Le Swoon~~Dan Pfeifer

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Villanova struggles putting Marquette’s season in peril

With a sea of students on the court in front of them, and a number of staff members and well-heeled season ticket holders taking cell phone video behind them, Marquette’s players stood atop the scorer’s table and celebrated. Minutes earlier, they won what many called the biggest regular-season victory in school history. It was a triumphant moment of community joy few ever get to experience.

Marquette’s 74-72 win over top-seeded Villanova Jan. 24 became a watershed night. I wrote a blog about how I wasn’t there, in which I said the following about the win: “ … it’s hard to picture [Marquette] out of the bracket now … I don’t think the #FireWojo hashtag has any validity left this season. Early-season knocks on [Katin] Reinhardt [and] Luke Fischer, who appears fully back to form after a cold stretch … now feel like the distant past.” Could it get any better than that?

Just over three weeks later, it sure doesn’t seem like it. That night, imagining Marquette, as confident and empowered as it looked both during and after consecutive wins over ranked Creighton and Villanova, reverting back to the errors that plagued it in previous losses seemed impossible. Alas, that’s exactly what Marquette has done.

MU is 1-4 since the Villanova win. The skid started innocently enough: A close home loss to Providence, where one better possession at the end of the game leads to a different result. But then the wheels fell off at St. John’s, where the Red Storm had far more energy and set MU down by 14. DePaul provided the lone positive result, though it took an 18-0 first-half run to kickstart Marquette after it fell down early. The momentum didn’t carry over to a home tilt against Butler, where MU lost by three but was down most of the game. Then, at Georgetown this past Saturday, Marquette showed pancake-like flatness, never getting it going in an 18-point defeat.

Providence and Butler were Marquette’s first two home conference losses this season. Considering the DePaul victory came in front of more MU fans than Blue Demons supporters at Allstate Arena, Marquette’s only conference win away from a friendly crowd was at Creighton, where the Bluejays were still mourning Maurice Watson’s season-ending injury. A 4-2 BIG EAST record at home has been balanced out by a 2-5 road mark. Marquette finishes with three of five at the Bradley Center, but two of those three are against ranked teams in Creighton again and Xavier. One road game is at Xavier as well, while Marquette also travels to face a Friars team that’s already bested MU once.

We once said 10-8 in BIG EAST play would basically assure Marquette of an NCAA tournament berth. They’d have to turn the ship around and finish 4-1 for that to happen. It’s still possible, but will require much better play. A 3-2 record puts Marquette at 9-9. Which games they win would matter, as would how they do in the BIG EAST tournament. Many bracketologists now have Marquette on the fringes of the bracket, or even in a spot where their final dance will have been atop the scorer’s table. From beating number one to out of the tournament is a long, hard fall.

Marquette’s struggles have numerous causes. Freshmen Markus Howard and Sam Hauser have hit a proverbial wall. Against Georgetown, Fischer only played well for a stretch near the end of the first half. Only Andrew Rowsey has emerged as a somewhat consistent offensive threat. When Marquette isn’t hitting threes, and isn’t getting inside offense from Fischer, it doesn’t seem to have the defensive ability to get the stops needed to win.

The bigger story, though, may be how Steve Wojciechowski is trying to get his team back on track. There was a troubling moment for anyone watching Saturday’s loss on TV: At halftime, Wojciechowski told Fox Sports sideline reporter Lisa Byington his team needed to show more fight. As Byington relayed this to viewers at home, Fox cut to a shot of Wojo on the bench, where you could clearly read his lips shouting the exact same words — “We gotta fight!” — to unseen others downwind.

In the 80 seconds of game time following that sequence, Marquette let the Hoyas go on a 5-0 run that included a too-easy layup for L.J. Peak, two silly turnovers and a poorly defended jumper by Jessie Govan. When the team’s response to such vociferous cajoling is to look like a boxer paid to take a dive, you can’t help but question if the coach is getting through to his team.

Wojo works with his emotional meter in the red a lot. At some point, emotion only goes so far. Players will stop responding if they feel like they’re not also being given insightful answers as to what they need to do to succeed. In that case, the noise starts overwhelming the signal and nothing gets through.

Wojciechowski has occasionally said he doesn’t feel like the team has a leader. Duane Wilson stepped up some late against Georgetown, and Wojo subsequently said Wilson might need to be a starter going forward. But it’s up to Wojo to either bring in players with leadership ability or develop it among those he has. Some of that falls on the guys, but some of it falls to the coach.

While the players danced after the Villanova win, Wojo was on headset with Fox Sports 1. He repeatedly said the win couldn’t be the destination, but a step on the journey. He even said that such wins had derailed other teams before. He knew what could happen. To form, it’s happening, and that’s not good.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

ROSES ARE RED, SPLINTERS ARE BROWN, THE WAY MU’S PLAYING IS MAKING FANS FROWN: I recommend you scroll through this #mubb hashtag search on Twitter to see numerous amusing, poetic Valentine’s Day tweets about the team’s current play. You will laugh through the tears.

REMINISCING: With National Marquette Day upcoming, this week has featured a number of neat looks back at Marquette basketball history in this, its 100th-anniversary season. The section in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was a fun, interesting read, even though I don’t agree with Jim McIlvaine that Marquette would have ever considered “calling it a day on” D1 basketball. Speaking of Mac, Spectrum Sports replayed the 1994 team’s win over Kentucky last night, and there’s going to be a stand-alone Marquette alumni game at the Al McGuire Center Friday. History is a large part of what makes Marquette fun to follow. As there have been better days before, there will be better days ahead.

HOMESTAND: MU has home games against both Xavier Saturday and St. John’s Tuesday. 1-1 is expected. 2-0 is desired. 0-2 sinks Marquette’s season. It’s that simple.

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