Marquette’s final stretch of games was going to be difficult even with Dominic James in the lineup. Without him, the No. 13 Golden Eagles now will head into the postseason with a lot of concerns.
The Golden Eagles look to avoid losing four straight for the first time in five years Saturday when they host No. 25 Syracuse.
Less than two weeks ago, Marquette (23-7, 12-5 Big East) was ranked eighth in the AP poll and competing for the conference title while trying to post a top-four finish in the Big East, which would’ve given it a double-bye into the conference tournament quarterfinals. Unfortunately for the Golden Eagles, they lost James—their senior point guard and emotional leader—to a broken foot just as they entered a brutal stretch in their schedule.
Marquette is guaranteed the No. 5 seed in the Big East tournament—giving it a first-round bye—regardless of Saturday’s outcome, but the Golden Eagles have big concerns heading into both New York next week and the NCAA tournament. On Wednesday, they dropped their third straight—all against teams in the AP Top 10—falling 90-75 to No. 3 Pittsburgh.
Coach Buzz Williams refused to blame James’ absence as a reason for their slide, but it’s not difficult to see how the team is struggling without him.. Marquette has shot 39.8 percent and averaged 11 assists in the three losses after shooting 47.8 percent and averaging 15.9 assists in the previous 14 conference games.
“Our mind-set is fine. We might not have beaten UConn with ‘Nic, we might not have beaten Louisville with ‘Nic, we might not have beaten Pitt with ‘Nic,” Williams said.
Marquette hasn’t lost four a row since a four-game slide Feb. 3-18, 2004. The absence of James, arguably the team’s best on-the-ball defender, has also affected the Golden Eagles defensively. They gave up 90 points—well above their season average of 69.5—for the second time in three games on Wednesday, and Syracuse (22-8, 10-7) is the conference’s highest-scoring team at 79.9 points per game.
The Orange, meanwhile, appearing to be heading into postseason play with some momentum, having won three in a row after losing seven of the previous 10. Syracuse shot 75.0 percent (21-for-28) in the second half of Tuesday’s 70-40 rout of Rutgers, outscoring the Scarlet Knights 51-20 in the final 20 minutes and limiting them to 25.4 percent shooting overall.
“We’re playing well,” said guard Andy Rautins, who had 11 points. “We decided at halftime to play the way we have the last few games. We forced some turnovers and the turnovers led to offense. It was a fun game for us in the second half, but we can’t come out like we did tonight against Marquette.”
Syracuse is holding opponents to 53.7 points on 33.9 percent shooting during its win streak and forcing 16.3 turnovers during that stretch. Paul Harris, who scored 12 of his 18 in the second half against Rutgers, has averaged 15.3 in his last four games while shooting 57.9 percent (22-for-38).
Like Marquette, Syracuse will have a first-round bye in the Big East tournament and appear poised to return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.
“It is a long grind this season and in this league, it is a heck of a grind,” said Orange coach Jim Boeheim, whose team could finish sixth, seventh or eighth. “Three or four of us had really, really hard stretches with the imbalanced schedule. … Our five losses in the league are to five of the best teams in the country.”
Syracuse has won both meetings with Marquette since the Golden Eagles joined the Big East in 2005.