by Craig Dimitri
The Marquette Golden Eagles – thus far, the only team to topple #1 Connecticut, and doing so, in fact, by 15 points – swoop into the Pavilion on Saturday afternoon…. Here is a comprehensive preview…
Note: Please visit Tim Blair's outstanding Marquette blog, "Cracked Sidewalks" -marquettebasketball.blogspot.com, also linked over on the side), to learn more about not only Saturday's Marquette/Villanova contest, but for information on the Marquette program in general, as they continue their successful initial season in the Big East trenches. I give his blog my highest recommendation. You'll enjoy Saturday's game a lot more if you check it out.
The Viewpoint on the Marquette Golden Eagles
ESPN regional coverage will carry the contest, which will air in metropolitan Philadelphia on WB, Channel 17. ESPN Full Court subscribers will also be able to see the broadcast. Ryan Fannon and Whitey Rigsby will call the game on radio, WNTP 990 AM.
Given the distance between the schools, it is not surprising that they have only met eight times, with Villanova winning five of the eight. The teams played annually for much of the 1960s, with Villanova winning @ Marquette in the first contest, 75-70, on New Year's Eve, 1960.
After 1967, there have been only two meetings. The first came in the 1980 NCAA tournament, when coach Roland V. Massimino's Wildcats defeated the then-Marquette Warriors, 77-59, in the first round. The series then lay dormant, until the most recent meeting in the opening game of the 2002-03 season, on November 15, 2002. This game featured the much-anticipated debut of the class of 2006 (Curtis Sumpter, Jason Fraser, Allan Ray, and Randy Foye), generally regarded as one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. However, in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden, a Marquette squad which would eventually reach the Final Four, destroyed Villanova, 73-61.
Coach and Context
Tom Crean (7th season, 137-71)
Crean - who had never previously served as a Division I head coach - took Marquette back to its previous glories in 2003, as he guided the Golden Eagles back to the Final Four, for the first time since Marquette's golden age, under the late Al McGuire, in the 1970s. Before being named Marquette's 15th head coach on March 30, 1999, Crean had been an assistant at Western Kentucky, Pittsburgh, and Michigan State.
Crean was the recruiting assistant in Lansing, and played an important role in constructing Michigan State's 2000 NCAA championship team, under head coach Tom Izzo. Of particular importance was his success in recruiting Mateen Cleaves, the team's catalyst, who would eventually win two Big Ten Player of the Year awards. (Although unfortunately for Crean, he wasn't in Lansing to savor the success, since he was then coaching his inaugural season at Marquette.)
Marquette has a very rich and storied history, comparable to Villanova's past. The school has made 23 NCAA tournaments (with 32 NCAA victories) and 15 trips to the NIT, and served as a pit stop for Rick Majerus, among others (although he only had a trio of NIT trips in the 1980s, during his three seasons there). Along with Villanova, it is one of the few schools that can boast of both a NCAA title and a NIT championship, both courtesy of McGuire during his tenure in Milwaukee, from 1964-1977. In 13 seasons, McGuire made 11 postseason appearances, and posted a record of 295-80.
Marquette sank into mediocrity for a decade, however, after reaching the NCAAs in 1983 (ironically, after the NCAA became far easier to enter, when it was expanded in the miraculous year of 1985). The school went an entire decade between NCAA appearances, before Kevin O'Neill got them back in 1993. Things began looking up again. Including 1993, Marquette has made six NCAA appearances, including the 2003 Final Four, and qualified for five NITs. In only two years, has it missed postseason play entirely (1999 and 2001). Of those five NIT appearances, it also has gone deep into three of them. The Golden Eagles reached the NIT final in 1995, a team chiefly memorable because its sixth man, William Gates, was one of the two players documented in one of the greatest sports films ever made, Hoop Dreams. (In that game, Marquette lost in OT to Virginia Tech, 65-64.)
McGuire eschewed a NCAA bid in 1970 and instead won the NIT, in one of the last meaningful ones, before the NCAA's expanded field eventually reduced the NIT, to a consolation tournament; that Marquette team finished with a 28-1 record.
