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Monday, January 10, 2011
Saddle Up: ND-Marquette and nothing else

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It prefers phone calls and emails to text messages. It also kind of hates Facebook. This makes it feel a little bit old.

This is fitting. A day after one of the more topsy turvy weekends in recent college hoops history, the first Monday back is, well, let's be honest. This is pretty weak sauce. I love me some college hoops, and I don't need to be convinced to watch even the most questionable of low-major games, but that's a bit brutal, huh? Thankfully the Big East, as it is wont to do, offers up one intriguing match up this evening.

Marquette at No. 11 Notre Dame, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Does anyone else feel for the Marquette Golden Eagles? I know I do. Of all the potential teams Big East teams mentioned in NCAA tournament talks thus far -- which includes as many as 10 teams currently, it seems -- Marquette can't get any love. But this is not a bad team! Yes, the Golden Eagles have five losses. Granted. But it's not like those losses have been all that convincing. Here are the five teams that have handed Buzz Williams's team his five losses, and the margin of victory in each of those games:
Sorry, but there isn't a single bad loss in that group. The only team in that mix ranked outside Pomeroy's top 30 is Gonzaga. The rest -- Duke, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh -- are all either elite teams (Duke, Pitt) or much-better-than-average squads with shots at winning their respective conferences (Vandy, Wisconsin). Given what Duke did to Kansas State and Michigan State in the preseason, Marquette's hard-fought single-digit loss looks even better now. And the Vanderbilt loss might be the most impressive result of the Eagles' season. We know how hard it is to win on the road; playing a team as good as the Commodores to a one-point deficit is an accomplishment regardless of outcome.

The Ducks have hung close with superior teams for a reason. Pomeroy has Marquette as his No. 40-ranked team in the nation to date. But because the Eagles didn't get any of those close wins, and because they entered the season with minimal expectations, they're not currently considered an NCAA tournament team. There are plenty of teams that would have performed far worse against that group than did Marquette. Some of them are even in the top 25. The Golden Eagles aren't the most talented team in the country, and they definitely aren't the biggest or strongest, but their ability to fight through runs and keep games close is unparalleled over the last two seasons. Marquette will give you a game. Count on that.

Alas, there are no moral victories in college hoops, no credit given for scrappy play against superior opponents. If Marquette wants to prove it's a viable NCAA tourney candidate, it has to do so in the Big East.

The good news? The Golden Eagles have already beaten West Virginia at home. Now they take on No. 11 Notre Dame, a team that just rose to its highest ranking since 1985-86. KenPom projects this game as a dead-even 50-50 split, which tells you something a) about how underrated these Golden Eagles are and b) about how difficult it is to win on the road in conference play.

Notre Dame would know. The Irish have cleaned up at home in the early portion of their Big East schedule, handily beating Georgetown and St. John's and holding off a late UConn run all in South Bend. When they went on the road, though, Mike Brey's impressive team was slugged in its proverbial mouth by Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

Part of that is sheer skill, and part of that is the challenge of a Big East road game. Tonight, both will play a factor again. Don't let the rankings fool you: Marquette is completely capable of getting this win. If they play like they have in their five losses, eventually they'll break through. It's only a matter of time. At that point, maybe people will pay attention to the Eagles out of something more than curiosity and pity.

Everywhere else: Uh, yeah. Other than Marquette-Notre Dame, Monday night is a night for deep mid-majors. Enjoy at your own discretion. And, oh yeah, enjoy that football game, too.