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March 23, 2008

A Look Back at What Could Have Been

As the disappointment of the loss to Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament wears away, mixed emotions about the success of the 2007/2008 season still exist.

What were the real expectations for this Marquette team? Should this season be considered a success? Were the team's strengths and weaknesses correctly assessed heading into the season? What is the state of the program heading forward? Is help on the way?

In part I of a two-part series, MarquetteWatch.com takes a look back at the highs and lows of this year's Marquette Golden Eagles.

Experienced Amigos

Marquette fans saw glimpses of the potential of their young backcourt over the past two seasons. Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews were going to be the nucleus to take this team to the next level.

With a veteran supporting cast of Ousmane Barro and Dan Fitzgerald and the young blood of Lazar Hayward, David Cubillan, Maurice Acker and Trevor Mbakwe to compliment them, the time was now for a deep run in the NCAA tournament. This type of excitement had not been around the program since a guy named Dwyane was around.

Aloha

After a few pre-season warm-ups, the Golden Eagles traveled to the Hawaiian islands to participate in the 2007 Maui Classic. Blowing through Chaminade and Oklahoma State in the first two rounds set up a date with the Duke in the championship.

The hard-fought game could have gone either way as MU's swarming defense frustrated Duke's backcourt. In the end, Marquette did not have an answer for tournament MVP Kyle Singler's 25 point, 7 rebound effort falling to the Blue Devils 77-73. Though they played nose-to-nose with Duke and grew as a team, they were not here to finish second.

Quotable

Head coach Tom Crean after Maui Classic: "Even though we didn't get what our goal was, it was a fantastic experience for our team. Both teams brought out the toughness in each other. Tonight, their strengths were a little too good for us: their driving, they got too many free throws and the rebounding. We will come out of here with a much broader and greater perspective of what we are as a basketball team."

On Wisconsin!

After a 100-65 blow-out win over the, uh, other Milwaukee basketball team, the Golden Eagles visited Madison to take on the Badgers.

Despite being at a huge height disadvantage, MU was able to out-rebound UW 49-44. A classic battle lived up to it's rivalry status as MU outlasted Wisconsin 81-76 for their first win at the Kohl Center since 2002. Dominic James had 20 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists and Jerel McNeal added 14 points and 5 steals.

The Golden Eagles had their first signature win of the season.

Quotable

Dominic James in response to going jaw-to-jaw with Wisconsin's Trevon Hughes in the second half: "That type of play happens every day in practice for me. "That's just two competitors going after each other."

Conference Play Begins

MU finished the pre-conference schedule 10-1 beating their final four opponents by an average of 35.5 points per game. With only two tests, Duke and Bucky, before the Big East play, the yearly rumblings of a weak schedule questioned whether they were mentally and physically ready for conference play.

After a 29-point home win vs. Providence, it was on to Morgantown to see an old friend at West Virginia.

The Mountaineers, now led by Bob Huggins, showed the toughness of his old Cincinatti teams (MU - 41% from field) combined with sharp-shooting (50% from three-point line) and sent MU back to Milwaukee with a 79-64 loss. Joe Alexander and Alex Ruoff had 19 apiece as West Virginia dominated the glass with a 54-34 rebounding edge.

Quotable

Tom Crean after the loss at West Virginia: "We didn't match their energy. It took us three to four possessions to get used to the triangle and two (defense). We were lethargic and it carried through the whole game. When you play like that, you're not going to be able to compete in the Big East. That's just an inexcusable effort."

Irish Welcome

After struggling and needing a Dan Fitzgerald three late in the game to beat Seton Hall at home, Notre Dame visited Milwaukee.

The first real test of MU's low-post deficiencies would come in the form of 2008 Big East Player of the Year, Luke Harangody. They lost the battle as Haragody shredded the Golden Eagles with 29 points and 14 boards but won the war with a 92-66 romp over the Irish. Five players were in double-figures led by McNeal's 18 points. Hayward added 17 points and 11 rebounds.

Quotable

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey after getting spanked at Marquette: "I did a double take to make sure that counted for one loss. They were fabulous. The last eight, nine minutes, man, I am saying, 'I want to get guys out and get them ready for Tuesday because we're not closing the gap today.' Everybody in the building knew that."

Rough Stretch

Sitting at 13-2 and 3-1 in the Big East, MU entered the toughest stretch of the season with four of seven on the road including games at Louisville, Connecticut, Cincy and Notre Dame.

A beaten and battered MU squad limped out 3-4 with only one win (at Cincinatti) over the aforementioned teams. Various injuries to Dominic James and the Nov. 1 loss of freshman Mbakwe were magnified against physical, athletic opponents.

Quotable

Tom Crean after an uninspired home blow-out loss to Louisville: "What we have to do is grow up in a hurry. If you're not making shots, you still have to go back and play solid defense. "When it comes to talking defensively, we hit an all-time low. When you're playing good basketball teams, everyone has to be locked in."

