Even the most optimistic expectations couldn’t have pegged Marquette as contenders for first place one month into the Big East season. With three games against teams picked above the Golden Eagles in the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll — Georgetown, at Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati — and another against surprise Connecticut, a 5-2 or 4-3 start would have been considered a success, especially after a lackluster 9-3 non-conference start that included a loss at Green Bay.
Yet here we are, on Jan. 30, nearly one month into the conference season, and Marquette sits atop the standings at 6-1 with No. 6 Syracuse. Their lone blemish is an overtime loss at Cincinnati — a respectable loss by any standard — and is the only team in the conference without a “bad” loss. For all intents and purposes, Marquette has taken care of business and put itself in excellent position to contend for a conference championship and earn an eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Unfortunately for Marquette it’s not as easy as looking at records, seeing Marquette looking down at 13 of the 15 teams in the Big East and dub the Golden Eagles contenders. Sure, Marquette, with the emergence of Vander Blue and Davante Gardner and a handful of players developing into their respective roles, could very well push Syracuse and Louisville — both of whom have shown weaknesses — for top honors in the conference, but there’s more to the story.
All 15 teams have played between six and nine games, with Marquette sitting in the middle at seven. Of those 15 teams, the Golden Eagles have played the easiest schedule to date — their opponents have a combined record of 21-31, a 40.3 winning percentage. Next closest is Pittsburgh (43.1 percent), Syracuse (43.3 percent) and St. John’s (43.8 percent). Only Notre Dame, DePaul and Marquette have played three teams with winning records, and only Seton Hall, Louisville and Marquette have played three of the four bottom teams.
And only St. John’s — the other team with a perhaps misleading record (5-3) — and Marquette have failed to play a top-4 team in the league.
The good news for Marquette, however, is that two of its mirror opponents (South Florida and Seton Hall) are a combined 3-12, which helps give the Golden Eagles the fourth easiest schedule the rest of the way. Remaining opponents are a combined 40-42 (48.7 winning percentage). Only Connecticut (40.9 percent), Villanova (43.7 percent) and Cincinnati (44.4 percent) have easier roads.
Of course, Marquette still has not played Syracuse or Louisville, the two most talented teams in the conference, and still has a mirror opponent date at Georgetown. They’ll also play Notre Dame and upstart Villanova.
So while it may seem Marquette’s remaining schedule has it in prime position to stay even with Louisville and Syracuse, the other factor untouched thus far in the piece is home and away splits.
Marquette is the only Big East team with seven away games remaining on their schedule. Notre Dame, Villanova, DePaul and Connecticut all have six road games left, and all but Pitt (four) have five games away from home remaining.
It’s unfair to pin Marquette’s 6-1 start on anything but a relatively easy schedule. The Golden Eagles don’t choose who they play and, as was mentioned before, they haven’t had a letdown in seven games. Sure, they’ve had close calls thus far, winning just two of their six games by double-figures and taking two teams to overtime. Had it not been for a miracle shot from Junior Cadougan against Connecticut, a Tray Woodall concussion or a missed free throw from Greg Whittington Marquette could be looking at a 4-3 record.
But the “what-if” scenarios don’t work. Wins are wins, and Marquette has racked them up. No one is putting the Golden Eagles on the same level as Syracuse or Louisville yet, as the resumes don’t quite add up. Some still consider Georgetown, Notre Dame and Cincinnati just as big a threat in the conference as Marquette. But it’s undeniable that the Golden Eagles have taken care of business in an NCAA season that has seen plenty of upsets from any and all teams. That says something, regardless of who has been on the schedule thus far.
But what Marquette’s schedule to date also says is that the road gets tougher. Marquette only should need, in a worst-case scenario, four more regular season wins and another in the Big East Tournament to earn an at-large bid. Getting out to a quick start says something, and wins over Connecticut, Georgetown and Pittsburgh look impressive on a resume.
The next two weeks, however, will give a better indication of the kind of team Marquette is. Road wins over Louisville and/or Georgetown aren’t necessary to vindicate their legitimacy, and losses wouldn’t be crushing. But how Marquette competes in those games will be a fairer determination of where it stands.
Marquette may not be as good as its 6-1 record indicates, but its standing in the rankings and resume are what the record says. Whether that stands after 11 Big East contests will be seen, but the road gets tougher and more frequent.