On Monday, February 25th, 2019, Marquette men’s basketball was doing all right for themselves. The Golden Eagles were ranked #10 in the country in the newest Associated Press poll, and on the 23rd, they had won their fourth straight game. That win, on the road against Providence, gave MU wins in 12 of their last 13 games and in 18 of their last 20 contests, too. They were headed to Pennsylvania on Wednesday night with an opportunity to clinch at least a share of the Big East regular season title if they could complete the season sweep of Villanova.
They would win just one more game out of what became their final seven games of the season, going from 23-4 to 24-10, ending the campaign with a resounding clunk. The previous five losses, you could point to one particular aspect or thing or event that caused the loss. Collectively, they were all bad, but at least you could say, “well, if [insert item here] hadn’t happened, they probably would have won the game.” That wasn’t the case for the NCAA tournament first round loss to Murray State, as Ja Morant and friends absolutely blew Marquette off the court in the second half.
It was a punctuation mark that no one wanted. There’s not one single Marquette coach, player, administrator, booster, or just plain old regular fan that wanted to see that late season collapse happen. But we all had to experience every single excruciating second of it, and everyone is left with the same question:
Well, now what?
I may as well go ahead and address three specific things that I said about the 2018-19 season, one early, one late. Here’s my item in the season preview article in which we roundtabled the most interesting storyline for the season:
It is more important for Steve Wojciechowski to do something with this team that can unequivocally be pointed to as a success than it is for him to reach any specific goal, and thus prove that he can do this job.
Top two finish in the Big East? Win the Big East Tournament? Win two NCAA tournament games? All of these are good possibilities. If MU accomplishes one of them, you have to call the season a success one way or the other. It doesn’t have to be two of them, or all three of them. Just something that can be pointed to as the reason why the season was a rousing success. This team is too deep and too talented to not succeed, and if they do not, the fingers don’t have anywhere to point other than at the head coach.
The other two aren’t written down anywhere, but are instead in audio form on my appearance on the very fun and insightful podcast that Sam and Patrick create for this very website. It was recorded the day after the loss to Villanova — y’know, back when we didn’t know about all the losses that were about to happen — and in the wake of a close loss to the other best team in the league, I said two things. I’m not going to go back and listen to an entire 66 minute podcast to find my exact quote, but I essentially said the following things:
- No matter what happens over the next month, this season has been great.
- The best part about this great season is that Steve Wojciechowski is going to get to run the whole thing back a second time with the same major contributors again next season.
So, yeah, about all of this.
Yeah, Marquette finished second in the Big East, which is one of the things I identified as something that could be pointed to as a success...... but..... the Golden Eagles had two tries to win one game in the final four games of the regular season and clinch at least a share of the Big East regular season title and lost both. All they had to do was win two of their final three regular season games to clinch at least a share of the title, and they lost all three, two of them at home. Yes, they matched something I said that would be a success for the season, but absolutely no one considers that to be the case at this point.
When I said “no matter what happens,” the implication that I hope that you got from that is that I meant we have no way of predicting what happens in the Big East tournament or the NCAA tournament. Both events are a total crapshoot, even more so the conference tournament where you have to play games on consecutive days. On some level, it’s a matter of who survives as the healthiest and the least tired more than anything else. With the end of the season collapse, no one is left with the memory of this being a great season, but we do have to admit that it’s the most wins by a Marquette team since 2013 and just the sixth season with 24 wins in the 14 years that MU has been in the Big East. Is that still enough to call it great? Probably not, but it is important to remember that it’s better than most seasons.
There’s another way to think about this, by the way. I know, I know, it’s not what actually happened, but when you’re looking at a season that ended horribly but with the most wins in six years, you have to try to find different angles to think about things in order to try to appreciate the good parts that happened.
What non-conference win would you be willing to trade for either the road win over Villanova or the home win over Georgetown?
If Marquette had come into Big East play at 10-3 with a loss to, let’s say, Kansas State BUT that ends up meaning that Marquette goes 2-5 down the stretch AND has a Big East championship banner to hang up, do people feel better about what transpired at the end?
Here’s another one: What if Marquette opened up Big East play 0-4..... but then recovered to just barely miss a share of the Big East title? The question becomes not “What in god’s name is Wojo not doing here?” to “My god, what switch did Wojo flip in them to drag them this far??!?”
Why am I asking these questions? Because there’s a very real possibility that through 27 games, Marquette was playing completely over their heads this season, and the dice just came up snake eyes repeatedly on them at the end.
Think about it:
- The Louisville game had multiple known officiating errors and should never have gone to overtime as a result of those known errors. Any game that goes to overtime is, by default, a complete 50/50 tossup at that point, and Marquette managed to snare the win that they rightfully deserved.
- Markus Howard had to score 45 points, a total that no other Marquette player has ever scored, against Kansas State in order for Marquette to get an 83-71 win.
- The Wisconsin game also went to overtime, and MU recorded yet another 50/50 cointoss win.
- Markus Howard needed to score 40 points after halftime for his second 45 point game in three weeks to beat Buffalo, 103-85, and that was still a two point game with nine minutes to play.
- Marquette had to be absolutely gifted a chance for Sam Hauser to hit a buzzer-beater three-pointer to force overtime against Creighton, yet another 50/50 cointoss game that MU won. Be honest: If the refs had reviewed Sam’s shot and said it was not off in time, you would not think that they were wrong. On top of all of that, Markus Howard still had to score a Big East record 53 points for Marquette to win by two.