Righting the Ship

The Golden Eagles followed their worst stretch of the season and bounced back to play their best ball over next five games.

It what seemed to be a bit of a statement game after Jamar Nutter's flagrant foul in the first meeting, Lazar Hayward scored a season-high 23 points in MU's 89-64 win at Seton Hall. They followed that win up with a dominating 72-54 home win over Pittsburgh on the night the team announced Trevor Mbakwe would lift his red-shirt and return to action.

Behind 10 steals and forcing 20 turnovers per game, the Golden Eagles won the next three (at St. John's, vs. Rutgers and at Villanova) by an average of over 16 points per game. Marquette was suddenly riding high on a five-game winning streak.

Hoyas Visit Milwaukee

Sitting at 11-5 in conference play, the Golden Eagles still had a shot for the coveted first round bye in the Big East tournament. A win over #11 Georgetown was a must.

Building an 11-point lead 8 minutes into the second half, MU looked to have the Hoyas on the ropes. But scoring only 13 points over the last 11 1/2 minutes and Jonathan Wallace hitting three clutch free-throws after being fouled by Dominic James with 3 seconds left sent the game to overtime. A back and forth overtime finished in a 70-68 Marquette loss. Wesley Matthews played his most solid game of the year scoring a game-high 22 and Jerel McNeal added 17 points and 8 boards. Lazar Hayward went scoreless in 30 minutes.

Quotable

Tom Crean, staring blankly, after being asked about James' last-second foul on Wallace: "I'm not going there...anywhere near that today."

On to the Garden

After a 87-72 season finale loss at Syracuse, MU headed into the Big East tournament 22-8 overall and a respectable 11-7 in conference play.

After defeating Seton Hall for the third time this season, MU had to face Harangody and #14 Notre Dame in a second-round match-up. Ousmane Barro and Dwight Burke made Harangody look uncomfortable all night as he had one of his worst performances of the season fouling out with 13 points and 5 rebounds. Jerel McNeal, one of five players in double-figures, exploded for 28 points as Marquette shot 51% from the field in their 89-79 win.

Playing their best ball of the year in winning six of seven, a healthier Pitt team looked to avenge the blow-out loss to Marquette earlier in the year.

MU came out flat and had a stretch of scoring only 2 points over 11 minutes midway through the game. Dominic James started 0-11 from the field finishing with 8 points on 3-16 shooting. The Golden Eagles shot 31% from the field in a game that was not as close as the 68-60 final. Pittsburgh moved on to their 7th Big East championship game in eight years.

Quotable

Tom Crean after losing to Pitt in the semis of the Big East tournament: "It was not a great offensive performance. Some of it was us, certainly some of it was them. But we felt like we were going to come back, and we did."

Tourney Time

Can Marquette win consistently in March without Dwyane Wade? A good question based on Marquette's 2-4 record in NCAA and NIT tournament play (0-2 in NCAA, 2-2 in NIT) since #3 left campus.

Speaking of Wade, MU drew Kentucky, a familiar opponent this time of year, in the first round of the tournament. However this time, the roles were reversed.

The 11-seeded Wildcats had nothing to lose and they played that way. With neither team boasting an inside threat, this one would be won in the backcourt. Seniors Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley combined for 54 points but their was little help elsewhere as MU escaped with a 74-66 victory. Jerel McNeal continued his torrid scoring stretch pouring in 20 points. Wesley Matthews (9-10 free-throws) made eight straight free-throws in the closing minutes to fend off Kentucky.

With the relief of an NCAA win under their belts, the Golden Eagles were primed to make some noise in this year's tournament. Stanford's 7-foot Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, stood between MU and a spot in the sweet sixteen.

After Stanford head coach Trent Johnson's ejection with 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half, Marquette seemed to take control building an 11-point lead. A late 5-0 Stanford run cut the lead to 36-30 at the break.

MU led the game until an Anthony Goods lay-up tied it at the 13 1/2 minute mark of the second half. Stanford rode the Lopez twins and Marquette rode Jerel McNeal over the see-saw second half that ended in a 71-71 tie.

Overtime was not much different: Brook Lopez lay-up, Jerel McNeal three-pointer, Brook Lopez lay-up, Jerel McNeal three-pointer. After McNeal's third consecutive three-pointer, the Golden Eagles led 81-80 with 10 ticks on the clock.

After a Stanford timeout, Brook Lopez rattled in a leaning jumper over Dwight Burke essentially sending Marquette home for the summer.

A Bad Taste

An abrupt end for a long season starting with so much promise, filled with ups and downs, and finishing unfulfilled. How one play can change the view of a season. A Lopez miss, the Sweet Sixteen...anything can happen from there. This team had the talent to go further. But this time of year it's win or go home. McNeal's post-game quote says it all, "They got the final shot. Lay-up. Game over."


Coming Soon: Part II - A Look to the Future



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