in the history of this sport have been perfect. And in 2009, the Marquette Golden Eagles are one of 32 teams that still have the opportunity to win the national championship. So don't waste the opportunity.
At no point during this season have I ever felt compelled to say what I am about to say now.
Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews need perform. Plain and simple. They have been shadows of what we have come to expect from them since Dominic's injury. In that time, we have seen Lazar Hayward, Jimmy Butler, and for stretches Maurice Acker, take their play to new heights. In the games since Dom's injury, Matthews is shooting just 29 percent from the field, and McNeal is no better at 30.6 percent. For this team to get where everyone knows they belong, they will have to do it on the backs of their standout seniors. A memorable performance from these two must be in cards if the Marquette faithful are to be doing any celebrating Sunday evening.
It's time to put up or shut up for Wes and Jerel. There is no better time than now, and there is no other time than now. Their friend and teammate, Dominic James, can only encourage them from the sideline when they take the court in Boise on Sunday. And during that time, this program will rest on their shoulders. But the great thing is, nobody but Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews can determine how Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews play during that time.
The Missouri Tigers resurrected the old Arkansas Basketball motto, "Forty Minutes of Hell," this season. If Matthews and McNeal do not bring their absolute best on Sunday, they will put themselves, their teammates, their fans, and their entire university through every second of it.