Last year the Marquette Golden Eagles didn't go anywhere without a special talisman: a picture of the Louisiana Superdome, site of the 2003 Final Four.
They took it to every game, home and away, displaying the picture in the locker room. Coach Tom Crean, who says he loves the "goofy stuff" coaches use as motivational techniques, was working the visualization thing with his team. And by the end of the year it worked: Marquette made a surprising run to the Superdome, its first Final Four since 1977.
That team had the maturity and talent to go big-picture with its dreams. Here in Year One A.D. (After Dwyane), the Golden Eagles are less grandiose in their projections. There's too much work to be done on a daily basis.
"We need to understand that a game-by-game, possession-by-possession, timeout-by-timeout mentality is what's important at this time of year," Crean said. "We want to focus in on incremental goals, short-term things. Maybe the teams in the past couple years could look ahead a little bit at the bigger picture, but this team, as young as it is, can't do that.
"If you start moving too fast and talking about end-of-the-line goals, you can lose track of what's important."
If Marquette is going to scramble out of the hole it dug itself and earn its third straight NCAA Tournament bid, that's the way it has to happen: a play at a time, and a game at a time. This is no time for thinking Alamodome; this is time to simply make the next defensive stop, set the next screen, collar the next rebound.
And then hope it adds up to enough in the end.
Right now Marquette is 11-5, but a bubble-ish No. 67 in ESPN's Daily RPI. Its strength of schedule was undermined when both St. John's and Notre Dame turned out to be disappoinments, reducing the value of a pair of potential quality wins. The Eagles are 0-4 against teams in the RPI top 50 and 7-0 against teams ranked outside the top 150.
And with consecutive Conference USA losses to Cincinnati, Southern Mississippi (in a Southern Miss home game that was moved to Green Bay) and Charlotte, you had a team in trouble heading into its game last Saturday against DePaul. Never was that here-and-now mentality more vital to Marquette than late in the first half, when the Blue Demons raced to a 35-23 lead.
At that point the Golden Eagles were staring a fourth straight loss dead in the face, with a trip to league-leading Louisville next. Who can think about March at a time like that?
"In a situation like that," Crean said, "it's important that nobody panics."
Nobody did. Marquette cut the deficit to one at halftime, then took over in the second half for a vital stop-the-bleeding victory.
The fact that heart-and-soul point guard Travis Diener even played was amazing. Diener had been taken off the floor in Charlotte four days earlier on a stretcher after suffering a neck injury and had stayed in a Charlotte hospital overnight.
He could barely turn his head the day before the game, and didn't practice. Yet there he was against DePaul, playing 35 minutes and racking up 15 points and 12 assists.
"He brings a lot of confidence to us, both verbally and non-verbally," Crean said.
With Diener, you always know what you're going to get. The key for a Marquette push at end of the season will be getting similar consistency from the team's biggest physical talent, freshman Dameon Mason.
The runnerup for Illinois Mr. Basketball last year had a breakout game against DePaul, playing a career-high 31 minutes and scoring a career-high 21 points. That's after nearly missing the game with his own health issues, winding up in the hospital one day last week with a migraine. Over the last four games Mason has averaged 16.7 points, at times showcasing Wade-ish athleticism.
"He is starting to play a lot better," Crean said. "His improvement has been very consistent. He's really become one of the guys."
Crean said Mason's defense is improving, and he needs everyone to improve in that area. Without Wade's blanketing quickness outside and Robert Jackson's bulk inside, Marquette has not guarded like its usual self this season.
The Golden Eagles are only 10th in C-USA in opponent's field percentage at 41.9 percent, and 11th in 3-point percentage defense at 35.4. They surrendered 84 points to Charlotte, 83 to Southern Miss and 85 to Cincinnati, presenting a landmark lapse: It was the first time in Crean's five seasons that three straight opponents broke 80, and the first time it's happened to Marquette since 1966 -- an unbelievable stat. Al McGuire was in his second year coaching the then-Warriors.
