By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Mar 01, 2009 at 4:25 PM

The common logic says the Marquette Golden Eagles' hopes of a long postseason run snapped along with Dominic James' fifth metatarsal Wednesday night against Connecticut.

And in watching his teammates almost-but-not-quite-enough effort in a 62-58 loss at No. 6 Louisville Sunday afternoon, such thinking isn't entirely out of line.

It's happened before: Marquette lost Travis Diener late in the 2005 season and was soundly embarrassed both in the final regular-season Conference USA game (a 51-39 loss to St. Louis), the C-USA tournament (60-57 to TCU) and, then the debacle that was the NIT (54-40 to Western Michigan).

It happened again when McNeal missed the final four games of his sophomore campaign. Marquette went 2-2 during that stretch, beating Pittsburgh to close out the regular season and St. John's to open the Big East Tourney, but losing in a rematch with the Panthers and to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament.

But as strange as it may seem, all is not lost for the Golden Eagles this time around. The difference between those team's and the James-less Golden Eagles of 2009? It's simple: this team, despite glaring shortcomings, is better.

Heading into the season, critics pointed no further than Marquette's lack of anything even close to resembling a big man, a short bench and a brand-new, no-name coach as solid evidence that the Golden Eagles will be nothing more than an also-ran in the brutal Big East.

When the Golden Eagles jumped out to a big lead in league play, those same critics said "wait until the final stretch." And two games into that stretch, both without James, Marquette is still proving people wrong.

Face it; it wasn't absurd to suggest Marquette was going to get smoked by 20 at Freedom Hall on Sunday. Louisville hammered the Golden Eagles there a year ago ... and that was with James and extra bodies off the bench.

Still, showing the toughness and grittiness that's defined head coach Buzz Williams' first squad, Marquette hung close, clawed its way out of each big deficit and still had a chance to win in the games final minutes.

And in the grand scheme of things, McNeal's ice-cold shooting (3-for-19) would have made any discussion of James' absence null and void. Marquette couldn't shoot the ball Sunday, but hung tight on defense, rebounded and did all the things they've done all year while building a 23-6 record.

"We will be accountable as a team -- as men -- for our work from this point forward despite the public perception of 'feel sorry for Marquette'," a somber and emotional Williams said Wednesday night.

But it's unlikely anybody is going to feel sorry for Marquette; especially top-ranked (for now) Pitt, which welcomes the Eagles Wednesday night and Syracuse, which comes to the Bradley Center this weekend. If anything, those teams need look no further than Sunday's game tape to realize just how dangerous this team can be - even without its senior point guard.

As strange as it may seem now, the Golden Eagles are playing with the ultimate mulligan: they have nothing to lose. Nope, the Big East regular-season title is gone. But the tournament crown? Sure, why not. The Sweet 16 or even Elite 8? Neither is out of the realm of possibility.

Williams can pull out all the stops, rewrite the playbook and try whatever sounds good at the moment to overcome James' injury. If it succeeds, he'll be a genius. If the Golden Eagles fail, they get an almost free pass for missing one of their anchor players.

Don't write these Golden Eagles off just yet; as they've shown all year long, they save their best for when the chips are against them.