Last Saturday, Marquette men’s basketball picked up a 74-68 overtime victory over #12 Wisconsin in front of a capacity crowd at Fiserv Forum. The win puts Marquette on a five game winning streak for the first time since November 22-December 6 of the 2016-17 season and gives MU three wins against KenPom top 40 teams before Finals Week even officially got started. It was also Marquette’s second straight victory against a ranked opponent, and in a bit of a coincidence, both Kansas State and Wisconsin were ranked #12 at the time of their respective game in the Associated Press poll.
It was a big win for the Golden Eagles and for head coach Steve Wojciechowski in a lot of ways. You could go so far as to say that given the stature of the opponent in the national spotlight, the prominence of the game due to the in-state rivalry, and the sold-out crowd in the building, things are trending up for MU in terms of fanbase enthusiasm and overall attention to the program. It’s a momentum building kind of game, not in terms of “the team has momentum for their next game,” but from the aspect of “people have a reason to give a damn about Marquette hoops and will turn out in droves to see the Golden Eagles.”
That made me stop and think: Was Saturday’s win over Wisconsin the first ever momentum building win with Steve Wojciechowski at the helm?
It’s not a secret that Wojo’s tenure as head coach has, to put it lightly, not gone as well as a lot of people may have hoped through his first four seasons. There are mitigating factors here and there to explain why that might be the case, but we can all agree that Wojo has not notably and significantly overachieved with any of his four previous teams. My general sense of the last four years is that there’s been a lot of “hey, maybe this is going somewhere good!...... WELP, maybe not.”
So, let’s dig around and see if that sense is right!
Year 1! Buzz Williams is gone and Mike Krzyzewski’s long-term top lieutenant is taking over! Good times! Well, okay, maybe not, as MU opens up 1-2 with a loss to Nebraska-Omaha and then follows that up with a strugglefest win against NJIT. That sends the Golden Eagles off to the Orlando Classic, and no one is particularly thrilled about the prospects.
Except! Marquette goes 2-1, with Matt Carlino willing MU to a win in game #1 and Duane Wilson doing the same in game #3, and MU looks perfectly respectable in an 11 point loss to #20 Michigan State in the middle. 4-3 after seven games and signs of life after a rocky start! Pretty neat!
BUZZKILL #1: Wisconsin 49, Marquette 38
Yeah, this was a Bucky team coming off a Final Four appearance and one that would end up in the national championship game.... but Marquette looked awful in a bad loss that made no one feel good about anything. Things got notably worse for Wojo when John Dawson and Deonte Burton exited immediately after that, but hey: Luke Fischer was finally eligible to play, so that’s something, right? MU wins in Fischer’s debut against Arizona State and snags three wins against buy game opponents to move the record to 8-4 and prompt this “hey, postseason? Maybe?” article from yours truly.
BUZZKILL #2: DePaul 61, Marquette 58
The Golden Eagles blow a 13 point lead with 11 minutes remaining at the Rosemont Horizon. Yeah.
Marquette would eventually find their way to 2-2 in the Big East following a thrilling victory against Creighton, and while that didn’t have people thinking as positively as they were two weeks earlier, there had to be a “hey, that’s okay now!” going around.
BUZZKILL #3: Marquette loses their next six games.
And thus the positivity for the season died.
Okay! New season! Lots of new freshmen! Henry Ellenson! Let’s see what we’ve got here!
BUZZKILL #1: Marquette loses their opener to Belmont.
Yes, Belmont is always a quality foe under the guidance of Rick Byrd, and this particular team was coming off an NCAA tournament appearance and would go on to be the regular season champ in the OVC. A starting lineup with three freshmen was probably going to struggle against them, and MU ended up throwing away two late possessions because of freshman errors. However, we’re talking about things that build or break the positive mindset of the non-hardcore fans that maybe don’t get super deep into mid-major hoops, and they couldn’t be very thrilled with this loss.
BUZZKILL #2: Marquette never gets out of the gate against Iowa.
If you came out of the Belmont loss and the IUPUI win saying “hey, Belmont’s a real team and hey, they fought off IUPUI with all those freshmen out there, so maybe it’s okay?” Yeah, no. This one started out 18-6 favoring the Hawkeyes and that was pretty much that.
