What's at stake for Wisconsin and Marquette entering conference tourney week
The Marquette Golden Eagles (23-8, 12-6) were riding high for almost the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign, but entering conference tournament week, it is the Wisconsin Badgers (22-9, 14-6) who have surprisingly solidified their standing in the eyes of the selection committee.
The Golden Eagles threw away the Big East title with a four-game losing streak to end the regular season, while Wisconsin has now won three in a row and five of six to grab the coveted double-bye at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
The four-seeded Badgers will likely face five seed Maryland in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon, though the Terrapins still await a second round matchup against the winner of no. 12 Rutgers and no. 13 Nebraska. Wisconsin and Maryland split their two head-to-head contests this year.
Diving into the NCAA tournament picture, Wisconsin is currently dangling between a four and a five seed, which is the difference between earning a protected seed with its corresponding favorable location and having to face a dangerous mid-major in the precarious 5-12 game. (Murray State, led by likely top-five NBA draft pick Ja Morant, is a potential 12 seed.)
The selection committee splits every team's resume into four quadrants, and the Badgers have compiled a nearly flawless resume. Here is the NCAA's explanation of said quadrants, but simply put, an ideal resume features a plethora of wins in quadrants one and two, and a dearth of losses in quadrants three and four.
Below is a breakdown of UW's team sheet:
Quadrant 1: 9-7
Quadrant 2: 5-2
Quadrant 3: 4-0
Quadrant 4: 4-0
Wisconsin has impressively paired zero bad losses with a bevy of quality wins, and if the Badgers can take care of the Terps on Friday, they would become just the fifth team in the country to total 10 Q1 victories this year. The one hole in UW's resume is a lack of truly elite wins – the Badgers are only 1-6 in the newly created "quadrant 1A" games this year, a home win over Michigan being their one positive result – but advancing deep in the Big Ten tournament should provide an opportunity for another statement victory against Michigan State, Purdue or the Wolverines again.
This is mostly a house-money trip to Chicago for the Badgers this weekend, as UW is very unlikely to move outside its projected four to five seed window. If anything, Greg Gard needs to focus on getting his superstar Ethan Happ back on track. Happ is shooting just 46.7 percent from the field in his last six games, and though the Badgers have acquitted themselves well during his slump, they won't be long for March without their all-Big Ten first-teamer playing at his peak.
But for the team located 80 miles east in Milwaukee, the Big East tournament is now more than just a ride on the gravy train for the Golden Eagles. Marquette was in line for a three seed in the NCAA tournament just two weeks ago, but after losing grip of the Big East title with four straight distressing defeats, the Golden Eagles need to stabilize and prove they are playing at a level that still matches their lofty team sheet.
Take a look at the Golden Eagles' resume breakdown:
Quadrant 1: 9-5
Quadrant 2: 6-2
Quadrant 3: 1-1
Quadrant 4: 7-0
Despite the string of losses, Marquette is still hanging onto a five seed in most mock brackets right now. But with the growing perception (and reality) that the wheels have come off Wojo's wagon in Milwaukee, MU could easily slip to a six seed or worse with a quarterfinals loss on Thursday (against either no. 7 St. John's and no. 10 DePaul).
The Golden Eagles managed a sweep of the improved Blue Demons this year, but the mercurial Red Storm proved to be MU's kryptonite. The Johnnies knocked off Marquette twice this season, have won three of the last four in the matchup and will be playing de facto home games at Madison Square Garden throughout the tournament. Not only did Markus Howard close out the season shooting just 10-36 from the field across his last two contests, he has also had well-documented struggles against St. John's athletic defense. Howard is averaging only 11 points per game on 26.2 percent shooting in five career games against the Red Storm, by far his worst marks against any Big East opponent.
Perhaps a trip to New York will do the Golden Eagles some good. Teams obviously prefer to play in front of their home crowds, but during Saturday's Senior Day loss to Georgetown, the Fiserv Forum faithful was emanating more of a frenzied desperation than its typical full-throated support. The Big East tournament has not always been kind to Marquette – MU has never advanced past the semifinals – but in this clustered bracket, even these bruised and battered Golden Eagles have a shot.
The NCAA tournament remains on the horizon, yet the madness is already well underway. Marquette and Wisconsin have both positioned themselves to be the last one standing, but nothing is guaranteed at this point on the college hoops calendar.
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