MILWAUKEE — The occasion of National Marquette Day on Saturday—you’re forgiven if the date slipped your mind—brought with it a celebration of a century’s worth of basketball at the school. And everyone adroitly smiled about the last 100 years while continuing to fret about the last four, especially agonizing over this particular campaign. The Golden Eagles began the weekend as perhaps the bubbliest team in the land. They arguably needed an NCAA tournament berth more than any other club toggling along the Last Four In/First Four Out lines. Thus this night at the Bradley Center was commemorated by both the appearance of former players from as far back as the 1940s, and also a great heaving anxiety.
The 83–61 dismantling of Xavier that followed was equal parts a relief and a reflection of an outfit that confounds the metrics and the naked eye alike. To wit: Marquette beat the No. 1 team in the country on Jan. 24. Twenty-six days later, after a week of no games but ample introspection, it trashed the rotation and ran out three new starters in an effort to avoid plunging to depths that the light of March can’t reach. This is the urgency of a team that had lost four of five. It’s also the urgency of a program that saw a chance at validation, in the form of an appearance in the field of 68, slipping away.
“We knew this was a must-win game for us,” said freshman guard Markus Howard, having descended from the exosphere following a 34-point night that featured a school record-tying nine three-pointers. Howard wasn’t being terribly hyperbolic. For eight straight seasons, from 2005–06 through 2012–13, Marquette reached the NCAA tournament. It hasn’t played a single postseason game since. Last year’s 20-win team was left out of the NIT. This is Steve Wojciechowski’s third year at the helm in Milwaukee, and while the progress has been steady, and while his employers are a generally patient and rational bunch, and while making the NCAA tournament is important every year, making it for the first time, crossing that threshold and achieving a good measure of authentication, is just a little bit more important. You have to be able to say you’ve been there. Preferably as soon as possible.
Arguably, no program could use the bounce off that bubble more than Marquette. There are others for whom escape into the bracket would be extremely consequential, no doubt. Arkansas comes to mind, to (potentially) save Mike Anderson’s job. TCU, maybe, if we apply the aforementioned logic and view a bid as a massive endorsement of Jamie Dixon’s fledgling tenure in Fort Worth. But the intensity and desperation of Marquette’s longing might surpass them all.
Consider the philosophy underpinning Wojciechowski’s lineup shuffle Saturday. Afforded seven days between games, the Golden Eagles coach pretty evidently put everyone on notice. He said a lineup with Andrew Rowsey and Duane Wilson in the backcourt and sophomore Matt Heldt at center caught his eye. “I absolutely loved their spirit, I loved their camaraderie, and I loved their fight,” Wojciechowski said. So the group of Luke Fischer, JaJuan Johnson and Hannif Cheatham would not add another start to the 72 they’d combined to compile this season. Johnson—the team’s third-leading scorer and a senior who averages 26.4 minutes per game—didn’t get off the bench at all.
And Wojciechowski classified it as an easy decision. “I didn’t think we had [the spirit] to the level that this time of the year, in this league, requires,” he said. “That was the number one thing we needed to get fixed. So we were trying to use this week to find guys that we felt would fight for the program. Those guys did.”
(The attitude readjustment also would catch everyone up to the head coach, who had not deviated from an extremely visceral need to succeed. When Heldt fouled out with 8:25 to play Saturday, the call literally brought Wojciechowski to his knees on the sideline. At the time, Marquette led by 17.)
That the Golden Eagles opened on a 21–2 blitz and led by as many as 25 merely re-asked a question that anyone evaluating them already has pondered: Who are these guys, really? The metrics certainly don’t offer a consensus: Marquette began the weekend ranked 81st in the RPI but 42nd on kenpom.com. Nor does the schedule provide clarity. The selection committee will evaluate the capacity of a team to win games in the NCAA tournament, which is a variation of the Who did you beat? test. In one view, Wojciechowski’s team passes easily, given a win over then-No. 7 Creighton on Jan. 21 followed by the upset of then-No. 1 Villanova three days later. In a less flattering light, there are non-conference losses to Pittsburgh, Michigan and Wisconsin and a 14-point face-plant against scuffling St. John’s on Feb. 1.
There is an offense that fielded five double-digit scorers going into the Xavier game and ranked 11th in adjusted efficiency, per kenpom.com. “They’re difficult because they have four players on the floor at all times that don’t just shoot it well, but shoot it at a really high level,” Musketeers coach Chris Mack said. The Golden Eagles’ defense, meanwhile, ranked 167th in efficiency before Saturday. Then it held Xavier to a scant .897 points per possession. No, Marquette is nothing if not confounding, a single unit giving ammunition to anyone who wishes to debate its NCAA tournament merit from either side, a peak bubble team if ever there was one.
Last year, when the NIT took a hard pass, Wojciechowski lamented to reporters that his team left its fate in the hands of others. It can avoid a reprise with a strong finish. And it is emotionally equipped to do so, in theory. For nearly a decade an NCAA tournament bid was all but a given, and likely considered all but automatic, until it wasn’t. It’s been three long years, going on four. For the moment, the one thing that distinguishes Marquette from its bubble brethren may be a furious yearning to be anywhere but where it is.