Marquette began the second half of its Big East schedule on Saturday with an impressive come-from-behind win over Butler. It’s unknown whether that win will be part of the equation that allows the Golden Eagles an at-large bid, but it’s safe to say it saved the season for now.
And while Todd Mayo was a huge part of that comeback, Jamil Wilson put together one of the best all-around games of his senior season. He scored 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and turned the ball over just once in 24 effective minutes.
And so begins the second half of Wilson’s final Big East season at Marquette. No one knows how he’ll finish — the hope is that it’s better than it began — but it may be a “light at the end of the tunnel” situation for Marquette’s most talented and well-rounded player. Here’s the brass tacks: If Marquette makes the NCAA Tournament, it will be because of Wilson; if the Golden Eagles are suiting up for an NIT game in mid-March, it will be because of Wilson.
You can argue the other factors involved — and there are plenty — but when it comes down to it, the unselfish Wilson needs to grab this season by the, ahem, horns and get the job done. He did it Tuesday, and he’ll need to do it the rest of the season to salvage a season that has been average, at best, to date.
Here’s a look at the the past five seasons and how the seniors (and Vander Blue) have grabbed the season by the, ahem, horns and pushed Marquette into the NCAA Tournament with some sort of momentum. Wilson has work to do, but at 13-10 and .500 in-conference on Feb. 7 it’s the uphill battle he and the Golden Eagles have created. These shouldn’t be comparisons — some will argue Wilson isn’t the same type of player as those below him — and Marquette is reliant more on overall team success than a certain individual than ever before, but it’ll begin and end with how Wilson plays.
The second half of Marquette’s season began with its first loss, at South Florida, followed by an ugly 102-84 loss at Villanova four days later. And though Marquette finished its latter portion of the conference slate just 3-6, McNeal was an absolute horse for the Golden Eagles, especially after Dominic James was lost due to a broken foot.
His scoring was down nearly four points per game (24.1 vs. 20.4) in the second half, though maintaining that first half consistency would have been quite the feat in such a tough conference — McNeal also got to play DePaul twice in the first half, scoring 47 points in the two games. So while his points were down, the telling statistic in McNeal’s season came in his minutes.
In the final nine games of the Big East season, McNeal sat a total of 11 minutes. That means he played 354 of a possible 365 minutes. Also, he didn’t sit in the Golden Eagles’ final five games, playing all 205 minutes, including all five minutes in overtime against Syracuse on Senior Day. You want to take reliability? Never coming off the court will do just that. The All-American wasn’t efficient at times, but he was always there if Marquette needed a big shot.
Hayward was stellar in the second half of the Big East season in helping Marquette go 7-2. His highlight came on Feb. 6, when he put together one of the best single-game performances of the Buzz Williams era in an 82-79 win over Providence. Hayward scored 28 points, grabbed nine rebounds and added four assists and four steals in the come-from-behind victory, including 13 points in the final 10 minutes. His other major performances also came on the road, when he scored 22 points in a two-point overtime win at St. John’s and 23 more in the Golden Eagles’ 84-83 overtime win at Seton Hall.
In his final nine games Hayward averaged 17.9 points, and though his field goal percentage (40.6) was down, he still managed to shoot 50 percent or better in three games and lived at the free throw line, taking six or more attempts in four of those contests. Simply put, Hayward was the go-to guy down the stretch while Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom filled in the gaps and threw in some hero ball to boot (Butler’s game winner at St. John’s; DJO’s thunderous put-back dunk vs. Louisville.
Marquette went just 4-5 down the stretch in this season and while it’s true Butler didn’t have a ton to show for that stretch of play, that was essentially the kind of player he was all year; his worth was rarely shown in numbers as much as it was in the differences he made in games. One game, in particular, stands out.
Marquette was desperate for a road win on Feb. 24 when they traveled to Storrs, Ct. to face Connecticut. On that night, Butler spent much of the evening guarding would-be NCAA champion Kemba Walker. The raw numbers show Walker scoring 27 points, but he needed 27 field-goal attempts to do so and attempted just six free throws in 43 minutes. Butler wound up scoring 16 points of his own in a 74-67 overtime win, and though Darius Johnson-Odom was the hero for his steal-and-layup to force the extra period, Butler was every bit important.
In the second half of the season his points were up to 17.4 per game and he established himself as an aggressive scorer. In his final seven games, Butler went to the free throw line at least seven times in six of them, including a 17-attempt effort against Cincinnati and 13 more against Seton Hall. Those were both Marquette losses, but it was a different Jimmy Butler toward the end. He became one of the league’s best defenders, carried a Marquette defense still without a true big man and, of course, led the Golden Eagles to an eventual Sweet 16.
Where to begin? The eventual Big East Player of the Year was an absolute mammoth in the second half of the conference slate. Allow me, if you will, to take out the Feb. 4 disaster at Notre Dame and use the final six games of the season (the seventh was a breezy win over DePaul). In those final six contests, Crowder averaged 24.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.0 steals and made 11 3-pointers. He also shot an absurd 57 percent on more than 14 attempts per game.
His major moment occurred on Feb. 24, when Marquette traveled to West Virginia without three starters for the first half and Todd Mayo for the second half. Going up against then-Big East POY frontrunner Kevin Jones, Crowder scored 26 points, kept Marquette afloat in the first half and dropped 17 in a second half in which the Golden Eagles’ overcame an 11-point halftime deficit.
In the second half of the season Crowder was every bit a leader and contributor as Williams could have asked for. Simply put, he was the best senior of the Buzz Williams era, and it’s unfair to compare anyone to one of the most accomplished two-year players in program history.
Blue’s game was never consistency for any of the three seasons he was at Marquette, and his final one was no exception. In the final nine games of the Big East season he scored in single digits four times, never topped 22 points and only shot better than 50 percent three times.
But, oh yeah, there were a few key moments down the stretch. The first was on Dec. 16 against Pittsburgh. On a national stage Blue went 7-for-8, scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds in the Golden Eagles’ major 79-69 win over the No. 16 Panthers. Three weeks later, with their backs against the wall and needing a win to stay in Big East championship contention, the Golden Eagles relied on Blue to overcome a late deficit to win at Rutgers. Blue scored 22 points, including a pair of key buckets down the stretch.
Then there was this. In overtime. For the Big East Championship.