MILWAUKEE — Marquette may not be a program used to being 8-6 when the new year rolls around, but the Golden Eagles are certainly used to overcoming adversity when the odds are stacked against them.
Forget about being the conference favorites or building on an Elite Eight appearance, Marquette is the underdog yet again. But this time the Golden Eagles are going to have to turn things around in a hurry if they want to make the NCAA tournament for the ninth year in a row.
After dropping its Big East opener for the first time since the 2009-10 season, Marquette is sitting with an overall record it hasn’t had since 2000-01. While many have counted the Golden Eagles out already, they believe this year can still be salvaged.
"I think everybody is still confident," junior point guard Derrick Wilson said before practice Thursday. "We’ve had a couple of tough losses, but I think the team’s spirit is still pretty good. I don’t think anyone thinks it’s just over. I know a lot of people do, but as a team and as an organization we don’t think it’s over. We still believe in ourselves."
Tuesday’s loss at Creighton exposed Marquette’s flaws, especially on the offensive end. The Golden Eagles are 212th in the nation in points per game at 71.2 points per game, but that number is padded by high point totals against lesser opponents.
Against better teams, Marquette just hasn’t been good enough offensively. The Bluejays continued to draw the blueprint as to how to guard the Golden Eagles.
"They played off of me and Juan (Anderson) and that kind of hurt us," Wilson said. "I think we have to do some different things to make them come and guard us so we can get the ball inside and play inside-out."
It’s easy to see why Creighton sagged off the two. Neither has been much of an offensive threat, as Derrick Wilson is shooting just 36.8 percent from the field and 11.1 percent on 3-pointers, while Anderson is just not a scorer.
"You are playing 3-on-5 if both of those guys are on the floor together," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "That was the first game nobody played Juan. With the success they had against it, I would say that’s what opponents are watching now. So we need to make adjustments in accordance with that."
Starting with Ohio State, opponents have figured out Marquette’s best offensive options are inside with Davante Gardner, Jamil Wilson and even Chris Otule. Without consistent guard play, teams have packed the paint and made it nearly impossible to get good looks inside.
"I think it has to be a team effort because each one of us plays off each other," Derrick Wilson said. "If somebody is playing off of me, that doesn’t help Davante or anybody else. If they are playing off of Juan, that doesn’t help anybody else. If we get them the ball in their hands, then we are playing off of them. It has to be all of us."
Williams is pleased with where Marquette is defensively, as his team currently sports the best scoring defense in the Big East. But the Golden Eagles would have to hold teams in the 50’s right now to win with their offensive struggles.
"I don’t think we’re executing as much as we used to, and I say that with a little bit of hesitance," Anderson said. "We’re getting good shots, we just couldn’t hit shots. But we have to execute when it matters.
"I think it’s just a matter of our mentality. We have to look at the scoreboard and realize we’re only down six, and we can’t let being down six points turn into eight points and 10 points. At that point, you have to execute, get a stop and turn it into four points and two points. It’s just a matter of our mentality and focus."
Marquette’s four guards combined for just 16 points on 5-of-22 shooting against Creighton, while Gardner finished with just four points on two shots. Gardner is averaging just eight points per game over his last four contests and hasn’t been able to produce the same kind of offensive efficiency he has over the majority of his career.
"He doesn’t work hard enough to be consistent," Williams said of Gardner. "I’m not mad at him. I tell him that all the time. I wouldn’t tell you that without telling him that. He’s disappointed in himself. But the only way to break out of that is work.
"We need him to get more shots, but you have to work a lot harder to get more shots. It’s a collective deal as much as it is an individual deal."
Williams noted Thursday that he might be trying to utilize Jamil Wilson in too many ways offensively to cover up different needs. The Marquette coach likes how the 6-foot-7 forward has run the point, but also admitted he may need to "narrow the scope" for his senior just a bit to get him going.
Maybe everyone should have seen this coming, as the surprising loss of Vander Blue to the professional ranks and the graduation of Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett created a void. But Marquette seemed to be at the point to where those holes could be plugged.
It was probably unfair to expect a highly rated recruiting class to be able to step up and fill key roles consistently right away, and the Golden Eagles do start two players who looked to transfer in the offseason. The end result now appears as if it will be a step back from eight consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
"We’ve all been spoiled by the success," Williams said. "You can’t forget the process of what led to that success. I think that’s sometimes that happens. You can’t just say, ‘Hey we’ve been winning and we’re going to keep winning.’ No, you are not. I think it is going to become harder. When you start at the bottom and work your way up and you get to that point and go, ‘Look how far we’ve come.’ Then you think about how are we going to be better? It’s harder.
"That’s why you see so many Super Bowl teams not go to the playoffs the next year; teams that go to the NCAA tournament and disappear. I think success inherently makes you soft."
But that doesn’t mean Williams is giving up on this season already. There’s still 17 Big East games left on the schedule and improvements need to be made, but the Golden Eagles need to learn how to consistently work before they get results, something Williams has stated over and over this year.
"You can turn your year around now," Anderson said. "Everybody forgets we lost to Green Bay last year before we went to the Elite Eight. If you continue to win, win the conference tournament, and I’m just talking right now, win games in the tournament, everybody will forget about the past. We can only to continue to move forward and build from them."
"Nobody wants to be seen as a loser," Derrick Wilson said. "We all want to be seen as winners. So every game as a team we want to play our hardest, give our hardest on every play."