- Markus Howard played three minutes before leaving with a back problem against Georgetown, and Marquette still won by three in Washington, D.C. Yeah, yeah, toughness, skill, coaching, fighting spirit, hooray for Sam Hauser’s 31 & 8, blah blah blah. They were, considering the part that Howard played in some of the other wins in this list, also lucky.
Any of those games could have gone the other direction fairly easily. That’s a level of variance from the 15-3 overall record and 4-1 Big East record that they did have to 9-9 overall and 2-3 in the league through five games. They managed to get every single one of those six wins, and they were in the position they were in with four regular season games left to go because of those six wins. We were having conversations about running the table for a chance at a #2 seed because of those six wins.... and there was a fair amount of luck that got them to there in the first place. We can celebrate the fact that they got there and acknowledge that maybe they shouldn’t have gotten there, too. Perhaps that second part is actually part of the first part.
The possibility that maybe, just maybe, Marquette was playing over their heads for the first 80% of the 34 games that they played this season brings us to the issue of the Golden Eagles bringing back essentially the exact same roster next season.
Clearly the biggest problem with Marquette this season was their tendency to turn the ball over. They finished with the 32nd most efficient offense in the country per KenPom.com, and did that while ranking #239 in turnover rate. If you’re presuming that adding Greg Elliott and Koby McEwen to the roster will help fix the turnover issue, that’s probably a good idea. They’ll end up combining to absorb Joseph Chartouny’s minutes at the very least, and Chartouny finished the season with a turnover rate of 34.8%. That’s nearly twice as bad as Markus Howard’s rate, and it is an accepted fact that Howard had a pretty bad turnover problem this season. Elliott had a turnover rate of 19.9% while essentially playing with one hand as a freshman, which is fine given the circumstances, and McEwen had turnover rates between 19% and 20% in his two seasons at Utah State. Again, fine. Odds are that McEwen won’t be a top 150 player in usage as he was as a sophomore, so as long as his turnover rate drops because he’s just doing less, it’ll all work out.
That’s not the real problem, though.
Here’s three turnover rates that should worry you in terms of where things are going to go in 2019-20.
- Theo John, 20.9%
- Joey Hauser, 22.3%
- Ed Morrow, 23.7%
All three guys are going to be back next year and all three guys will need to have better years for Marquette, both in general and in this very specific area.
That’s a specific problem that Marquette has to fix, but there’s also a larger theoretical problem.
Generally speaking, if a college basketball team returns their top seven scorers, their top six rebounders, and their top three assist guys from the previous season, they should probably be a very good team. It’s hard to get things aligned that well from year to year in college hoops. Seniors are often leaders, and if they’re not, then the possibility of a superstar player popping off to the professional ranks is a very common reason to not have that many top contributors returning.
That’s the kind of statistical situation that Marquette finds themselves projected to have for 2019-20. The big question mark is, of course, what Markus Howard chooses to do in terms of exploring his professional career. Heading into the NCAA tournament, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic had Howard as the #43 pick in his NBA Mock Draft. That would mean a second round pick with no guaranteed contract, so there’s risks involved there. But, if he wants to go, it’s absolutely his right to do it. Until he makes an announcement one way or the other, we’re going to continue to project Howard as returning next year, though.
And so, Marquette finds themselves with a statistically speaking very strong returning cast for next season. I don’t know the specifics of every team in the country, but you would be hard pressed to find a team returning that many top scorers and rebounders. This should mean that Marquette should be regarded as one of the best teams in the country next season and as such, expectations should be sky high.
You’ll notice I said “this should mean” there.
You expect teams with lots of players returning to make what should be an obvious major step forward. “Well, they’re bringing all their guys back while so-and-so is losing important scorer A, and that team loses star player B!” It makes all the sense in the world. Sometimes, though, that team with all of those returning guys hit their absolute ceiling with those players and there’s just nowhere to go forward from there. The fact of the matter is that with Matt Heldt and Joseph Chartouny averaging 4.3 and 7.9 minutes per game in Marquette’s disastrous final seven games, the team that we saw on the floor in those games is largely speaking the team that we’re going to see all of next season. Everyone who committed all of those turnovers, everyone who let Myles Powell go nuts down the stretch at The Rock, everyone who had absolutely no ability to stop Ja Morant on any level..... all back. Everyone who knew the situation that they were in, everyone who was experiencing the problems that they were going through, everyone who didn’t have a way to step in and make, what, 10, maybe 15 plays in the five close losses to alter an outcome and didn’t..... all back.
What if “really really good and maybe a bit lucky” is the absolute ceiling for this roster assemblage? What if there’s no pathway forward into “great” for this roster of guys?
That’s not a fun thing to think about, is it? But that’s the situation that we find ourselves in when we look forward to next season.
It’s a long seven-ish months between now and when the 2019-20 season gets going. It’s going to be a big season for Marquette in general, and in specific for head coach Steve Wojciechowski and his staff. Wojo now has three seasons remaining on his contract, which was extended in his second season through the 2021-22 campaign. The staff is currently focused on recruiting players for the 2020-21 season, and without an extension that surely is not coming until the spring of 2020, they’re unable to tell them that Wojo will actually be the coach for their four years on campus. It’s up to him to figure out how to fix that problem over the next seven months.