Sometime in late spring, those who are a part of – and those who root for – the Marquette University men’s basketball program might spend more time wondering "what might have been" regarding the 2013-14 campaign than any other season during head coach Buzz Williams’ six-year tenure on the sidelines.
The Golden Eagles open up the Big East Conference tournament with an outside shot to win 20 games for the ninth straight year, and they could win it all and secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the ninth straight year ("could" – it’s why they play the games) but in all likelihood neither will happen.
No, this team wasn’t going to win a national championship. Even at its peak, it probably wasn’t going to make a second straight run to the Elite Eight.
But, what if …
- Junior college All-American Jameel McKay and Vander Blue had decided to stay?
- Freshman point guard Duane Wilson didn’t get hurt?
- Derrick Wilson, Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson all improved?
- Todd Mayo was more consistent?
- The team got over the hump early in some non-conference losses?
That said, there is enough talent on the roster for Creighton head coach Greg McDermott to say this when his nationally-ranked Blue Jays came into the BMO Harris Bradley Center a little less than a month ago:
"We have tremendous respect for Marquette. Obviously their tradition of success speaks for itself. We aspire to be what they have been in this league for a number of years, and it’s not easy. For us to get a couple victories over them is great for this senior class, but it’s great because of the respect we have for them, not because of the way they play or anything like that.
"They’ve been a good team, they’ve been to a lot of Sweet 16s, they’re very well coached, they play with toughness and for us to find a way to gut out a couple wins against a physical team is a feather in cap of our program."
No doubt every coach in the top half of the conference will say the same thing as the Golden Eagles begin tournament play today, even as a middle of the pack Big East squad.
"I think we are really good," Derrick Wilson said. "We all believe in each other. I think we just have to put it together. I think once we finally get on another roll I could agree with that."
At some point, you are what your record says you are, but there is that element to tournament basketball that makes things … unpredictable.
And, of all adjectives you could toss on this team, that’s one of them. This team took Wisconsin to the brink on the road, melted down at Providence, looked overwhelmed against Creighton but beat Georgetown twice, should’ve beaten Villanova at home and lost to Butler in overtime.
No doubt Williams was hoping some of his guys would "figure it out" by now, and he thought they did in February when the team went 5-2. Unfortunately, it was a little too late.
Then again – some of those same guys know how to win emotional tournament games. Who’s to say they won’t crack under that pressure and others might?
"Well, they just keep coming at you – and they don’t quit," McDermott said.
Will that be enough, though?
After being picked to win the conference at the start of the season as the flagship program of a resurfaced Big East, the Golden Eagles have proven to be an OK college basketball team.
They will finish with a winning record regardless of what happens here on out, and will experience some kind of postseason basketball.
Is that an OK result?
In hindsight, after some evaluation, some might say it is. But even if this team heads to New York and wins three or four games in a row, it won’t necessarily answer many questions, but perhaps only make that "what if?" query all the more poignant.
"A lot of what was going on in some of the games that we scheduled were TV opportunities, TV opportunities based on the success that we’ve had, opportunities based on what our roster was going to be," Williams admitted. "But, every coach deals with injuries. Every coach deals with departures, however they happen.
"I think that there was a delay in absorbing that question and absorbing the non-conference schedule, and how to best manage all of that. I think there has been a delay in ‘when are you going to figure it out?’ Well, I don’t know that it’s necessarily me. I’m in that line of guys trying to figure it out. I think it’s been us trying to figure it out. I think our guys are much more comfortable now. I hate that it just happened in February. But some of that we could’ve done a better job with in hindsight. Some of that was just because of how it all played out."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.