NEW YORK – Welcome to life on the bubble, Marquette.
For the next 65-plus hours, the Golden Eagles will have to patiently wait. Wait for the rest of the conference tournaments to play out. Wait for their peers to make their cases to the NCAA selection committee. Wait for the full field of 68 to be unveiled – all at once this time – and then figure out what’s next for Marquette basketball.
“I believe we’re an NCAA tournament team,” Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski said after the 94-70 loss to Villanova in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.
“I think our team has had a really good year, especially considering our youth. I think our team is capable of winning games in the NCAA tournament.”
Marquette came into the Big East tournament desperately needing to improve its tournament resume, needing at least one, probably two, wins to punch its ticket into the Big Dance. The Golden Eagles accomplished part of that, outlasting DePaul in the opening round at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Then came the hard part.
For 22 minutes against Villanova, Marquette went toe-to-toe with the best. This was Chuck Wepner versus Muhammad Ali, Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed, David versus Goliath. Even if the Golden Eagles didn’t pull off the miraculous upset, they’d show they belonged.
“I think early in the game Marquette showed they played last night,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “They were a little sharper than us early.”
What happened next was unfathomable.
The beast that is the Wildcats offense was unleashed in full force, knocking down a flurry of shots no team in college basketball could survive. From the 15:04 to the 5:03 mark in the second half, 10 of Villanova’s 13 made baskets were three-pointers. What was once a single-digit deficit ballooned to 24, illustrating the kind of firepower that makes the Wildcats a possible top seed when the bracket is fully unveiled Sunday.
“Boy, they can really shoot,” Wojciechowski marveled. “It’s a credit to their offensive power. I mean, they shot the eyes out of the ball.”
The final score was inconsequential at that point. There would be no moral victory. Marquette’s fate had been ripped away from it in as violent and efficient a fashion as possible in college basketball.
“In March, we have to find ways to win,” Marquette guard Markus Howard said. “A lot of teams are going through the same stuff we are. We can’t let it affect us.”
While Wojciechowski says his team will use the next three days to “get better,” it’s human nature to wonder what if: What if we had beaten Xavier in December? What if we had beaten Villanova in January? What if we took care of Providence in February? That’s the kind of uncertainty that will make the next three days difficult for the Golden Eagles.
“We still have season left,” Wojciechowski said. “So we need to get better and we’ll try to approach it that way.”
If anything, Marquette can take solace in the fact that the band-aid will be ripped right off on Sunday. With Turner and CBS opting to reveal the whole field at once – alphabetically – the Golden Eagles won’t have to suffer through 45 or so painstakingly difficult minutes to learn if they’ll be dancing. A small consolation considering what is at stake.
Until then, the questions will linger in the minds of an entire program and its fans.
Will the selection committee take into account the fact that Marquette has four quadrant 1 wins? Will it recognize the fact that the Golden Eagles have a better KenPom ranking than Oklahoma State and Alabama, two fellow bubble-dwellers? Will it reward the spectacular career of senior guard Andrew Rowsey, who despite the loss had 22 points and became one of five men in NCAA history to score 1,000 points at two schools?
“That’s for somebody else to decide,” Wojciechowski said.
Such is life on the bubble.