New Big East gives MU no room for error

Marquette failed in the non-conference and has fewer opportunities to make it up in the Big Eat. (USA Today)

Marquette failed in the non-conference and has fewer opportunities to make it up in the Big East. (USA Today)

Three years ago Marquette found itself in a position early in the season where its non-conference results left a hazy outlook toward the rest of the season. The Golden Eagles went 9-4 before the turn of the calendar, beating the likes of cupcakes Prairie View A&M, Longwood, Texas A&M Corpus-Christi and Centenary, among others. Jimmy Butler had established himself as Buzz Williams’ go-to scorer, Jae Crowder was showing promise in his first year and Darius Johnson-Odom had remained his usual streaky self, in a good way.

The nine wins were nice, but that pretty little thing called a resume was still empty. In Marquette’s only true non-conference “tests,” the Golden Eagles had suffered losses to top-ranked Duke, No. 22 Gonzaga, a 7-2 Wisconsin team and No. 24 Vanderbilt. All four losses had been close — they lost the four games by a combined 14 points — and though none of them were considered “bad” defeats — those four teams all eventually made the NCAA Tournament — by the time Big East play came about Marquette had no quality wins.

Lucky for Marquette, that Big East was absolutely loaded.

The Golden Eagles played nine ranked teams and had 12 games against Big East opponents that finished the regular season ranked in the RPI’s top-50. There were ample opportunities for Marquette to pick up quality wins both at home on the road and, at the very least, the star-studded groups improved Marquette’s RPI and strength of schedule. Let’s do a quick timeline of Marquette’s record and its corresponding Bracketology outlook.

Nov. 10 (11-seed): Before the season, an unranked Marquette team was listed as an 11-seed by Lundari.
Dec. 10 (OUT): A 7-2 Marquette team, which had suffered losses to Duke and Gonzaga, were listed by Lunardi as one of the first four teams out.
Jan. 10 (OUT): Prior to Marquette’s win over No. 9 Notre Dame, an 11-5 Marquette team again was named one of the first four teams out.
Feb. 18 (10-seed): Despite being just 15-11 and 6-7 in the Big East, Marquette’s key wins over No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 9 Syracuse earned Marquette a 10-seed.
Mar. 3 (10-seed): Nearing the end of the Big East season, Marquette had picked up a clutch road win against No. 14 Connecticut on the road.
Mar. 6 (10-seed): Prior to the conference tournaments, Lunardi had Marquette safely in, not even listed of the first four despite a pedestrian 18-13 season.

There’s much more analysis that would need to go in to figuring out which games helped Marquette most (it’s not the point of this write-up, so we’re not doing it), but it’s clear that playing against such a strong schedule and having the opportunity to beat some of the top teams in the country helped Marquette. That season may not be the best example, seeing as an NCAA-record 11 Big East teams eventually made the tournament. That season was an outlier of sorts. In just about every season, an average basketball team won’t play 12 teams in the RPI top-50 in January and February. But that’s how the Big East used to be.

Not anymore.

The current Golden Eagles are eerily similar to that 2010-11 team; their 8-5 non-conference record (we’re giving them a win over Samford) isn’t bad by any means. Like 2010-11, however, Marquette failed each of its non-conference “tests.” The blowout loss to Ohio State, the grind-it-out defeat at Arizona State, the exhausting “L” against San Diego State, an uninspiring loss at Wisconsin and Saturday’s loss against New Mexico all were defeats that would have looked impressive on Marquette’s roster.

RPI Forecast projects Wisconsin (4), Ohio State (5), San Diego State (25), New Mexico (31) and Arizona State (41) all to finish in the RPI’s top-50 by season’s end. If you’d like to count George Washington a quality win, that’s probably fair as they are projected to finish 50th in the RPI.

No bad losses. No great wins.

And no powerhouse Big East to fall back on.

Gone are the days where Williams’ group had Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh on its schedule, with a dozen “quality” opponents on the schedule where Marquette could pick up resume-building wins. In 2010-11, 10 Big East teams finished in the RPI top-50; One year later, six teams finished in the top-50 and four more were inside the top-100; last season the Big East touted seven teams in the top-50, with three others inside the top-100. None of those include Marquette, which finished in the top-50 the last two seasons (even at 17-11 in 2010-11, Marquette was still 54th in RPI).

Using RPI Forecast again, only Villanova (3), Creighton (34) and Georgetown (35) are projected to finish this year’s regular season in the top-50.  Xavier (56) and Butler (57) find themselves right on the border, with St. John’s (73) and Providence (83) locked in well in the top-100 area. DePaul (162) and Seton Hall (176) remain DePaul and Seton Hall.

So if we use these projections (and that’s all they are on Dec. 23) and look at Marquette’s schedule, they likely have six certain games coming to earn top-50 wins. Assuming all three finish in the top-50 and one of Xavier or Butler sneaks in, the Golden Eagles will have eight games against top-50 opponents, where they already 1-5 in that category.

We could keep digging into last year’s NCAA Tournament and where at-large bids stood against the RPI top-50, their own RPI and strength of schedule. But the point here is clear: Marquette no longer has the room for error ruing the conference season. While there are fewer opportunities for bad losses with South Florida and Rutgers out of the picture, it seems that Marquette’s issue won’t be avoiding bad losses; it’ll be obtaining quality wins.

There’s of course the possibility that Marquette wins the Big East Tournament and earns an automatic bid. But only one team will stand alone in New York City. What’s more likely is Marquette winning at least four of their games against likely top-50 opponents. There’s no more room for error in the Big East schedule because of the 1-5 non-conference “tests.” Can they do it? We’ll see.

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