Uncharted Waters: Marquette could sail into games of irrelevance

There are levels of importance, or unimportance, in college basketball. A regular-season conference championship doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Conferences aren’t as geographically limited as they used to be, and with even the Ivy League having a tournament now, most folks identify the tournament-winner as the champion, making the regular season a little less meaningful than when conferences were more like-minded, closely located schools. Furthermore, what you do in a conference seems to take a back seat in a lot of fans’ mind to what you do in the NCAA tournament, and, for players who have pro prospects, the NCAA tournament, and college as a whole, can come off as pretty meaningless. Zion Williamson’s injury last week made us all kind of wonder what college basketball is truly worth.

That said, it still means something to be able to say you’re better than your peers. If No. 10 Marquette beats Villanova tonight, it’ll be three games ahead of the Wildcats in the loss column and will have assured itself a share of the BIG EAST regular-season title and the top seed in the BIG EAST Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Marquette couldn’t feel much better about its situation going into the game. MU played perhaps its most complete game of the season Saturday against Providence, overcoming stretches where both Markus Howard and Joseph Chartouny left the game with minor injuries to still beat the Friars by 18 on the road. Providence coach and renowned pants-splitterEd Cooley had seen enough of Howard pouring in points against his team and did everything in his power to try and slow the star junior down. Instead, Sam Hauser went 7-for-10, Joey Hauser 6-for-8, Sacar Anim 8-for-12 and even Ed Morrow sunk five of the seven shots he took. Providence sent a message to the rest of college basketball about shutting down Howard: You can do it, but at your own peril.

Meanwhile, Villanova is sliding. They’ve lost three-straight. They let a Xavier team, which, admittedly, plays good basketball in Cincinnati, run them over in the final minutes Sunday. In the first meeting between Marquette and Villanova, Marquette didn’t play its best basketball and still found a way to beat the Wildcats when Villanova wasn’t impressive. ‘Nova seems pretty far removed from the team we’ve seen win two national titles, though they’re still dangerous enough to be taken seriously.

If Marquette beats Villanova, it’ll have three games — three whole regular-season games — in which it will have little to play for beyond national ranking and tournament seeding. Wojciechowski certainly won’t want to put Cam Marotta into the starting lineup, don’t be surprised if he gives Howard, the Hausers and others a chance to rest their legs a little more with different rotations.

The challenge for Marquette, on the heels of the Providence game, is proving it hasn’t peaked too soon.

How will Wojciechowski’s charges handle the situation? We don’t know because they’ve never been anywhere close to this before. The last time Marquette won a regular-season title was under Buzz Williams in 2013. A long-time independent, Marquette’s only won three regular-season championships, each in a differently named league (the short-lived Great Midwest Conference in 1994, Conference USA in 2003 and the BIG EAST the last time around).

In 2017, the only time Wojo has taken a Marquette team to the NCAA Tournament, Marquette was a pretty safe bet the moment it beat then top-ranked Villanova, but was definitely playing for seeding and had a hangover after the court-storming that resulted in it losing some silly games. Inconsistent play was a hallmark of the Wojo era before this year, though they’ve cured a lot of ills this season.

Perhaps the best comparable situation for this Marquette regime, crazy enough, might be last year’s NIT. Those games certainly didn’t mean all that much, and with Marquette kind of awkwardly between arenas, the games were played at the Al McGuire Center. After a feeling-out game against Harvard, Marquette played some of the best basketball we saw in the Wojo era against Oregon, then seemed flat before missing out on a return to Madison Square Garden with a loss to Penn State. With that team, though, you’re also talking about a group who had an inconsistent Andrew Rowsey, and one that was capable of playing bad, bubble-busting basketball against DePaul in late February to knock itself out of the dance. This Marquette team has had dry moments offensively, but doesn’t seem capable of playing that poorly, even at its worst. Paint Touches did a great job last week of noting that this Marquette team seems to find an extra gear when needed. Teams like that don’t typically have complete collapses over multiple games without a crucial injury.

It’s hard to say what’s going to happen. Different coaches approach these kinds of games in different ways. It’s too early for us to ask the question yet, but hopefully the question will get asked if Marquette wins tonight.

Given the team’s slogan is “Win Every Day,” I’m thinking we’re not going to see things change much, even if there’s nothing on the line in at least one or two of these coming games. But the risk of something happening to a key player has to be taken into account.

You could argue that, before Marquette plays Villanova, is too early to ask these questions. But as we stare down the prospect of a very important game that could make other games unimportant, it’s important to at least have a plan in mind. Even with the college game’s levels of unimportance, the most important thing is still winning in March, and Marquette is in a spot where it wants to be its most ready to do exactly that.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

I’M READY: With Williamson out and Marquette on the precipice of securing the BIG EAST’s top spot, I feel like the next couple weeks are just kind of filler before we get to March Madness. In a way, it’s a little anti-climactic. I’m not saying it necessarily won’t have stuff to watch. I am saying it feels like we’re just waiting for Selection Sunday. Not really more to say than that.

Of course, it gets more interesting if Marquette doesn’t win tonight. But given the choice between nervous drama and no drama, I think fans will take no drama any day of the week.

FLORIDA’S NICE: For what it’s worth, if you’re wondering why the last couple blogs were on kind of an odd schedule, my wife and I took a break and headed to Florida last weekend to spend a day in Orlando and another at the Daytona 500. In case you’re wondering, we were seated off Turn 1, and the big one occurred off Turn 3, so no, we had nothing to do with it.

NOT JUST NOVA: Marquette also has a game Sunday against Creighton. It may be for the outright top spot in the conference, or it may be a game in which Marquette needs to bounce back. Tonight’s the big one first.

Photo: Getty Images

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