Marquette needs strong start to the stretch run

Photo by Anthony Giacomino/Paint Touches

Photo by Anthony Giacomino/Paint Touches

Forget the “must-win situations.”

Forget the “biggest game of the year” clichés.

This afternoon’s matchup against Xavier is important for the lone reason in that it sets up the rest of Marquette’s season. Wins last week against 2-11 Butler and 4-8 Seton Hall were necessary to keep the Golden Eagles afloat and in the conversation after the conversation regarding the bubble. But now Buzz Williams’ group enters the true home stretch, when it’ll match up against Xavier, No. 18 Creighton and No. 6 Villanova the next three weeks.

The Golden Eagles’ resume isn’t great and it isn’t awful. A neutral-court win against George Washington and a road victory at Georgetown stand as the team’s two biggest wins, with a road loss at Butler the only real “bad” loss to their name. They essentially have won the games they were supposed to win, and lose the ones they were expected to lose. That’s fine for a talented team wanting to have a record above .500, not one searching for a ninth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

That win can come today. The Musketeers aren’t world-beaters, though they are safely into the Big Dance as it stands today, showing up in every bracket in the Bracket Matrix. At 17-7, they tout wins over Tennessee and Cincinnati and outside of a neutral-court loss to Southern Cal and a home loss to Seton Hall all but have punched their ticket.

So here’s a chance for Marquette to pick up its second quality win of the season (three, if you’d like to include the Hoyas win). Perhaps more than earning a win against an NCAA Tournament team, this afternoon is crucial in the Big East Standings. Xavier sits at 7-4, one game ahead of Marquette. With a win, Marquette would move into a tie for third place in the Big East. With a loss, the Golden Eagles would fall to 6-6 and in a four-way tie for fourth place with Providence, St. John’s and Georgetown — the Friars are home against DePaul today, so they’ll likely move to 7-6.

More so, a win gives Marquette some real momentum heading into the actual “biggest test” of the year on Wednesday against Creighton. It’s no secret that the Golden Eagles are a longshot to make the NCAA Tournament, and they’ll almost certainly need 20 wins to even join the conversation on Selection Sunday. With games against Creighton and Villanova left, there’s not much wiggle room; that wiggle room would become even tighter if they can’t win a home contest in which they’re favored — Marquette opened as a 3.5-point favorite.

Williams’ group actually had one of its more impressive games in early January, when a late surge by Semaj Christon pushed Xavier to an 86-79 victory. Marquette was tied with 5 minutes left and within one possession with 90 seconds left, and Deonte Burton’s 13 points off the bench marked his first real breakout game.

The difference — shocker alert — is Jamil Wilson. In January, Wilson played just 12 foul-plauged minutes, scoring five points and grabbing just one rebound. He committed his second foul at the 15:19 mark of the first half then picked up two more fouls in 58 seconds midway through the second half. His fifth foul came at the 5-minute mark of the second half in a one-point game, and Marquette was outscored 18-12 down the stretch.

Now Marquette has its difference maker playing some of the best basketball of his career. He’s averaged 21.0 points and 8.0 rebounds and is shooting 14-for-23 his last two games. We’ve written about it before, but he’ll need to be on his game for the Golden Eagles to make any sort of noise in February.

They’re also catching Christon at a good time. He’s averaged 16.8 points per game this year, but has only topped the 20-point total once the last five games after doing so four of six times to begin the Big East slate. Perhaps he’s due.

With Big East standings and and that elusive Big East resume win on the line, this afternoon is important. Looking further, a strong performance really sets the tone for the rest of the year. That “rest of the year” begins today, and not just because it’s the game right now. A win today means third place in the Big East, some momentum heading into the Creighton contest and a resume win.

Yeah, it’s important.

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