Marquette felt a range of different emotions Saturday, and what started as a chance to control its own destiny in the Big East title hunt ended with the Golden Eagles now needing back-to-back home wins against ranked teams to stay in the race for a top-4 seed in the Big East.
The Golden Eagles woke up in their Philadelphia hotel Saturday morning tied atop the Big East with Syracuse and Georgetown. Those two teams played each other, and 33 Otto Porter points later Marquette, then 10-3, tipped off in The Pavilion one-half game behind the Hoyas (11-3) and one-half game ahead of its Monday opponent, Syracuse (10-4).
Saturday was a golden opportunity for Marquette to: 1. Knock a road win off their schedule with a win; 2. To remain in a tie for first place and; 3. Shed the label of a team incapable of winning games away from the comforts of its home.
A win Saturday was Marquette’s last chance to prove it had matured, and that it wouldn’t be flustered in a rowdy environment against a quality team. Previous efforts (see: Florida, Louisville, Cincinnati, Georgetown) had fallen short.
Instead, the Golden Eagles were completely flustered. They were befuddled, confused, out-of-sync, any adjective you’d like to use. The 19 turnovers. The 19 personal fouls. The 50 points before the Villanova defense allowed free layups in the closing seconds to run clock. Again, pick a statistic and it likely sums up Saturday’s 60-56 loss.
By no means was Saturday a “bad” loss — in fact, the Wildcats were favored by one — but there are a handful of games each season that can lead to something bigger than one more tally in the win column.
Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh was certainly one, and Syracuse likely will be another. But this late in the season, the great teams make the games that can go either way, go their way. Instead of heading into Monday’s matchup against Syracuse having won three straight and five of six, the Golden Eagles are a team hanging onto a top-4 spot in the Big East by a thread.
It’s fine to believe in a team playing angry following an ugly loss, but I’m more inclined to believe in a team playing with the momentum of three straight wins. The latter won’t happen anymore, and if you believe in the former then Syracuse is playing with the same mentality. Both teams need Monday’s game, and if Marquette falls they’ll lose out on tiebreakers to each of the three teams ahead of them (Georgetown beat Syracuse, Louisville head-to-head, Syracuse head-to-head).
That would then make Notre Dame a must-win. Had Marquette won Saturday, next week’s contest against the Irish wouldn’t have had as pressure-filled. The Golden Eagles would have been 2.0 games ahead of the fifth-place Irish, but now Notre Dame now could catch Marquette, and a win next week could potentially push Williams’ group to fifth-place, out of a double-bye.
That may be looking too far ahead, but it all goes back to the trickle-down effect created by Marquette’s no-show tonight in Philadelphia. A team with little room for err just squeezed themselves tighter by not capitalizing on Saturday’s game.
A win Monday and tonight’s lackluster performance will be forgotten. The Golden Eagles are still second in the conference and one game back of first place. But their road to a Big East title or, at worst, a top-4 finish just got a lot tougher, when one impressive performance against Villanova could have put them in the driver’s seat in the conference.