Marquette basketball: NIT-bound Golden Eagles’ long, frustrating season approaches an end

I’ll admit it, I thought this year would be a special one.

Even after losing Vander Blue to the NBA draft, I was confident that this experienced team would cruise through the re-aligned Big East. I figured the addition of the 11th ranked recruiting class in the nation would propel the Marquette Golden Eagles to the best finish in head coach Buzz Williams’ tenure.

This was supposed to be the year that Jamil Wilson was the star player, aided by the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, Devante Gardner. Chris Otule’s roller coaster of a career was going to end  with him on top, cutting down the net en route to Marquette’s first Final Four appearance since 2003. But these dreams never came anywhere close to panning out.

Maybe I had unreasonably high expectations, but I like to think I wasn’t the only one (after further review, I wasn’t…thanks, ESPN’s Adrian Branch).

Through the first five games of the season, the red flags should have been drawn. A 17-point drubbing at home to Ohio State, a road loss to Arizona State and close wins against mid-majors Southern University (63-56) and New Hampshire (58-53) should have warned me to not be so confident.

Well into December, the losses continued to pile up and it was obvious that inconsistent play would be the downfall of this team. Marquette shot 49 percent in those losses, but I kept “drinking the Kool-Aid”.

I still had confidence that Marquette, coming off an Elite 8 appearance, would roll through the Big East with no major obstacles (aside from Villanova, Creighton and Georgetown at the time). They’ve defeated the odds so much in the past, I’d become accustom to watching resilient Marquette teams fight down the stretch and make it to “the dance”.

Time and time again, I’ve known not to doubt Marquette. Never count them out. That’s the mentality that’s been driven into student-athletes emphatically by Buzz in his six years as head coach. That’s Marquette basketball.

A frustrated Devante Gardner knows he'll finish his college career in the NIT. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

A frustrated Devante Gardner knows he’ll finish his college career in the NIT. (Photo credit: AP/Frank Franklin II)

But all season long, they failed to find a consistent identity. Yet, I still couldn’t fathom Marquette not making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. Side note: I remember how it felt sitting in the Bradley Center stands in 2005 after a 14-point loss to Western Michigan in the first round of the NIT. It was arguably the worst performance I’ve seen in-person from Marquette. It was It’s an empty feeling that I never wanted to experience again.

But late into the season, we finally saw glimpses of what this team was hyped up to be. Marquette went 5-1 in a crucial stretch during February, climbed as high as third place in the conference standings and looked like they may squeek into the NCAA tournament. But in typical fashion, it didn’t last.

Needing to win at least two of its last three games (Villanova, Providence, St. Johns) to have a chance at the “bubble“, they collapsed and lost all of them.

The only chance that remained for the Golden Eagles to make the NCAA tournament was to win three straight games at Madison Square Garden in three days.

There were never any high hopes, but a first round match-up versus Xavier seemed like a winnable game. Marquette received a break when it was reported that Xavier’s starting center, Matt Stainbrook, was ruled out of the game with a knee injury. As it turned out, Stainbrook did his best Willis Reed impression (in the same place as Reed did) and recorded 15 minutes. The presence of the 6-foot-10 junior was enough to stop Marquette from scoring inside late in the game.

Marquette freshman Deonte Burton dominated the paint area all game long, but for whatever reason, Buzz kept him on the bench for the a majority of the last seven minutes.

Burton finished with a career-high 23 points, but it should have been more. There’s no question that Buzz should have stayed with the hot hand, and I’m not sure what he was thinking.

Xavier won the game 68-65 and put the final dagger in any hopes the Golden Eagles had at the NCAA tournament.

The sporadic play throughout the year had finally culminated, and Marquette finished the year on a season-high four game losing streak.

The premonitions I had of a successful Marquette season were dashed and turned into nightmares by three letters: N-I-T.

EDIT: Now that Selection Sunday has come and gone, it turns out that Marquette didn’t receive an invite for the NIT. I guess that was the most appropriate way for this type of season to end. The year ends with a 17-15 overall record.

Thanks to the seniors, Chris, Devante, Jamil and Jake. It stinks they have to go out this way, but all four were valuable in their own ways to the Marquette community.

What went wrong?

