What a short, strange trip it's been.
Just two and a half months ago, YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles bore little resemblance to the team that clinched a top-4 finish in the Big East with Saturday's 72-64 victory over the hated Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
On December 20, 2012, Marquette sat with a less-than-inspiring 7-3 mark on the season, having just been embarrassed by the UW-Green Bay Phoenix in an effort so ugly that we couldn't even write a proper recap of the carnage, instead opting to match MU's half-assed performance with a half-assed apology to Dr. James Naismith.
In the 18 games Marquette has played since the Retching at the Resch Center, they've managed a 14-4 mark and might have finished their most impressive week of the season with the pantsing of the Domers, where it quickly became evident that the only question at the end of the day would be Marquette's margin of victory.* The Golden Eagles blasted off to a quick 12-3 advantage, blew it up to a 15-point margin when Todd Mayo hit a transition three to make the score 31-16, and coasted from there, never letting the Irish get closer than nine points the rest of the way.
* Correction: there was one other question: would Mike Brey use all his timeouts in the first half? In what qualified as a mild upset, after calling four TOs in the first 15 minutes of action, Brey decided to save his last time out for the second half.
How did we get from "fingers crossed for an NIT berth" to "outside shot at a Big East title, and certain NCAA Tournament appearance" in the span of 73 days? Let's count the ways.
- Jamil Wilson has started doing Jamil Wilson things more often. He was the only cat who showed up in the game at UWGB, scoring 16 points (including 4-5 from three-point range) and grabbing 4 rebounds, but never really taking control of the game the way he did on Saturday, when he continued his emergence as Marquette's most effective weapon against the loathsome 2-3 zone defense with 19 points on a variety of mid-range jumpers, a three, and six free throws.
- Vander Blue has been very good, and when he's not, he hasn't forced the issue. Saturday was another ho-hum showing for Blue, who managed just six points on 3-8 shooting. But unlike the game against UWGB, where he chucked from deep early and often even though his shot was broke (0-5), Vander was content to let his teammates pick up the slack on Saturday, chipping in with four rebounds, three assists, and a steal in 32 minutes.
- Trent Lockett: Ultimate Glue Guy has come into his own. Being the stat-inclined modern man that I am, I bristle at terms like "clutch" and "winning plays" and other trite coach-speak that gets tossed out when people can't explain why a certain player is good. But Trent Lockett makes winning plays. On Saturday, for the third time this season, he blocked a jumper in the final two minutes of the game when the opponent was threatening to make things interesting. He followed that up by grabbing an offensive rebound on a missed free throw and forcing a jump ball, which gave Marquette another possession (which Vander promptly wasted, but that's neither here nor there). You win with guys like Trent Lockett. I really wish we had him for another year.
- If this is his last go-round, Chris Otule is making the most of it. In December, Big Chris was a shell of the player we saw in 2010-'11 (and at the beginning of 2011-'12): getting limited run because of his conditioning, struggling to get up and down the floor, and a total afterthought on offense. Now, Otule has his legs back, and with that development has come a massive boost in confidence, as the offense regularly runs through Big Chris in the first four minutes of the game. On Saturday, Otule put it all together, dominating Jack Cooley and whoever else ND threw at him to the tune of 16 points on 8-8 shooting, four rebounds, and two blocks.
- Steve Taylor might be the X factor. Two months ago, after getting 3 minutes of run against UWGB, it looked like Taylor was in danger of being relegated to the end of the bench. Now, he's filling a role and doing it with aplomb: he only earned 6 minutes of court time on Saturday, but he put home a gorgeous three-pointer, had a rebound and an assist, and provided great energy on defense.
- The Big Smoove Hour featuring Davante Gardner is airing weekly on a television near you.
Toss in Junior Cadougan's steady play at home, Todd Mayo's instant offense off the bench, Juan Anderson's energy, and a Herculean coaching effort by Buzz Williams, and you've got the makings of a pretty nice outfit. I have no idea if they're going to find success in the Big East Tournament or the Dance, but for today, I don't really care. They're miles and miles away from where they were two months ago, and that qualifies the season as a hit already. Well done, lads.
The awards, then:
Jae Crowder Player of the Year of the Game: After the game, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett were honored as the two "we're sure they're not coming back" seniors on Marquette's roster, since Chris Otule has another year of eligibility if he wants it. If it was me, though, I might've asked them to bring out another easel and framed jersey for me, because I don't know if you can get a better senior night performance than 8-8 from the floor and 16 points against Our Lady of Perpetual Smugness.
Joe Fulce Undersung Eagle of the Game: Junior Cadougan wasn't outstanding in his last game in the Bradley Center (seven points, two rebounds, four assists, two steals), but he set the pace with an early three-pointer and was cool as a cucumber on the mike after the game, tossing in a Rock impression for those who stayed to send off Cadougan and Lockett.
Davante "Big Smoove" Gardner Smoove Play of the Game: There are certain things that happen in a basketball game that make you say: "This is our day." Chris Otule hitting a spinning, left-handed hook shot over Jack Cooley is one of those things.
Up Next: The last trip to the RAC as a member of the Big East (v.1.5), as YOUR Golden Eagles invade the Garden State tomorrow to battle the Rutgers Scarlet Knights