Will leader emerge for Marquette basketball?

Marquette Golden Eagles
Todd Mayo (Photo credit: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today)

With Selection Sunday little more than a month away (March 16), the Marquette basketball (13-10, 5-5) team faces an uphill battle.

Coming off a 2012-2013 season that saw the Golden Eagles win a share of the Big East title, en route to an Elite Eight appearance, expectations were understandably high. Marquette was picked in preseason polls to finish first place in the newly re-aligned Big East and entered the best recruiting class of head coach Buzz Williams’ tenure.

The 2013-2014 class featured three ESPN Top 100 ranked players: guard JaJuan Johnson, forward Deonte Burton and guard Duane Wilson. Add guard John Dawson to the mix and it figured to be yet another promising season. But that hasn’t been the case.

Unfortunately for Wilson, he suffered a stress fracture in his left leg during the infamous “Boot Camp” portion of Williams’ offseason workout and was forced to medically redshirt this season. Wilson figured to be the starting point guard, meaning junior Derrick Wilson has been thrust into the starting role.

Early non-conference losses to the likes of Ohio State, Arizona State, San Diego State, Wisconsin and New Mexico left the Golden Eagles in crisis mode come the start of conference play.

The main culprit of the slow start has been an uncharacteristically poor offense. Marquette ranks 211th in points-per-game (70.5) and 197th (.440) in field goal percentage.

Despite the statistics, Marquette doesn’t lack offensive firepower, by any means.

Senior forward Devante Gardner – all 6-foot-8, 290 pounds of him – leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.7 PPG. Primarily coming off the bench as a six man, he’s been exerting his presence in the paint more than ever. Alongside him, senior forward Jamil Wilson averages 11.3 points, but inconsistent play has made him lack the confidence he once had.

One of the problems is that no player has stepped up and taken over a game. In previous years, names such as Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Darius Johnson-Odom and Vander Blue led their teams in clutch moments, evident by Marquette’s two Sweet 16’s and one Elite Eight appearance in its last three years.

Secondly, poor shot selection has slowed the offense. Marquette is ranked 334th in the nation for three-point shooting percentage (.293), despite averaging 15.1 three-point attempts per game. The offense has been going away from working the ball inside the paint to their big men, often settling for a poor shot.

Marquette has the players to guide the team to its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, but the clock is ticking.

The Golden Eagles haven’t won two consecutive games since December 17. Since then, they’ve followed up a every conference loss with a victory, and then another loss. This trend has caused frustration among both fans – they booed the team at home last Thursday (January 30) – and players.

Eight conference games remain on the schedule: four at home (Xavier, Creighton, Georgetown, St. Johns) and four on the road (Seton Hall, DePaul, Villanova, Providence). With a 5-5 conference record, Marquette must run the table the rest of the way for a chance at an at-large bid. They really can only afford to lose two more games for chance to be on the bubble.

Would a 19-12 and 11-7 record in the lackluster Big East be enough to convince the selection committee? I would like to think so, but the absence of non-conference quality wins early in the season will hurt Marquette’s chances.

Either way, Marquette must come with a must-win mentality every game.