By Jeff Falconio
It's only Tuesday night but this has already been a big week for the college basketball fates of Marquette and Wisconsin. The knock on the Golden Eagles has been that they haven't beaten any of the good Big East teams and they've taken advantage of a soft early conference schedule. Maybe that was the case but hey, you beat whoever's on the schedule.
That argument changed on Monday night. Perhaps in the end Notre Dame won't end up being a Big East titan, but Marquette's win in South Bend was big for several reasons. Yes, Notre Dame's lengthy home court winning streak ended on Saturday but it's still a tough place to play. Twice in the second half the Irish surged and that's when you learn a lot about a team. On the road, lead has slipped away, crowd is rocking, that's gut check time. Marquette responded with gusto and eventually put away the Irish. Think about how big that is for confidence but more importantly I see this team starting to play with more intensity and with a greater sense of urgency. Perhaps the seniors are starting to feel their time come to an end.
Another big thing to take away was the performance against Luke Harangody. Marquette can't keep up with a dominant big man, right? Sure Harangody got his points and plenty of rebounds but he didn't get to the free throw line often and was held in check for most of the second half. That's a nod to defense, something Marquette isn't supposed to be that good at. Now the Eagles are in great position. A win against Georgetown means Marquette will be 8-0 with five out of the next six games against bottom feeders. A perfect opportunity to stay perfect before the brutal closing portion of the schedule.
But while Marquette is surging, Wisconsin is slumping big time. With tonight's loss to Purdue, the Badgers fall to 12-8 overall with a shabby 3-5 record in conference play. Here's the reality: the Badgers must go on a tear over the final ten games of the season. Otherwise it's either win the Big 10 tournament or prepare for the NIT. The Badgers have lost five in a row and when the losses pile up the luck just seems to run out at the worst time. In the final minute against Purdue the shots just simply didn't drop. Even when the Boilermakers left the door open with missed free throws down the stretch the Badgers just couldn't take advantage.
So can Wisconsin pull it together before the end of the season? Well, two games against Indiana will help along with matchups against Iowa and the next foe, Northwestern. But the Badgers are in dire need of a signature victory. A win over Michigan State in East Lansing will do the trick. Parlay that with a road win over Minnesota and the Badgers could be in good shape. I still don't see more than six bids coming out of the Big 10. Seven would be the absolute maximum and that assumes Penn State doesn't fold down the stretch. Do you really want to leave it to chance in March? Wisconsin must go 7-3 with a strong road win against MSU or Minnesota. If not then it'll likely mean Wisconsin must run the table at the conference tournament to get invited to the big dance.