In 1974, McGuire took Marquette to the Final Four, losing in the title game to North Carolina State. But in 1977, he won it all, topping Dean Smith's North Carolina team, and then stepped down.
In 1997, two decades later, Marquette won a Conference USA tournament. And in 2003, they returned to the Final Four for the first time since the McGuire era, winning the C-USA regular season championship as well.
In 2004-05, Marquette had a decent season, which it finished with a 19-11 record. However, the team fell in the opening round of the C-USA tournament, to TCU in overtime. This fact, coupled with a 7-9 record in conference play, meant that the Golden Eagles really didn't have much of a chance at a NCAA bid. And so the season went into the record books, without the magic number of 20 wins, since it ended with a 12th loss, in the first round of the NIT (by double-digits, at home) to Western Michigan, in which the Golden Eagles scored only 40 points.
After the outstanding success of the 2003 team, Crean was being courted intensively by many other schools, particularly those in conferences of higher prestige than Conference USA, and those state schools with the money to presumably outbid Marquette in its bid to retain Crean for the long term.
To their credit, Marquette simply decided to shell out whatever it would take to keep him – in contrast to what usually happens at less wealthy private schools, namely, once they get a decent coach, they immediately lose him to higher powers in the college basketball firmament. They shrewdly calculated the math, figuring that if they wanted to keep a Big Ten school from taking Crean, the best solution would be simply to outbid his richer suitors, regardless of what it would cost to do so. And so Crean was locked up with a long-term deal, and has remained in Milwaukee.
Marquette has dropped a bit, however, since then, missing the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons.
How They’ve Done So Far
6-3 Big East (6th out of 16 teams),16-6 overall. CollegeRPI.com ranks them #31, with a strength-of-schedule ranking of #25.
(Note: CollegeRPI’s most recent update was Tuesday morning, and thus did not include Marquette’s Wednesday night victory over St. John’s.) The Golden Eagles are unranked, but received 6 votes in the AP poll (“37th place”, so to speak), in the Also Receiving Votes category. However, they did not receive any votes in the ESPN/USA Today poll.
Non-Big East Play
The season did not start off so well for the Golden Eagles, when they lost their second game of the season, a home cupcake game against Winthrop (by seven points, no less). They had won the opener against Rice, an old C-USA rival, handily.
The Golden Eagles then flew north to the Great Alaska Shootout – and won the tournament. Marquette had a solid victory over Eastern Washington, then eked out wins over both Oral Roberts and South Carolina to take the title. Granted, that path was not the most formidable in Division I, but a holiday tournament championship is still a championship. The games were on neutral courts, and the NCAA Selection Committee loves teams that can demonstrate the ability to win both on the road and on neutral courts.
They also have eight easy wins at home (Rice, South Dakota State, Valparaiso, San Francisco, Oakland, Delaware State, and Lewis). Also, as it turned out, the November loss to Winthrop, does not look as bad as it did at the time. Winthrop is 14-5 overall, and battling Birmingham Southern in the Big South conference. One of those two teams will likely take the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Big East Play
And so now, it was time for Marquette to make its first run through the rigors of Big East competition. They probably had the best debut of any team in Big East history, as in their first conference game, they toppled then-#2 Connecticut, by a decisive 15-point margin. It remains Marquette’s signature victory, obviously. It will – and should - be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament, barring a total collapse down the stretch. Marquette’s RPI ranking of #31 is strong, and will only increase, since the Golden Eagles still must travel to Villanova, and play Georgetown and Pittsburgh at home (all ranked opponents), and even with losses to all three, their SOS will rise. If Marquette can at least make it to .500 in Big East play (eight wins will do it, and they already have six), they should be safely in the field of 65.
They have played well against other Big East schools- and surprisingly so, given how unfamiliar they are with most of their opponents. Of the five new teams from C-USA, they by far have had the best season: with Cincinnati at .500, both Louisville and DePaul mired near the bottom of the league standings, and South Florida being winless. They swept former C-USA rival DePaul, although the Blue Demons are one of the worst teams. They have a win @ Seton Hall, a nailbiter win over Notre Dame at home, and most recently, a 20-point pounding of St. John’s at the Bradley Center. They also have two good losses. One was @ West Virginia, a very tough place to play, in a contest which featured WVU hitting a Big East-record 20 three-point shots. The second was at Pittsburgh, where the Golden Eagles were hammered on the glass. But both schools are ranked. Their only bad Big East loss was against another old C-USA rival, Cincinnati, at home.
