Marquette University catches a breather tonight in Big East play as the Golden Eagles head to Tampa to play the University of South Florida. It's a reprieve of sorts, following a 70-51 loss at the hands of the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday in Kentucky.
The Golden Eagles were atop the Big East standings at the end of last week, briefly, before the Cardinals brought them crashing back to earth like a suplex from The Undertaker.
The loss wasn't a "wake up" call. It was a statement of fact.
Marquette (15-6, 6-2) is a Top 25 program – a very good program – and they will probably have 20 wins by the time the Big East tournament starts in March.
What Marquette isn't, is an elite program – not this season. Louisville showed it, and Syracuse will likely show it in a couple weeks.
There's nothing wrong with that.
Depending on the seeding, the Golden Eagles should get to the semi-finals of the Big East tourney and end up with a nice seed in the NCAA Tournament. This team should make the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, too.
Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan have been there, done that in that regard. It's nothing new. They may be tired of "just" getting to that point, but there is always something to be said for veteran, solid guard play in the Big Dance. I believe these two, along with Todd Mayo and Trent Lockett, have enough experience to win a couple games.
I would imagine Buzz Williams and the fans are tired of Sweet 16 appearances, too, especially as the program celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the last Final Four team in school history.
The key to advancing to winning the Big East outright, the conference tourney, or advancing in the big tournament, is found in the paint.
The key is Davante Gardner.
The big man was held to two points on 1 of 4 shooting in just 13 minutes against Louisville, 10 points under his season average.
Now, it may be hard to believe a guy averaging just 12.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in a hair over 21 minutes a game will be the reason for monumental run – you figure a guy is what he is at this point in the year – but Gardner is the one player on the Golden Eagles who can impose his offensive will on an opponent.
Blue is gritty, and I'd be happy with him taking the last shot. Mayo can be explosive and can carry the team for a few minutes. Jamil Wilson and Cadougan are experienced players who know their roles and can get you some points in key spots.
But Gardner is a guy who I want the offense being run through when it gets into the final eight minutes of the game. Let him get position on the block, let him use his feet and soft hands to create problems for the defense.
He isn't going to turn around and just dunk on someone, but he's agile enough to get up his shot and he's nearly automatic at the free throw line – great traits to have in crunch time.
The team trusts him to do this at times, where Gardner is essentially running the point from the paint, but to win the bigger games this year, they'll need Mr. "I Get Buckets" to well, get buckets, and impose his will when it matters most.
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.