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Well, Now What? Part 2: Markus Howard Injury Electric Boogaloo

How did a pair of relatively minor injuries to the All-American guard impact the end of the Marquette season?

Murray State v Marquette Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

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?

By now, you should have probably already seen and read the Part 1 of the “Well, Now What?” series, in which I tried to encapsulate the full picture of what happened in the 2018-19 Marquette men’s basketball season, how it ended, and what that might possibly mean for next year. If you did read it, you noticed that it was a little on the long side for things that tend to publish on this here internet website. What you’re about to read was originally part of that article, but it was a long enough section and generally unconnected to the points of the first part. Thus, it’s now its own article, and yes, for the record, I took the newfound space and expanded it out a bit. On top of that, it asks a really big question about the final eight games (yes, eight, not seven) of the Marquette season that has a major impact on how you, the reader, might want to consider things going forward under the guidance of head coach Steve Wojciechowski.

The other day, our friends at Cracked Sidewalks started a conversation on the Twitter Machine about whether or not it was good for Marquette that Markus Howard had a usage rate of over 36% for the season. Short version: If you look at what kinds of teams create the kind of guys that have usage rates over 35%, no, it wasn’t good. As I write this part, it’s the morning of Elite Eight Saturday, and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards is the highest usage rate player left standing in the NCAA tournament..... at 34.5% per He’s at #10 in the country, while the next two highest are Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver (31.5%) at #32 and Duke’s RJ Barrett (31.5%) at #33. You get the general idea.

However, that doesn’t really tell the whole story, does it? If Markus Howard is hitting his absurd shots, then he should have the highest usage rate he can possibly create, right? He shot 55% from three-point range as a freshman. Go ahead and use 70% of possessions if you’re gonna do that as far as I’m concerned. Makes sense, right? If you can shoot better than essentially anyone in the country at an incredibly high volume, you and your team should try to take advantage of that.

Remember the end of the Butler game when LaVall Jordan had his team start fouling for what seemed at the time for no purpose other than to try to influence BU’s NET ranking by a microscopic amount and ultimately completely failed to do that? Remember when Markus Howard got fouled with 42 seconds left in that game and immediately grabbed his leg indicating that he had strained something at the very least?

What was the next game? Marquette at Providence, where Howard struggled with a groin injury of some sort that he appeared to pick up early in the game, but...... hey, what happened three days earlier again?

Oh, right. As Paint Touches points out in that tweet, it’s relatively easy to connect Howard’s seemingly minor something at the end of the Butler game from the groin injury that held him to 14 points on 2-for-12 shooting from the field. At best, the tweak against Butler led to his body overcompensating and injuring the other side of his groin, and at worst, it was the same tweak that flared back up in a more harmful manner.

For those of you paying attention, you’ve already noticed that the Providence game was, in retrospect, the last time we could honestly say that we were fully and totally not worried about Marquette this season.

The next game was the trip to Villanova, where Howard ended up taking a spill to the ground late in the game that clearly injured his wrist to some extent. Given that Howard uncharacteristically missed a free throw with 29 seconds left — his only missed FT of the game, first in the last three games, and his third and final miss in the entire month of February — it’s clear that it affected him immediately and as we saw when he went down the tunnel in the Seton Hall Big East tournament game, it never stopped affecting him.

So, now you have an All-American guard and all-world shooter on a bum leg and a bum wrist. Up until that foul late in the Butler game, Markus Howard was shooting 43.9% on three-point attempts. After it, as the injuries compounded themselves? 29.9%.

Remember, the break even point on three-point shooting percentage is 33.3%. That’s where effective field goal percentage on threes hits 50%, and thus anything over that is a good shooting percentage.

Using KenPom’s sorting, 43.9% would have had Howard in the top 70 in the country in long range shooting percentage. That doesn’t even tell the full story, though. Howard had 221 long range attempts before the Butler foul. For the season, per College Basketball Reference, there are just four players in the country this season who attempted at least 220 three-pointers and made at least 43% of them.

Two-point attempts before the injuries: 45.3%. After? 38.2%. Howard had 234 attempts inside the arc before the Butler foul. Again, per CBB Reference, there are just 11 players in the country with at least 230 attempts inside the arc with a connection rate of at least 45%. 10 of them stand at least 6’7” tall and are listed as either forwards or centers. The 11th is Montana’s Sayeed Pridgett, who is a 6’5” guard. Howard was doing that, something that only 11 other players managed, while listed — listed — at 5’11”.

It was arguably actually very very good for Marquette when Markus Howard was posting a high usage rate and his shots were going in. When his usage stayed the same when he was no longer anywhere near as effective, it was very very bad for Marquette. Even worse: His usage actually went up following those injuries, as KenPom has Howard using at least 40% of possessions while on the floor in five of the six losses during the end of season slide. In fact, by closing the season with four straight games with a usage rate per KenPom of over 40%, it’s entirely possible that Howard is only over 36% for the season because of how high his rate was at the end.

And here’s where we circle it back to the coaching and where we go from here.

If you’re Steve Wojciechowski, and you know your star guard is dealing with a lot and he’s just not getting it done to anywhere near the levels that you know he’s capable of, why do you let him take so many shots? You have three other starters shooting over 39% from long range, with all three shooting over 45% inside the arc. Your two guys playing the 5 spot are both shooting over 58%. Why is the guy with clear agility, lift, and hand control issues firing away?

Marquette beat Georgetown in Washington, D.C., without Howard. Why was he allowed to shoot 8-for-25 in Milwaukee against those same Hoyas with, as it turns out, the Big East regular season title on the line? Howard struggled to shoot 2-for-11 against Seton Hall in New Jersey on March 6th. Why, for the love of Al McGuire, was Howard allowed to shoot 1-for-15 just nine days later against those same Pirates in Madison Square Garden with Marquette’s first ever Big East tournament title game appearance on the line?

Wojo said all year long that “the strength of our team is our team.” That’s absolutely the right message to come out of the mouth of a coach who has a fireball of an All-American on his roster who is a threat to throw in 30 on a night in and night out basis. Wojo made it clear publicly and presumably then privately that they would win games this year not because of what Markus Howard would let them accomplish, but because of what the other guys would help lift Markus up to accomplish together.

If that’s the case, then why was the strength of the team as identified by the head coach not the focus when Howard was clearly not right? I can understand Howard wanting to accomplish goals for the team and trying his hardest even when it wasn’t working. But it’s the coaching staff’s job and ultimately Steve Wojciechowski’s responsibility to step in, get Howard’s attention, and say “Hey. This isn’t working. Find a new way to make this team better.”

That didn’t happen.

And if it didn’t happen when Marquette needed to steer out of a skid that would ultimately permanently damage the memory of what the 2018-19 season was, then why should we have any reason to believe that it will happen at all in the future?