Marquette upbeat despite going 0-4 without James
But pint-sized teammate Maurice Acker was clowning around in the background, trying to make Butler crack up with the cameras and recorders rolling — a sign that the Golden Eagles aren’t as downtrodden as one might expect.
“We just talked about it last night,” Butler said Monday, trying to ignore Acker’s antics. “And everybody’s saying that our confidence is shaken and all that, but I don’t think it is. And I don’t think anybody on the team thinks it is. We’ve just got to get out there and fight.”
Shocked by the season-ending injury to guard Dominic James, stunned by four straight losses and tumbling to No. 21 in the Associated Press poll this week, Marquette heads to this week’s Big East tournament hoping to regain momentum in time to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
Marquette has a first-round bye and will face the winner of the Georgetown-St. John’s game on Wednesday afternoon. Either way, it will be a chance for the Golden Eagles to shake off their losing streak.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams held a practice before the team left town Monday, and guard Wesley Matthews called it one of their best efforts of the year.
“We’ve lost four in a row—you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were downstairs,” Matthews said. “We’re still playing for the same thing we were playing for in the beginning of the year. Nothing’s changed.”
Matthews insists Marquette’s postseason goals haven’t changed, even after watching James’ collegiate career end with a broken foot in the opening minutes of Marquette’s Feb. 25 loss to Connecticut.
James was having the best all-around season of his celebrated career at Marquette, taking a reduced role as a scorer while taking quantum leaps forward as an offensive catalyst and relentless defender.
Doctors have cleared James to travel with the team after he had to watch a couple of recent road losses on television, but he won’t be suiting up. And Marquette has yet to figure out how to win without him.
“We’re 0-4 without him, but at the same time we could easily be 4-0,” Matthews said. “We were in every single one of those games.”
And even if James were healthy, there wouldn’t have been much shame in losing at home to Connecticut or on the road against Louisville or Pittsburgh — three potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds.
Less excusable was Sunday’s overtime loss at home to Syracuse. Marquette’s defense fell apart at times, allowing Syracuse players to break free for embarrassing slam dunks.
As good as James was on offense, Marquette misses him even more on defense. James was no giant and the 5-foot-8 Acker is even smaller.
The Golden Eagles are playing more zone defense instead of man-to-man in James’ absence, with mixed results.
“It’s a really big adjustment,” Butler said. “’Nic’s a really great on-ball defender, and off-the-ball defender. He kind of sparks everybody else on the floor. It’s not the same without him, but Mo tries his best to do that. I’m not going to say we’re a more zone-oriented team, but we definitely play a lot more zone without ‘Nic because we’re a lot smaller and a lot less strong.”
At least Marquette can use its conference tournament as a defensive dress rehearsal for the NCAAs.
“We’ve been trying to play with the defenses to see what works well for us, and I think we’re beginning to find out what does work and what doesn’t,” Butler said. “Now we’re really about to test everything out, see what works.”
James also is missed on offense, as defensive players have been able to concentrate on Matthews and Jerel McNeal.
McNeal is 13-for-42 from 3-point range in the past four games and Matthews is 5-for-19.
“I think they’re definitely guarding Wes and ’Rel different, and trying to make them take tougher shots,” Lazar Hayward said.
But despite their struggles on both ends of the court, the Golden Eagles think it’s a promising sign that they came close to beating some of the country’s best teams after suddenly losing one of their best players.
“We fought until the end, and I think everyone saw that,” Hayward said. “Of course, (it) didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but I think we showed that we can compete with these teams that are a little bit above us in certain people’s eyes.”