But Crean has had a week to sharpen his defense for Louisville, and the Cardinals are in a state of flux with the health issues of coach Rick Pitino and star players Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean. Marquette won a thriller in Freedom Hall last year after losing a thriller to the Cardinals in Milwaukee.
A victory over Louisville would give the Golden Eagles a badly needed quality win, and they'll get another shot at the Cards in the regular-season finale March 6 at home. In between are big games against DePaul, Memphis, Saint Louis and UAB, all grouped in the pack chasing Louisville and Cincinnati. We'll see whether anyone separates themselves from the rest and challenges the Big Two.
If it's going to be Marquette, it must happen possession by possession. There's no need to be dreaming of domes right now.
Willard a winner
Kevin Willard and the Louisville Cardinals used nerves as a bonding agent Wednesday night against Houston.
In the locker room before the game, the 28-year-old assistant coach acknowledged to the team that he was nervous stepping in for legend-in-residence Rick Pitino, who missed the game while receiving treatment for an unspecified ailment in Cleveland. Not only that, the Cards were going without leading scorer Francisco Garcia (sprained ankle) and top shooter Taquan Dean (pulled groin).
There were plenty of butterflies flying around the pregame locker room. That's when Willard decided to use them to his advantage.
"He said, 'Let's be nervous together and just go out, play and have fun,'" senior guard Alhaji Mohammed Jr. told The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
That the Cards did, defeating the Cougars 64-48. It was an inartistic game against a poor opponent -- but given the absentee list, a great win.
"After the game I all told them was, 'I appreciate what you guys did for me,'" said Willard, the son of Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard. "They showed up and played hard, and more important, they showed up for Coach and did not let him down. ... That's the great thing about him. Even when he's not here, they know how long his arm is."
Long enough, in fact, that Willard jokingly said he expected a phone to ring courtside, with Pitino's barking voice on the other end. As it was, Pitino's only communication during the game was with sports information director Kenny Klein, seeking statistical updates.
Before the game Willard spoke with Pitino, who asked Willard who he planned to start in place of the injured Garcia. Willard said he was going with Mohammed, and Pitino said, "I agree."
Willard made on deft decision early, calling for an alley-oop to Mohammed against the back side of Houston's 2-3 zone that resulted in a dunk. He also hustled reserve forward Nate Daniels into the lineup earlier than usual to take advantage of his 3-point shooting, which the team needed without Dean and Garcia. Daniels stepped up to score 17 points, hitting five 3s in 24 minutes of play.
It's been a tumultous two weeks for Willard, who was arrested for driving under the influence Jan. 18 and suddenly promoted to interim head coach Monday. Taking over the No. 4 team in the country and having a 15-game winning streak entrusted to you is no small burden -- especially when your boss is Pitino.
"You knew exactly what was going on inside of him, you knew he was nervous," fellow assistant Reggie Theus, who scouted Houston and was a more demonstrative presence on the bench than usual, told The Courier-Journal. "But if you looked at him, you never could tell. Kevin's a tough kid, and coaching is in his blood."
Nothing funny about Brady's bunch
LSU is playing like it could use a pep talk -- or maybe even a chalk talk -- from Nick Saban. The Tigers' national championship-winning football coach might be able to figure out why John Brady's basketball team has gone from preseason SEC West favorite to 2-3 in league play, riding a three-game losing streak.
Actually, just about any dummy can figure it out: LSU cannot score, especially from outside.
The Tigers haven't exceeded the 55-point mark in this losing streak, and are shooting just 26.3 percent on the season from 3-point range. Until those numbers improve, they can expect to see a whole lot of zone defense as teams collapse upon the interior tandem of Jaime Lloreda and Brandon Bass.
"We just need to make some timely shots," Brady said. "Nobody really played a zone last year once we got going. ... If we just play more consistently, then our team will be fine."
Despite the slump, LSU's NCAA Tournament résumé isn't bad. The Tigers are No. 29 in the RPI, with wins over No. 20 Alabama, No. 30 UAB and No. 42 Utah.
However, LSU could be looking at a .500 record the rest of the way if it doesn't figure out how to hit some perimeter shots and win some games on the road.
