By any measure, the Marquette Golden Eagles are exceeding expectations so far this season. Sure, the wheels could still come off the Overachievers Express, which is an all-to-real concern as MU fans hold their breath for news on the health of Dominic James and another starter, Wesley Matthews. However, the upward trajectory of the program has been firmly re-established and fans have every reason to expect a heartier helping of wins in the immediate and not-so-distant future.
The tough loss to Pittsburgh over the weekend points out how far the MU program has come in such a short period of time. A pre-season pick to finish 12th in the league, MU is currently the only CUSA refugee with a conference record above .500, and is the only team in the country to beat the nation's top team UConn.
And with the wins, come the expectations. Which brings me back to the Pittsburgh game. Before the season started, most smart-minded MU fans penciled in a loss for the tilt at The Pete .... yet 30 minutes into the game it was abundantly clear that MU not only could play with the best in the league, but should expect to beat the best in the league -- wherever the games are played.
Perhaps I am a late comer to this realization, but I actually enjoy feeling that MU let one get away over the weekend. Did anybody expect to feel this way four weeks into MU's first Big East conference season?
I am strangely excited about expecting this team to win games on the road against ranked opponents -- especially one where the squad came tantalizingly close to swiping the victory, only to see injuries and carelessness compromise a laudable 30-minute effort.
Point taken, Coach Crean. I'll happily be disappointed with tough road defeats to nationally ranked conference foes. Where before the season, losing a game like this might have been an expectation, now its a disappointment.
Wasn't it just last season that MU was as painful to watch as the Mike Deane-era teams that once prompted Chris Fowler to rhetorically ask, "Don't you get the feeling that the other team could leave the court and Marquette still couldn't score?" Didn't MU lose at home to Western Michigan to close out its listless '04-'05 campaign? Didn't MU lose Travis Diener, Marcus Jackson, Todd Townsend and Dameon Mason? Wasn't MU going to be overmatched in this new league?
In less than a calendar year, the program has been injected with talent and youthful enthusiasm that merely whets the appetite for the future. Of course, as fans we want that future to be now - - which is why the Pitt loss hurt so much. In my mind, the loss was not made worse by the Dominic James injury and the alleged shove soon thereafter. Physical play is part of the diet in the Big East, and so are missed calls and unclear intentions.
Injuries, bad calls and no-calls are part of the game, and MU let Pittsburgh take advantage of James' absence ignite a 22-11 run built around lazy ballhandling, poor execution and missed FTs. MU turns the ball over roughly 22% of the time in conference play -- a poor percentage for a team built around a stable of interchangeable parts in the backcourt, rather than a burly, lumbering frontcourt.
What's most laughable though are the cat calls from a few corners of the Big East fan base that MU should "toughen up", "learn to rebound" or worse, "toughen up and go back to CUSA". Perhaps this is just the requisite bullying from other fan bases, but many in the Big East would be interested to realize that the team they are all chasing, West Virginia, is the worst rebounding team in the league. Where should they go? Perhaps to Indianapolis.
But I digress.
The passion with which Pitt fans reacted and responded to winning a tight game against a CUSA refugee merely proves the point: they were fortunate to win against Marquette. Much in the same way MU was fortunate to win against Seton Hall, Rutgers was fortunate to win against Louisville, and on and on.
Wins are tough to secure in this league. New rivalries are developing. And if the reaction from both camps this weekend tells us anything, Marquette is a tough out in conference play; the opposition's reaction to victory validated this point. So too, then, do our own expectations as MU fans......our new, loftier expectations.
The time to win is now. On to St. Johns.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Written by TB at 8:47 PM