To say that Marquette men’s basketball was short on pure athletes last season would be a rather large understatement. Considering that Sandy Cohen was the only player to actually make a dunk during the Marquette Madness dunk contest, this should have been pretty obvious. Other than an occasional Jajuan Johnson steal and fast break throw-down, the season was pretty much devoid of jaw dropping athletic plays. If you have seen video of any of the new freshmen for 2017-18 play, then you know that is about to change. Before Greg Elliott signed this spring head coach Steve Wojciechowski was quoted as saying that the three recruits signed for 2017-18 season (Ike Eke, Theo John, Jamal Cain) all would have been the best athlete on the ‘16-’17 team. I feel pretty comfortable grouping Greg Elliott into that crowd as well. The addition of this elite level athleticism will impact Marquette in a number of different ways this season.
If you like dunks, raise your hand. Now put your hand down. People are probably staring. In all seriousness, this group can throw down like Nolan Ryan at the age of 46. I would be shocked if we don’t see any of these guys on the ESPN Top 10 this season. Both Jamal Cain and Greg Elliott have shown the ability in high school and AAU to find the rim in transition and finish with force. When either of these guys are running the break with sharpshooters Andrew Rowsey, Markus Howard, or Sam Hauser, the defense will have to pick their poison between a rim rattling dunk and an open three-pointer for an elite shooter. (Note: If Jamal Cain does not windmill dunk on someone this season I will see to it personally that his post-season evaluation reflects my disappointment). Aside from fouling before a shot goes up, it seems that stopping Marquette in the fast-break will be a near impossible task this upcoming year.
If opposing defenders don’t get a body on these guys when the shot goes up, all of them are more than capable of grabbing the ball off the glass and throwing it down all in one motion. This is especially true when talking about power forwards Ike Eke and Theo John; both are quick leapers and seem to have a knack for finding the ball off the glass. If they can’t put the ball right back up for a dunk or layup, they should be able to find a plethora of open three-point shooters open on the perimeter. Offensive rebounding was a weak spot for the Golden Eagles last year (#254 in the country according to KenPom) and if either of these guys can show they can grab the ball off their teammates’ misses, they could earn playing time early in the season. The same applies for guard/forward Jamal Cain who is probably the bounciest athlete on the team and averaged around 15 rebounds per game his last two years in high school.
Even if the freshmen come in and excel on the offensive glass and in transition, they still won’t be the focal point of the offense with Rowsey and Howard returning and Hauser expected to step into a larger role. However, the freshmen can be expected to take up a reasonably large role on the defensive end. Marquette is losing their number one shot blocker in Luke Fischer and the presumed starting center Matt Heldt averaged only just over one block per 40 minutes last year. Both Theo John and Ike Eke are known as solid weak-side shot blockers. John has the rep because of his 7’ 4” wingspan and good timing, while Eke gets to shots because of his absolutely freakish athleticism and ability to get in the air quickly. Having either of these guys on the court will allow Marquette to play more aggressive defense on the perimeter knowing that there is someone in the paint who can alter and block shots if their man beats them off the dribble.
It is advantageous to wipe away shots when an offensive player gets to the hoop, however the point of defense in basketball is to not allow your man to get past you. This was a huge issue last year when in pick and roll situations the ball handler would often (always) manage to get around the big man hedging and this would result in a guard dribbling towards an open lane. This area is where the freshmen can really stand out, especially the big men. If the incoming freshmen can learn Marquette’s defensive concepts, their quicker feet could prove invaluable in stopping teams from scoring bunches and bunches of points in the pick-and-roll. If the four new guys could help Marquette become even average at defending the pick-and-roll, it would prove invaluable to the team.
All four incoming freshmen are going to have to fight for playing time, especially Elliott and Cain because of their positions. That being said, each of these guys brings something that the team last year was lacking. If guys like Cain and Elliott can get to the hoop and distribute in transition and also play solid defense, they could really see time next year as effective as change of pace players. Eke and John both have the chance to impact the game in ways that traditional athletic bigs do: rebounding and shot blocking. If Matt Heldt and Harry Froling have difficulties staying in front of their man in pick-and-roll situations, I could easily see Eke or John getting playing time and impacting the game at center in a small ball line-up.
Earlier I asked if you like dunks. If you answered yes, please watch the videos below of the MU freshman throwing it down with authority. If you answered no, why are you even reading a basketball blog??