Those were two big stones in the pond off the top of the slate, and even after Marquette beat LSU and Arizona State in the Legends Classic, the Golden Eagles had no chance to have a momentum building win. They went to Brooklyn essentially starting at zero, and when they came back with the tourney win, there was a wasteland of low-major buy games ahead of them. Wojo had scheduled this way because he was expecting a freshman-heavy team, so yaaaaay beating Grambling by 40+ and so forth. There was a 57-55 victory at Wisconsin in there, and yes, that win ended up driving Bo Ryan into retirement, but it was followed up with wins over Chicago State and Presbyterian, and that didn’t make anyone feel better.
83-63, and any goodwill from the nine game winning streak goes completely bye-bye. That one is followed up with a road loss to Georgetown, but then an upset of #8 Providence is followed by a comeback home win against St. John’s. Mindsets were hesitant, though, as that led to back-to-back games against excellent Villanova and Xavier teams. Those ended up being the losses that you’d think, and while the Xavier game was only an eight point margin at home, the Musketeers flipped the game over with a 22-0 run in the first half and that was that.
BUZZKILL #4: Marquette loses at home to DePaul.
Luke Fischer fouls Billy Garrett with 1.1 seconds remaining, he makes the bucket AND the freebie, prayer misses, MU loses.
Marquette is now 2-5. Another win over St. John’s, a weird buy game against Stetson that was closer than necessary, and a win against Butler got MU to 15-7 and 4-5 in the Big East. That one was at home, but no one was really buying in at that point.
BUZZKILL #5: Marquette loses their next two games, both on the road.
Another beatdown from Seton Hall, another tight one against Xavier. Two losses, though, so emotions were running low when Marquette took two overtimes to knock off #20 Providence.
BUZZKILL #6: Marquette loses to Creighton at home.
Very next game, and that one was at home. Marquette drops to 5-8 in Big East play, thus putting them in position to need to win out to have a shot at the NCAA tournament, which they do not accomplish, losing at home to Villanova and losing badly on the road to Butler to finish at 8-10.
Moving on, shall we?
A season opening win against Vanderbilt at the Naval Academy is followed by an easy win over Howard at home, and then.....
BUZZKILL #1: Marquette gets crushed by Michigan and blows a lead against Pitt.
Woo. What appeared to be a cointoss game against the Wolverines got out of hand quickly as MU trailed by 24 at the half, and then a 10 point lead against the Panthers with 13 minutes to play evaporated and Marquette failed to score for the final 2:30.
Marquette follows that up with five straight wins: three mismatched buy games, a 10 point win at Georgia, but then a squeaker at home against Fresno State. That leads directly into
BUZZKILL #2: A nine point home loss to Wisconsin.
And so much for nice thoughts.
Two more buy games get Marquette to a Big East opening win against Georgetown, and MU is 10-3 and 1-0 in the league.
BUZZKILL #3: Seton Hall gets all of the offensive rebounds to rally to beat Marquette.
That sucked. It was also followed by a road loss to Villanova where the Wildcats got out to an early 10 point lead and just kind of stayed there the whole time. MU won the next two, including a wild overtime game against the Pirates and a crushing of DePaul. That’s fun.
BUZZKILL #4: Marquette blows a 16 point halftime road lead against #13 Butler in front of a national television audience.
This one is particularly notable because of the television aspect. It was part of the MLK Day Big East marathon on FS1, and with an 11am Central tipoff, the entirety of the college basketball world was paying attention. And then MU threw up all over themselves in the second half. That’s bad!
There is good news ahead, though. Marquette goes into Omaha and cracks Creighton right in the face immediately after the Jays lost Maurice Watson for the year, and that is followed up with the win against #1 Villanova. That’s super great! Everyone’s feeling really good about the Golden Eagles, who are now 14-6 and 5-3 in the Big East!
BUZZKILL #5: Marquette loses four of the next five, with the only win coming against DePaul.
Clap hands, squeal for joy, etc. For better or for worse, this effectively murders any momentum that could have been building after the Villanova win. Hell, the goodwill from the Villanova win was effectively gone after 20 minutes, as Marquette trailed Providence by eight at the half at home in the very next game. Marquette got two chances to win that game, largely because Andrew Rowsey Thing’d MU back into the game with less than 40 seconds to play, but they still couldn’t win it. That just snowballed from there. After the four in five, MU was then 6-7 in Big East play and needed a huge rally to squeak into the NCAA tournament. In fairness, they pulled it off, winning four of the last five regular season games. However, those wins came against Xavier, which was now without the injured for the year Edmond Sumner and without a fully healthy Trevon Bluiett, as well as another go-round with Creighton as they collapsed down the stretch. With all of those games qualifying as “you’d better damn win,” Marquette can’t get any momentum credit for any of those wins, and the loss was the Slip ‘N’ Slide game at Providence.
