No getting around it now for Marquette — the Golden Eagles need to win the Big East tournament to guarantee a ninth straight trip to the NCAAs.
But if they can at least get to the conference tourney finals, coach Buzz Williams is hoping that maybe, just maybe, that might be enough to give the NCAA tournament selection committee something more to talk about before finalizing the brackets.
"Do we have to win it? I would say probably," Williams said. "It's hard to say ... but we definitely have to be in the championship game in order to get into the conversation."
The preseason favorites in the reconfigured Big East, the Golden Eagles (17-14, 9-9) head into the conference tournament having lost three straight, including two consecutive games in double overtime. The last one came in an emotionally-draining, regular-season finale last weekend against St. John's.
It was the sixth overtime game of the year for Marquette. The positive takeaway is that the Golden Eagles have shown they can claw back into any game, especially when junior guard Todd Mayo is on a roll in the clutch.
"It speaks to the character of our kids. It's hard in one week to lose in double overtime, both by a point. At any point in time we could have folded," Williams said.
"When you lose in the manner that we did, it makes you as a coach, it makes you study ways to get better," he said. "We've got to find ways to get better, and find ways to get better against Xavier on Thursday night."
The third-seeded Musketeers are the first opponent in the league tourney in New York for Marquette, seeded sixth. The teams split the regular-season series, with Xavier shooting at least 52 percent in each game.
Last time out, Marquette allowed St. John's to shoot 50 percent, including 53 percent (7 of 13) from 3-point range. Safe to say, improving defensively is one of Williams' top priorities this week.
Marquette is experienced up front with Davante Gardner, the league's sixth man of the year for the second straight season, along with center Chris Otule and forward Jamil Wilson, all seniors. The Golden Eagles seem to be at their best offensively when the frontcourt is complemented by Mayo in the clutch and fellow off-guard Jake Thomas hitting from long range.
Consistency in the backcourt and outside shooting haven't been Marquette's strong suits. Williams' team is last in the league in 3-point shooting at 31 percent.
The last time that the Golden Eagles finished 9-9 in the Big East, in 2010-11, they made the NCAAs after getting two wins in the Big East tourney as a No. 11 seed. Marquette finished 22-15 that season, and won two games as a No. 11 seed in the NCAAs before falling to North Carolina in the regional semifinals.
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