By Tim Gutowski Published Jan 18, 2005 at 5:11 AM

{image1} The 14-2 record is flashy, and the marquee win over in-state rival Wisconsin was impressive. Even a losing effort at home to Arizona seemed to portend good things for this year's Marquette Golden Eagles.

But how good is MU, really? Clearly, the Golden Eagles have fattened up their win-loss mark with the typical slate of non-conference patsies. But the aforementioned games against the Badgers and Wildcats, both Top 25 teams when they visited Milwaukee, give Tom Crean's team a semblance of credibility.

But an uncertain start in Conference USA has me wondering: Are the Golden Eagles a legitimate NCAA Tournament team? Or are they headed for another conference swoon like the one that doomed last year's group to the NIT?

The Golden Eagles definitely have a few things going for them:

Travis Diener. Arguably the best player in the conference and a probable second- or third-team All-American, Diener supplies MU with star power. His 20.8 ppg are second only to DePaul's Quemont Greer in CUSA, and he's had four games of 27 points or more. He also hits 46 percent of his three-point attempts and leads CUSA in assists (6.6). In short, he's a legitimate go-to guy for a tourney team.

Better rebounding. Senior Marcus Jackson has been much more effective on the glass this season, averaging 8.9 rpg to nearly quadruple his 2.5 rpg mark from last season. And it's only a partial coincidence that MU out-rebounds its opponents by more than nine per game, the best mark in CUSA. And that's not due solely to Jackson -- frosh big man Ryan Amoroso has contributed more than many expected, including two double-doubles. Anyone who's ever heard Crean speak about basketball knows how happy this paragraph makes him.

Three-point shooting. We've talked about Diener, but there's also junior forward Steve Novak. The Brown Deer product continues to be among the most lethal shooters in the game, hitting 47.8 percent of his three-balls. And largely thanks to Diener and Novak, MU hits an impressive 38.8 percent overall from downtown. Only Louisville and Houston have made more threes in CUSA.

Depth. Eight Golden Eagles average 14 minutes or more. And the bottom three in the rotation make notable contributions: the aforementioned Amoroso, senior swingman Todd Townsend, and regular starter and heavyweight Chris Grimm. And 6-10 freshman forward Ousmane Barro averages 10 minutes as the fourth man off the bench.

Of course, it's not all seashells and balloons at the Bradley Center, despite the 14-2 start. Here are some worries:

Turnovers. Marquette only turns the ball over 13.4 times per game, which is good. But they only force 12 turnovers defensively, which isn't. By contrast, the pressing defenses in Cincinnati (16.6), Louisville (18.7) and UAB (20.7) are far more harassing for opposing offenses. MU ranks just 11th in the conference in turnover margin.

On-the-ball defense. The Golden Eagles can be broken down defensively, which Memphis and South Florida ably displayed last week. Diener's offensive talents don't translate fully to his defense. Novak is a match up liability. Dameon Mason isn't the defender his athleticism would suggest. And Jackson fouls too much. Townsend and Grimm are defense-first guys, but neither plays 20 minutes a game. Average CUSA teams that can run the floor (Houston and TCU come to mind) may give the Golden Eagles trouble.

Road play. Like a lot of major NCAA hoops programs, MU loads up its non-conference schedule with home games. In fact, the Golden Eagles have only ventured out on the road three times: a narrow win against tiny Oakland University in November, the opening CUSA win against Tulane, and last week's loss to Memphis. In the latter, MU looked very disorganized, sloppy and overmatched -- like any team playing its first major road game would. Over the next few weeks, MU travels to DePaul, Louisville and St. Louis. We'll see if they're able to handle a hostile home crowd and a quality opponent at the same time.

Non-conference weaklings. UW and Arizona aside, most of the pre-season slate was downright embarrassing: Delaware State, Oakland, IUPU-Fort Wayne, South Dakota State, Coppin State -- and all at home, no less. It's no wonder MU has been sluggish since opening CUSA play, despite two wins in three games. The weak scheduling only means a better conference record is necessary in order to secure an NCAA bid. It also explains why ESPN's RPI rankings have the Golden Eagles at No. 42 this week -- a number typically at the fringe of at-large bids come Selection Sunday.

Overall, it's hard to complain about a 14-2 record. But MU meets two of last season's conference co-champs this week -- at DePaul Thursday, and home versus Charlotte Saturday. Hopefully, the real (and worthy) Golden Eagles will make an appearance.

Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.