Getting to 8-8 in league play would seem to be of paramount importance heading into the conference tournament. LSU has done well there, going 4-2 over the last two years and reaching the semifinals before losing to Mississippi State both times.
Around the South
The hottest team in the SEC -- and one of the hottest in America -- is Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are a single flukish Kentucky basket away from being 17-0 right now, and State followed that crushing loss by beating LSU and Florida on the road by a combined 21 points. Coach Rick Stansbury made a key lineup change after the Kentucky loss, moving ponderous 7-footer Marcus Campbell to the bench and replacing him with versatile 6-4 Shane Power, an Iowa State transfer. The added quickness has helped, and Campbell has actually played better without the pressure of starting. He had 12 points and eight rebounds in 13 minutes against Georgia Saturday. If State maintains its current level of play, it should win its next three and streak into a Feb. 11 game at surprising South Carolina in the top 10.
Tennessee qualifies as the Hard Luck Team of the Year in the SEC. The Volunteers had two opportunities to play top 10 teams at home last week in Kentucky and Louisville, and lost both in agonizing fashion. A Cliff Hawkins 3-pointer with 16 seconds left got the Wildcats into overtime and an eventual one-point win, and a controversial out-of-bounds non-call on Louisville's Francisco Garcia helped the Cardinals escape with a three-point win.
"You find a way to lose with young teams," Rick Pitino said of the Volunteers. "You find ways to win when you've got a veteran team. My heart goes out to Buzz (Peterson) and the Tennessee guys. Mark my words, next year they'll get on these runs and won't lose these games."
Volunteers leading scorer Scooter McFadgon is trying to play through a hand bruise that is compromising his ability to catch, dribble and shoot the ball. Doctors have said that the problem will take time to heal, which is something McFadgon is not willing to waste. He already sat out last year as a transfer from Memphis and will attempt to play through the injury.
As predicted in this space, Mississippi has become a tough team to play in Oxford. Mississippi State barely escaped with a win there to open conference play, and the Rebels won their next two home games, upsetting LSU and Alabama. Senior Justin Reed has stepped up his play, with 28 points and 11 rebounds against the Crimson Tide, and is tied with McFadgon for the SEC scoring lead at 18.2 points per game.
Sign of the unpredictable times in the SEC: Georgia is 1-4 in league play. The only win: at Kentucky, handing the Wildcats their first league loss since 2002. Before that game the Bulldogs lost two SEC games by 24 and 21 points. After that game the Dawgs were so inspired that they returned home and scored 42 points against Alabama, then followed that up by falling behind 19-0 to Mississippi State and losing by 13.
Saint Louis has traditionally been a team built around one or two perimeter scorers, with little offensive help from other positions. This team is largely the same, with guards Reggie Bryant (17.8 ppg) and Josh Fisher (12.2) monopolizing the ball -- but the Billikens have shown some signs of balance lately. For the first time in Brad Soderberg's two seasons, Saint Louis put all five starters in double figures in a 70-47 win over East Carolina. The Billikens will need all the offensive help they can get over their next eight games, which come against the league's best six teams.
Memphis coach John Calipari wants forward Sean Banks to get some consideration for Freshman of the Year. Banks is averaging 15.8 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds, despite a clunker game against South Florida Tuesday night (five points on 2-of-9 shooting). "I'd put his numbers and what he's doing on a winning team up against anybody," Calipari said.
First-year South Florida coach Robert McCullum's team has been terrible, but he should get a pass on this season. He's been dealt a bad hand by multiple injuries and a nonsensical C-USA schedule. The Bulls have played just five league games so far, twice having a full week off between opponents, and three of the first four are on the road. The one home game: juggernaut Louisville. Then the league plays hurry-up later on, with four games in a six-day span -- including two on the road.
Quote to note
-- Louisville assistant coach Kevin Willard, disclosing Rick Pitino's alleged advice for the Cardinals' game Wednesday night against Houston. The 28-year-old Willard stepped in for Pitino, who is being treated in Cleveland for an undisclosed ailment that has been giving him pain in his side.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com