By Tim Gutowski Published Jan 31, 2006 at 5:18 AM

Post-season basketball was not on my radar early this season when it came to the Marquette Golden Eagles. In fact, after the home loss to Winthrop and the lackluster performance in Madison, I was worried about the Golden Eagles qualifying for the 12-team Big East tournament (four teams won't make the cut), let alone the NIT or the NCAA varieties.

Today, I stand humbled before Tom Crean and his young team. Not only are the Golden Eagles a solid bet for the trip to Madison Square Garden starting March 8, they have a legitimate chance at returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Dwyane Wade led them to the Final Four in 2003.

At 15-6 overall and 5-3 in conference play, MU is only in sixth place in the rugged Big East. But in a conference that is being touted as the best in the history of the sport, that's not a bad place to be. Big East officials are counting on seven teams being invited to the NCAAs, and many coaches will be campaigning for eight or even nine schools to get the call to the Big Dance.

Three Big East members are already absolute locks for the tourney: UConn (18-1, 6-1), Villanova (15-2, 6-1) and Pittsburgh (17-1, 6-1). Conference-leading West Virginia (15-4, 6-0) actually ranked behind MU in the RPI standings prior to the weekend, but the Mountaineers can safely be considered a tourney team, as well. Georgetown (14-4, 5-2) is in nearly the same boat as MU, but an upset win over Duke on national TV last weekend should help the Hoyas make their first tourney appearance since 2001.

This is where MU comes in. At 5-3 in conference play, Crean's team is in solid position to make a February dash to impress the NCAA selection committee. If the Golden Eagles reach 10 conference wins, they're a shoo-in; nine would be a safe bet for a bid; eight would be dicey.

The rest of the schedule includes four home games (St. John's, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Providence) and four road games (Villanova, Rutgers, Notre Dame, Louisville). If the Golden Eagles can win the four home contests, they will have probably done enough to earn a bid. Not only would it get them to nine Big East wins, the victories would include "quality wins" over UConn, Pitt and Georgetown, three likely tourney teams.

But those four home wins will be difficult to come by. St. John's has beaten both Pitt (the Panthers only loss) and Louisville (though the Cardinals are sliding), so Wednesday's contest vs. the Red Storm is not a gimme. In fact, only the game with Providence appears to be a sure victory, especially if Dominic James' shoulder injury is at all serious.

If the Golden Eagles only get three home wins and one of them is against Pitt, any road win would be enough to catapult them into the NCAA tournament. If they get three home wins while losing to Pitt, a road win against anyone other than Notre Dame (10-8, 1-6) should be enough. In short, a quality road victory is essential to Marquette's chances.

If the Golden Eagles only manage to split their home games, it'll take either two road wins or an upset victory at Villanova to feel at all safe on Selection Sunday in mid-March.

If Marquette stumbles to an 8-8 finish -- a distinct possibility with the difficulty of its schedule -- it'll come down to the strength of its resume, which would look something like this:

  • 18 regular-season wins
  • Quality win over then-undefeated UConn in January
  • A current RPI in the low 30s; an RPI in the high 30s or low 40s is treacherous ground for power-conference teams with average league records
  • "Bad" loss to Winthrop (even though the Eagles may win the Big South, the loss was in Milwaukee)
  • Weak non-conference schedule (currently ranked 126th in Division I)
  • Currently only three road wins (Oral Roberts, Seton Hall, DePaul)
  • Big East tournament performance
  • Record in its last 10 games

Marquette's possible bubble hopes will rely on more than just its own resume; much will depend on the performance of its conference brethren. If MU is on the bubble and only 5 teams from the conference are better, that's a good situation to be in. But if the Golden Eagles are merely the eighth or ninth best conference team at that point, it should be another NIT March in Milwaukee.

Currently, there are three conference teams in similar position to MU: Syracuse (15-6, 3-4), Cincinnati (14-7, 3-4) and Rutgers (13-7, 3-4). MU's rank among that second tier of Big East teams will help determine its postseason plans. You can throw Georgetown into this group, too, especially if the Golden Eagles beat them at the Bradley Center on Feb. 16.

NCAA bubble discussions often boil down to gut instincts, so here are mine: five more wins equals a NCAA lock; four more equals a probable NCAA bid; three more means that some conference tourney work will be required to avoid the NIT.

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.