MILWAUKEE — This year’s Big East tournament will begin for Marquette as last year’s did — with a double bye into the quarterfinals. Safe to say the Golden Eagles are hoping for a different outcome, however.
Ranked No. 9 at the time, Marquette had the misfortune of running into a Louisville team catching fire on its way to the Final Four. Nonetheless, the Golden Eagles didn’t handle the layoff well and turned the ball over 26 times in the 84-71 loss.
Searching for a way to learn from the experience, Marquette coach Buzz Williams is making a few adjustments to the travel schedule this season. Instead of leaving Monday and spending an extra day in New York City, the Golden Eagles will practice in Milwaukee on Tuesday and then fly out so the staff can watch Day 1’s late games at Madison Square Garden.
“Last year we went a little too early because it was on spring break,” Williams said. “I thought it was better for us to be together in New York instead of our kids living in the dorm by themselves. I’m not saying that’s why we got beat, Louisville beat us from start to finish, but we’ll try it a little different this year.”
With the double bye also comes the challenge of preparing for the possibility of playing three different teams. The third-seeded Golden Eagles will open play in Thursday’s quarterfinals against sixth-seeded Notre Dame, 11th-seeded Rutgers or 14th-seeded DePaul.
One advantage Marquette has this season is that a different assistant coach was in charge of the regular-season scouting report for each of the three potential opponents, meaning each can focus again on one school.
Isaac Chew scouted Notre Dame, Brad Autry had Rutgers and Jerry Wainwright was in charge of preparing for DePaul. The Golden Eagles beat all three during the regular season.
“It works out perfect,” Williams said. “All three of our potential first-round games, we’ll have covered, which will be good.”
Marquette had a grueling travel schedule in late February and early March, and it continues heading into the Big East tournament. The Golden Eagles traveled to New Jersey to play Seton Hall on Feb. 19, then returned home briefly before playing Villanova in Philadelphia only four days later.
Flying back after facing the Wildcats, Marquette played a home game against Syracuse with just a day in between. After a week at home, the Golden Eagles flew to New Jersey to play Rutgers last Tuesday and then to New York to face St. John’s on Saturday. Now they fly right back to New York City this Tuesday for the conference tournament.
Despite racking up plenty of frequent-flyer miles, Marquette won its last four games and went 8-3 in February and March.
One advantage to playing the final regular-season game in the same building that hosts the conference tournament is familiarity. It doesn’t hurt the Golden Eagles got to celebrate a regular-season conference championship on the Madison Square Garden floor, either.
“For us to have a dry run (Friday and Saturday), we were able to go to the Garden and have shootaround, I think that’s good,” Williams said. “Trent Lockett had never been on that floor nor has Steve Taylor. Chris Otule tore his ACL on that floor, so for us to be back, I think that was good.”
And having that dry run and getting familiar with the arena is something that Marquette guard Vander Blue feels can help his team overcome the challenges of the wait the double bye brings.
“That’s really going to help us,” Blue said. “We already had a chance to play on that court this week and we really think that’s going to help us. Last year we didn’t have any chance to play (on the court), it was straight (to) game time when we got there.”
Still, the path to a Big East tournament championship won’t be easy. If Marquette can get out of the quarterfinals, fourth-ranked and second-seeded Louisville would likely await in the semifinals. Get by that, and a third meeting with fifth-ranked and top-seeded Georgetown could be the “reward” for making the title game.
Though the conference tournament won’t have too much of an impact as to where the Golden Eagles are seeded come Selection Sunday, Marquette isn’t taking this week lightly. It would have been easy for the team to find complacency with winning a share of the regular-season title. But even as roughly 80 fans greeted the team back to campus Saturday night, Blue wasn’t getting caught up in the celebration.
“We have to keep winning,” Blue said. “We can’t hang our heads on just winning a conference title. Now we have to focus on winning the Big East tournament and then focus on the NCAA tournament.”