The Golden Eagles have won four of their last five, and are brimming with confidence. They know, of course, that a win @ #4 Villanova, would end any doubt about a NCAA bid.
Guard Dominic James – Freshman – 15.1 pts/4.4 rebs/5.5 assists/game
James, who is likely to be named Big East rookie of the year, has emerged as a tremendous talent and is one of the key reasons for Marquette’s success thus far. In addition to his other numbers, he has a strong 1.8/1 assist/turnover ratio. He sprained his shoulder against Pittsburgh on Jan.28, but returned for the St. John’s game on Wednesday.
Guard Jerel McNeal – Freshman – 11.2 pts/ 4.4 rebs/3.0 assists/2.2 steals/game
The team’s best defender, and as the above statistics indicate, is a solid all-around player.
Swingman Joe Chapman – Senior – 5.9 pts/game
Third on the team in triples, he’s another perimeter threat, with a 41% success rate. However, he averages less than six points a contest, so he probably won’t be much of a problem for his defender.
Forward Steve Novak – Senior – 16.5 pts/6.0 rebs/game
This is the guy to shut down. He slew the UConn dragon in the Big East opener, turning in an incredible 41-point, 16-rebound performance, as the Golden Eagles demolished the Huskies in a stunning upset. Against Notre Dame, he knocked down the winning jumper to defeat the snake-bitten Irish. He’s a dangerous three-point threat as well, having sunk 79 triples, far and away the most on the team. Also, thus far this season, he’s shot an astonishing 98% from the foul line. However, he sprained an ankle earlier in the season, which has hampered him in Marquette’s last two victories.
As for the fifth starter – Marquette really doesn’t have a genuine starter at this position, as explained below. The two players (Ousmane Barro and Mike Kinsella) who (officially) started at the five spot, in the last two games, both ultimately played less than ten minutes in the contest, so it’s up in the air. The Golden Eagles often play three guards, anyhow.
What to Look For
This game will be decided on the perimeter, or as radio commentator Whitey Rigsby likes to describe it, between the foul lines. For once, Villanova doesn’t need to be concerned about an opponent pounding the ball inside, and thus exploiting the Wildcats’ thin frontcourt corps. Fortunately, Marquette doesn’t have any big men capable enough to do that. In fact, two of Marquette’s three BE losses (Cincinnati and @ Pittsburgh) are directly attributable to the Golden Eagles’ failure to stop an opponent’s inside game. Aside from the 6-10 Novak, the two freshmen guards are the team’s top rebounders, which is as clear an indication as any, as to the quality of Marquette’s big men in the paint. Marquette’s weak inside game relies upon a patchwork rotation of four players (two juniors, two sophomores), in descending order of minutes/game: Ryan Amoroso (17), Barro and Jamil Lott (both with 11.5), and Kinsella (6). None are likely to cause problems for the Wildcats.
In much the same way as Villanova, the Golden Eagles rely almost exclusively on outside shooting and guard play for offense.
On the injury front, both teams are banged up. Marquette has a third freshman guard, Wesley Matthews, who incurred a stress fracture in his foot on Dec. 28. He came off the bench on Wednesday against St. John’s, not scoring but dealing four assists and adding three rebounds in just 17 minutes of action. As noted above, James and Novak also have nagging injuries.
Of course, Villanova still lacks Curtis Sumpter, and media reports seem to indicate that there probably won’t be any dilemma about a potential return in time for March Madness – he likely won’t have healed in time, for it to even be an issue. Last week, Allan Ray pulled a hamstring, which caused him to miss Villanova's close call against South Florida, although he played against Notre Dame and Louisville. And Jason Fraser’s playing time will be limited by his chronic injuries.
After the contest, I will provide a recap…
Comments, observations, etc., whether positive or negative, are always encouraged. Feel free to post a public comment, and/or e-mail me at email@example.com.