Pardon me for a moment while I channel my inner Carnac the Magnificent.
The loss of two All Americans who accounted for 47.7 percent of the team’s offensive output; the departure of three assistant coaches; a self-imposed one-game suspension; and a roster whose top returning scorer, Davante Gardner, averaged 9.5 points per game a season prior.
What were the obstacles faced by Marquette head coach Buzz Williams entering the 2012-13 campaign?
Commencing his fifth year on the MU sidelines, Williams, per the previously outlined hurdles, appeared to have the steepest uphill climb of any season during his tenure in the Brew City.
The rest of the conference appeared to share the same sentiments as the Golden Eagles, on the heels of their second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, were pegged to finish seventh in the league in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll.
Following the cancellation of their maiden contest against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Carrier Classic due to excessive moisture atop the court (such are the perils of staging a basketball game atop a body of water), the subsequent four months proved to be a testament to Williams’ prowess of his craft.
Once back on the mainland, the Golden Eagles triumphed in five of their first six outings—with only a miracle heave courtesy of Butler’s Rotnei Clarke standing in the way of a 6-0 start—before encountering the buzz saw that was Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators.
Playing in front of a nationally televised audience, Marquette, who had been averaging 76.5 points entering the Nov. 29 matchup in Gainesville, Fla., were annihilated to the tune of a 82-49 defeat—the most lopsided loss for the program under Williams.
“I’ve never been beat this bad in my entire career—179 games as a head coach,” cited Williams, who is 118-51 since supplanting Tom Crean at Marquette in April 2008, following the loss to the Gators, as reported by the AP. “That’s the worst loss. Not close.”
At first blush, it appeared that the Golden Eagles, courtesy of the trouncing, were fully exposed as a squad not in position to contend and justified in their selection as a middle-of-the-pack Big East club.
While a road loss to the lowly Phoenix of UW-Green Bay (at the time 3-7 and on a four-game losing streak) less than three weeks later did little to dispel such a notion, the Golden Eagles, in the fight or flight nature that is college sports, adopted the personality of their head coach and forged ahead with a renewed sense of intensity.
Over the ensuing five-plus weeks, Marquette would lose only once (an overtime defeat at the hands of Cincinnati on Jan. 19), make their first appearance in the AP top 25 poll (coming in at No. 25 on Jan. 4) and found themselves near the top of the Big East totem pole.
Playing both ends of the court with a heightened sense of urgency and aggression (case in point, the Golden Eagles made 10 more free throws than their opposition attempted in February), MU entered the final two weeks of the regular season in position to claim its first-ever Big East crown since becoming a league affiliate in 2005.
Upon upending a pair of ranked foes in Syracuse and Notre Dame, respectively, within the friendly confines of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the Golden Eagles used a furious second-half comeback to defeat Rutgers, 60-54, in New Jersey on March 5 to set the stage for their season-ending affair against St. John’s in the Big Apple on Saturday.
The Golden Eagles’ matchup against the Red Storm took on substantially more significance as Georgetown, who led MU by one game atop the Big East leader board entering the week, fell victim to unranked Villanova on March 6.
As a result, a Marquette victory would guarantee at least a share of the Big East crown, while a loss would mark a second consecutive runner-up finish in league play—a scenario predicted by precious few back in early November.
The scene which unfolded within the world’s most famous arena on Saturday was one that had an air of déjà vu to it: an eccentric Buzz Williams on the sidelines and a blue-and-gold clad team exhausting every ounce of energy it had—never backing down or easing up on the accelerator.
Upon the emotionally-draining conclusion of 45 minutes of high-octane basketball, the Marquette Golden Eagles—the same ensemble of players picked to finish seventh in their league—basked in the glory of earning the program’s first conference title in a decade.
“We were emotionally bankrupt,” noted Williams following the title-clinching victory, according to the AP. “To play at the Garden, to play for the league and to win it with a last-second shot. It couldn’t have been scripted any better.”
With the way the 40-year-old Williams has his team playing, such is a declaration we may be hearing yet again later this month.