  • No consistency. Marquette’s longest win streak this season was three games. The last time that happened was in 2000-2001, when Brian Wardle led the his team to a 15-14 record Conference USA. From the start, the Golden Eagles never found a constant groove. Even with a win, things just never seemed right.
  • Struggles early on. Failing to secure a “quality win” in the non-conference portion of the season handicapped Marquette entering Big East play and it will haunt them on Selection Sunday. The biggest non-conference win came in November against George Washington (23-7). That, combined with an RPI ranking of 83  isn’t anywhere near NCAA tournament worthy.
  • Different style of offense. Marquette went away from its typical fast-paced, guard-oriented offense. I’m not necessarily blaming them…the best chance to score was by passing the ball into post to the big men. But the number of missed inside shots and empty trips was inexcusable. The Golden Eagles ranked 151st in offensive efficiency, the worst since the 1999-2000 season.
  • Poor shots. I found myself yelling at the TV more often this year because of ill-advised shots only a few seconds into the shot clock. Marquette shot 44.1 percent from the field, the worst percentage since the 2006-2007 (43.7) season.
  • No takeover players. As the cliche goes, basketball is a team game. That’s all well and good, but every good team has one guy they go to late in the games. In the past, names like Jae Crowder, Darius Johnson-Odom, Jimmy Butler and Jerel Mcneal wanted the ball in clutch situations and thrived with it. This season, there was never really was that one guy. Todd Mayo was counted on late in the season as the go-to guy, but it was basically a revolving door prior to that. Gardner, Wilson (Jamil)  and Thomas all tried, but never proved to be consistent performers.
  • Free throw shooting. The Golden Eagles shot 69.2 percent from the line, the worst since 2006-2007. They shot 25.5 free throws a game, the most since 2008-2009 (26.2). With a +3.7 average scoring margin, free throws were a huge part of each game and played a huge role in the outcome of games.
  • They could never shut the door. Marquette failed to close games down the stretch. Aside from a handful of double-digit losses, they always seemed like they were in games. Marquette went into halftime with a lead 54.8 percent of the time, but the combination of bad shots and going away from the game plan made leads evaporate.

Some good news…

  • Young athleticism is for the foreseeable future. Deonte Burton is a stud. He saw his minutes increase late in the season and averaged 14 points in the last four games. It’s going to be fun to see him develop in the coming years. Indiana transfer Luke ischer will bolster the inside even after losing three solid big men. Look for Steve Taylor Jr. to get a bigger role in the offense, provided he doesn’t transfer to another school. Next years’ recruiting class features two exciting guards in Sandy Cohen and Ahmed Hill. They both have sky-high potential and add a different dynamic to the offense. Add Duane Wilson back into the mix after medically red-shirtting and Marquette has a young, talented 2014-2015 roster. Don’t you worry Marquette, Good things are on the horizon.
  • Todd Mayo will be back for another year. I had a problem trusting Mayo early on in his career. His problems academically and with team rules cost him valuable minutes, but he finally had his time in the spotlight this season. He averaged 11.3 points in 23.8 minutes and showed the ability to be the clutch player that Marquette needs. He is one of the only guards (Derrick Wilson, too) on the roster this season to actually penetrate the lane and force the defense to stop him. In the last three games (even though they were all losses), Mayo averaged 23.3 points and made big shots down the stretch. Look for Mayo to be the top offensive priority next year.
  • The streak still going strong. A 9-9 conference record means that Marquette still hasn’t finished below .500 in the Big East in its history. This is impressive feat spans nine seasons against high quality competition.
  • Every good team has an off year. I know, it sounds like a cop-out, but even the good teams have a bad year. Kentucky and North Carolina the most recent teams.
  • There’s still the NIT, right?! Unfortunately, yes there is. Marquette is likely to receive an invitation from the NIT and will battle it out to determine who is the “best loser”. Joking aside, it should be interesting to see what Marquette can do in the invitational tournament. It’s hard to watch the seniors (Gardner, J. Wilson, Thomas and Otule) go out this way, but they were a great group that offered different talents. I’m hopeful I get to watch them play in Marquette uniforms a few more times, albeit in the NIT.

As I sit here writing this (a little bitter, of course), I realize it’s hard to reflect upon a season that never really got going. There was never a high-spot and plenty of low-spots. We entered the season with unreal expectations, and rightfully so. This particular roster never matched the chemistry previous Buzz teams had, and as we were reminded it’s tough to stomach.