By Brian Foley, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Sep 13, 2018 at 6:26 PM

Buckle up, Wisconsin sports fans, because the college basketball campaign is only eight weeks away. Amidst the Brewers’ pennant race and Aaron Rodgers injury updates, the calendar has already flipped to mid-September, which means it’s time for the annual unveiling of the Marquette basketball schedule.

The Golden Eagles topped off their non-conference slate in early August, but the schedule did not become official until the Big East released its full men’s basketball calendar on Thursday. While we already knew the conference foes due to the Big East’s round robin scheduling, the order of opponents, the location of each matchup, and the dates and times of the games do make a legitimate impact on the season.

The Marquette coaching staff is clearly quite high on this year’s roster and is testing the team with a non-conference schedule not previously seen in the Steve Wojciechowski era. In the second week of the season, the Golden Eagles will travel to Bloomington for the program’s first game against the Indiana Hoosiers since 2001.

Marquette will also play potential no. 1 team Kansas at the NIT Tip-Off in November, along with a second game against either Tennessee or Louisville. A home game against Buffalo is also on the schedule for Dec. 21. The Bulls knocked off four-seed Arizona and the NBA’s first overall pick DeAndre Ayton in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year – and return nearly every key player.

During the Big East calendar, which begins Jan. 1 at St. John’s, Marquette will have to navigate several rocky stretches. From late January through early February, Marquette has to run through road contests at Xavier and Butler, followed by home games with St. John’s and Villanova. All four teams could be dancing come March. And then after a one-game respite at DePaul (where MU actually lost last year), the Golden Eagles hop back on the grind with a trio of games against Butler, at Providence and at Villanova to close out February. The middle of MU’s Big East schedule is loaded; if Marquette loads up on wins in the first and last portions of the season, and then goes .500 during the middle, the Golden Eagles will be just fine come tourney time.

Here are the five must-see home games of the year for the Golden Eagles during the 2018-19 season.

1. Nov. 6 vs. UMBC

This is not your run-of-the-mill season opener, even for a Wojo-led program that typically schedules quality opponents to kick off the season. Not only will Marquette fans be able to see Fiserv Forum for the first time during game action, the Retrievers are also coming to Milwaukee fresh off the biggest upset in college basketball history.

UMBC is not bringing back the same roster – its top two players graduated, including guard Jairus Lyles, who dropped 28 points in the win over Virginia – but the program still has plenty of juice, an exciting young coach and a wild Twitter account. The Retrievers’ top returning scorer, Joe Sherburne, is also a Whitefish Bay native.

Still, on the court, the Golden Eagles should handle UMBC with ease, allowing the fan base to enjoy the new building and establish new in-game traditions.

2. Dec. 1 vs. Kansas State

Less than 10 days after clawing through the NIT Tip-Off Thanksgiving tournament that already includes a matchup with Kansas, Marquette dives right back into the belly of the Big 12 beast with a home game against K-State. This offseason, Wojciechowski and Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber agreed to a home-and-home series beginning this year in Milwaukee, with a return trip to Manhattan in 2019.

Kansas State returns over 88 percent of its minutes from last year’s Elite Eight team, including Big 12 first-teamer Dean Wade and second-teamer Barry Brown. These two teams are stocked with serious star power and high-level role players, which sets up this contest as one of the most exciting non-conference games of the year.

Wade vs. Marquette’s Sam Hauser will be the matchup to watch in this one. Both players are versatile forwards with silky strokes from long range and the ability to adapt to any game situation. If one can player can turn in a top-notch performance, expect the game result to follow suit. Marquette was 7-1 when Hauser cracked 20 points last year; K-State was 8-3 when Wade did the same for the Wildcats.

3. Dec. 8 vs. Wisconsin

Just one week later, with a game against UTEP crammed in between, Marquette continues its run of home contests against the rival Badgers. Wisconsin finished just 15-18 last season and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades, but Bucky has high hopes coming into the year with nearly every key rotation player returning to campus. 

Ethan Happ is obviously the straw that stirs the drink for the Badgers. He dropped 17.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks last year, numbers that have only been matched four times in the previous 25 years. Happ is a dominant low post scorer, an elite big man passer and someone who can even run the break after a rebound. Still, he needs help – something he got almost none of last year. Brad Davison stepped up as an effective lead guard/excruciating pest, but with D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King injured for the entirety of the year, the Badgers’ offense tanked as opponents swarmed Happ.

With everyone back, healthy and one year wiser, Wisconsin should contend for a tourney spot in 2018-19, though it’s hard to envision them as an upper-echelon Big Ten team just yet. UW was only 4-6 with Trice and King healthy last year, and perimeter shooting is still a massive question mark. For all of Happ’s strengths, he cannot shoot outside the paint (1-11 career on three-pointers). Senior Khalil Iverson is just 6-49 from beyond the arc during his career – including misses on his last 26 attempts – yet he is still one of the minutes leaders for Greg Gard. Davison and Brevin Pritzl are solid shooters, but they aren’t knockdown guys by any means. King is a relative unknown from deep and Trice’s three-point numbers slipped as a sophomore after a promising freshman campaign.

It’s hard to imagine Wisconsin keeping pace with Marquette this season. The Golden Eagles drilled 14 treys in Madison last year, while the Badgers could only muster 42 percent shooting from the floor despite Marquette fielding a truly horrific defense all season long. With the blue-and-gold defensive outfit expected to improve with one key subtraction (Andrew Rowsey) and several crucial additions (Joseph Chartouny and Ed Morrow), Wisconsin could be in for a rude awakening in its first trip to Fiserv Forum. Marquette is also looking to break the streak of road success in the rivalry; the home team has not won since 2013.

4. Jan. 20 vs. Providence

After beating the Friars 10 straight times at home, Providence has knocked off Marquette in back-to-back seasons in Milwaukee (albeit by only a combined three points). PC-MU games always seem to get crazy, whether there is a wild finish, a historic performance or a bat in the building. This will also be the first home game for students of the second semester, which always adds an extra bit of juice to the arena.

The Friars might not seem like a tournament team on paper, but any win over an Ed Cooley-led squad is one for the resume. The Friars have gone dancing each of the past five seasons and are poised to return despite losing three key cogs from a year ago.

And don’t you fret, football fans. This matchup does take place on the Sunday of the NFC Championship game, but it’s a noon tip, so the game should be over by the time the Packers would hypothetically kick off. There is nothing quite like brats, beer and basketball to warm up for some green and gold playoff football.

5. Feb. 9 vs. Villanova

This game lines up for the annual National Marquette Day, as MU traditionally schedules its "holiday" around a Saturday game in February. Of course, this season, that game just so happens to come against the defending national champions – and although the Wildcats lost four players to the NBA, Villanova is still the class of the league. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are both all-conference candidates, a top-10 recruiting class is on campus and Jay Wright is by far the best coach prowling the Big East sidelines. He will have his team hitting its stride by February.

Still, the Golden Eagles aren’t dead in the water. This game will have massive implications if MU is a serious Big East title contender. Marquette might be the second-best team in the Big East this season, and the Bradley Center was always raucous for Villanova’s trips to Milwaukee. Now that Marquette is in a brand new arena with a high-level team, the decibel level should be off the charts. Every Marquette fan must circle this game on their calendar; the atmosphere could be absolutely electric.