So, has everyone had their fill of cupcakes? Good! Because now the real work begins.
The pushover portion of the season is now pretty much complete (with the exception of that random, late January match-up with Stetson), and YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles are sporting a 10-2 record while riding a nine game winning streak. But despite those seemingly promising numbers, there is still a lot of work to be done if MU hopes to end its two year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament.
A schedule full of the worst of the worst of college hoops programs has left Marquette severely lacking in the tournament resume department. They currently hold an RPI of 146, and a KenPom ranking of 83. Their current strength of schedule is rated number 320 (out of 351) in the country. They have a win over the hated Badgers, in Madison. But that doesn't carry nearly as much weight as it has in the past, due to Wisconsin's struggles this year. They beat LSU on a neutral court. That's good, but not so much in that it's a good win, but more because it's not a bad loss. That leaves a neutral court win over Arizona State (RPI 31, KenPom 51), as the lone good win propping up Marquette's paltry non-conference slate. If you put any faith into the scribblings of one Joe Lunardi, the Golden Eagles are amongst the first four out of the dance, as of last Tuesday.
FIRST FOUR OUT: Marquette, Wisconsin, Georgetown, UNLV. NEXT FOUR OUT: Wake, Oregon St, Colorado, Cal. FOUR MORE: StMary, URI, Tulsa, TTech.— Joe Lunardi (@ESPNLunardi) December 22, 2015
So, in order to overcome the lack of substance in the non-conference season, MU is going to have to get after it in Big East play.
According to both RPI (via espn.com) and KenPom, the Big East is essentially shaping up in three tiers. The first tier consists of Villanova, Xavier, Butler and Providence. The middle tier is home Seton Hall, Creighton and the confounding Georgetown Hoyas. The bottom rung includes St. John's, DePaul and YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles. The KenPom projections show MU going 7-11 in conference. Clearly, that ain't gonna get it done. Those projections have MU losing all its conference roadies, as well as dropping home games to Nova, X and Butler. Could things shake out that way? Absolutely, they could! But we've got our rose colored glasses on here, so let's try to imagine things going a little bit differently.
The first place to start is the game at DePaul. No self-respecting Marquette fan would ever pencil in a game against DePaul as a loss, and you know that Wojo is going to get on the guys about losing the lead to the Blue Demons last year in Rosemont. So let's flip that one into the win column, and presume MU goes 4-0 against St. John's and DePaul. If we want to be serious about dancing, those are games that we have to win.
Next, let's look at the top tier teams. KenPom has MU going 1-7 against those four teams - with the only W being a coin flip win over Providence in Milwaukee. Now, I'm not fool enough to think that this prediction is wildly off base. But again, we're looking for a way to the promised land here, so 1-7 probably isn't going to do the trick. So let's assume KenPom has it right and we can beat PC at home. That would mean we'd need to steal at least one more game against one of the league heavyweights, in order to find our way to The Dance. I'm not sure which one it might be and frankly, I don't care. But one more W against these four schools, for a 2-6 mark against this group.
That leaves that middle group. KenPom says we split with Hall, G'Town, and Creighton. Realistically, if we want to make the tourney, 3-3 against that crew will not cut it. This is where MU has to make some hay, if the dream is to become reality. I suggest a sweep of Hall, a sweep of Creighton and a split with the enigma that is Georgetown, for a 5-1 mark against the middle tier of the conference is what it will take to propel the Golden Eagles to the tourney this year. That's a tall order, to be sure. Each of these schools have postseason aspirations of their own, and they're thinking the same thing about Marquette. But if we're going to dream, we might as well dream big. Plus, any loss to this group would then need to be offset by a win against the top group - which we've already documented, is a tough task.
This alternate projection would leave Marquette with an 11-7 Big East record and, if Arizona State holds its own in the Pac-12, at least three top 50 RPI wins on the resume. Then, if we can avoid a misstep in the first round of the Big East Tournament, the worst loss on that resume is Belmont (currently no. 89 RPI/100 KenPom). No doubt that is one bubblicious resume, but it could be enough to get it done - especially with some of the bad losses that other major conference team have absorbed already this season (ahem... looking at you, Georgetown).
Is this the best case scenario? Of course not. The BEST case scenario is MU comes out and totally takes everyone by surprise and wins 13 or 14 games. But while I may be excessively optimistic at times, I'm not a complete idiot. This could be a semi-realistic path that could lead the Golden Eagles out of the wilderness, and back to the bright lights of March.