MILWAUKEE — Toss any chance of an at-large bid out the window. Marquette must win the Big East tournament in order to go to its ninth consecutive NCAA tournament.
It’s a position the Golden Eagles haven’t been in since 2005, the last time they appeared in the NIT. The quest for three wins in three days begins Thursday against Xavier in the Big East quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.
"Do we have to win it? I would say probably," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "It’s hard to say … but we definitely have to be in the championship game in order to get into the conversation."
Two teams head to New York feeling good about their chances, as league champion Villanova and Creighton are locks to be in the tournament. Xavier needs a victory over Marquette to feel safe on Selection Sunday, while Providence, Georgetown and St. John’s have work to do this weekend.
Picked as the preseason favorite to win the league, Marquette finished a disappointing 17-14 and 9-9 in league play. With an RPI of 85 and a record of 2-10 against the top 50 of the RPI, the Golden Eagles aren’t even on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Marquette hasn’t traveled to the Big East tournament even needing to win multiple games to get in since 2010. The Golden Eagles entered as the 11 seed, beating Providence in the opening round before upsetting West Virginia in the second round.
Williams feels the mindset is different knowing there’s only one way into the NCAA tournament.
"I do think that it changes the mode of operation, because you know you have to win in order to stay and you have to win in order to have a chance to go to the NCAA tournament," Williams said. "Not everybody in our organization was here in (2010), but we’ll all feel that way in (2014)."
The third-seeded Musketeers are up first and will be playing without junior center Matt Stainbrook. Xavier’s third-leading scorer at 10.6 points per game and leading rebounder at 7.8 per game, Stainbrook strained the MCL in his left knee in a loss to Seton Hall on March 3.
Xavier coach Chris Mack ruled Stainbrook out on Monday’s Big East coaches’ conference call, saying the earliest he could return is for Saturday’s championship game.
"He’s really diligent," Mack said. "He’s been in our training room twice a day since the injury. But we were told from the beginning to not even think about Matt returning until 10 days, and at 10 days they would re-evaluate. That would put us at Saturday.
"Obviously that doesn’t help us for Thursday night or the possibility for Friday, but we’ve known that from the beginning, so we’ll be playing without Matt on Thursday with the hopes that we can advance to the final. At that point hopefully we can get him in uniform and he’ll be able to play."
Without Stainbrook on the court, Davante Gardner should be able to continue the success he’s had in the two meetings between the teams this season. While Gardner has averaged 17.5 points per game against the Musketeers, senior guard Jake Thomas has had two great games when facing Xavier.
Thomas scored 17 points on five 3-pointers in Marquette’s 86-79 loss in Cincinnati and had 18 points on a career-high six triples in the Golden Eagles’ 81-72 victory at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
"When he has space, he stretches the defense," Williams said. "When he has space, there’s a good chance he’ll make a shot. He did play really well (against Xavier), especially when we played at their place. He mirrored the same sort of game when we played them here."
Xavier shot over 52 percent in both meetings against Marquette, a number Williams feels must go down if the Golden Eagles are to advance to Friday’s semifinals.
"We’ve scored enough points in both games to win, but we’ll have to do a better job defensively to win," Williams said. "It’s hard to win when an opponent is shooting over 50 percent. It was different in how they shot over 50 percent at their place and how they shot over 50 percent at our place."
If Marquette were to get past Xavier, second-seeded Creighton or seventh-seeded Georgetown would likely await. The Golden Eagles swept the two-game season series from the Hoyas and lost twice to the Bluejays. Creighton blew out Marquette in Omaha but needed overtime to win in Milwaukee.
Can the Golden Eagles get hot and go on a run? Sure, but the odds are slim. Xavier is beatable and Marquette took Creighton and Villanova to overtime this year, but taking games from all three in consecutive days is unlikely.
Marquette has advanced to the semifinals of the Big East tournament just twice since joining the league and has never played in the championship game. The Golden Eagles are 5-5 at the conference tournament under Williams but have been one and done as a high seed the last two years.
But to completely rule out a championship run would be foolish, as Marquette plays its best when its back is against the wall.
The Golden Eagles have played two straight double-overtime games, overcoming second-half deficits in both.
"It speaks to the character of our kids," Williams said. "It’s hard in one week to lose two games in double overtime, both by a point. At any point in time we could have folded the tents.
"When you lose in the manner that we did, it makes you as a coach, it makes you study more things than if you had got beat by 10 or 12. We’ve got to find ways to tighten those things over the next three days where we can get better and give ourselves a chance against Xavier on Thursday night."