Marquette did manage to make it into the NCAA tournament after losing to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament, but South Carolina gave MU the business, so while it was Wojo’s first ever NCAA appearance, it’s not like anyone walked away feeling very good about the experience.
This is an interesting season to look back at in terms of building fanbase momentum. Coming out of Wojo’s first NCAA tournament appearance, there was reason to at least question whether or not the team could replicate that success. There was a decent amount of turnover on the roster and the defense was objectively bad the year before. Could the new pieces fall into place and provide the pop on the defensive end?
As we know now, the answer to that would end up being “no.”
BUZZKILL #1: Marquette gets clonked in the head over the final 15 minutes against Purdue.
A quality Boilermakers team comes to the Bradley Center and immediately throws a wet blanket over everything in sight. The game was expected to be something of a cointoss at the start, but Marquette fell behind by 11 in the first half, rallied to down just two at the break, and then let Purdue wander off the second half. Marquette followed up with a “well, that’s exactly what they had to do” 2-1 trip to the Maui Invitational, and then things hit the skids. Haanif Cheatham left the team upon returning from Hawaii, throwing the defensive question marks even further up in the air, and that same night, the Golden Eagles went to overtime with Eastern Illinois. Hey, look, maybe it was just an issue of ironing things out without Cheatham, so give them some time and maybe it’ll be fine.
BUZZKILL #2: Georgia wins, 73-66.
To a certain extent, Marquette made the NCAA tournament the year before because they had a road win over the Bulldogs in their back pocket. This was a home loss in the return bout, and that was not fun. A four game winning streak followed, including a quality win over Vermont and a laugher on the road against Wisconsin as a bad Badgers team got crippled by injuries. I hesitate to call a four point home loss to Xavier a buzzkill here, as the Musketeers ended up winning the league and earning a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it certainly didn’t win Marquette any friends, either.
Quite honestly, a 3-2 start to Big East play with relatively competitive losses to Xavier and Villanova was just fine.
BUZZKILL #3: Marquette lets Butler go on a 13-0 run and throws away a win in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
I’m sensing a trend.
Following an easy home win against DePaul, Marquette loses their next four games. At 4-7 in the league, Marquette suddenly finds themselves in a position where they can’t really take on losses, and they definitely can’t take on bad losses.
BUZZKILL #4: Shamorie Ponds goes God Mode.
BUZZKILL #5: LOL DEPAUL WINS
I’m running those two back to back, even though there were two wins in between them. Those two games effectively ended Marquette’s shot at a second straight NCAA tournament and also snuffed out any real thoughts about any positive momentum in the fanbase for the rest of the year.
Making it to the NIT quarterfinals was fun, especially if you were in the McGuire Center for those games, but it’s not like that inspired anyone.
One final entry in the “well, this didn’t make anyone feel good” log book, and it was just a few weeks ago.
BUZZKILL: Indiana pounces on Marquette from the jump.
The Golden Eagles threw the ball all over Assembly Hall and looked horrific on defense for the first time in the season, thus raising the question as to whether the good play that we saw against UMBC and Bethune Cookman was just a mirage.
The 24-0 run by Kansas two games later didn’t do anything to encourage anyone either, but I’m not going to try and convince anyone that “lost by 9 to the #2 team in the country” qualifies as a buzzkill kind of loss. It’s annoying as hell, sure, but it’s a close game against a great team at the final horn. Things happen.
Yep, beating Wisconsin appears to be Wojo’s first ever “HEY THIS IS GOING SOMEWHERE!” win that earns attention throughout the casual fan. It doesn’t hurt that it put Marquette back into the Associated Press top 25 after being gifted a brief appearance earlier in the season. Marquette accomplished two very real wins that made the national media sit up and take notice.
What matters now is continuing to build from here. Marquette doesn’t play again until December 18th, and then just three days after that, a very good Buffalo team comes into Fiserv Forum. Can the Golden Eagles pick up a second straight momentum win? Can they be riding an eight game winning streak when Big East action starts on New Year’s Day?