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What Marquette’s European Tour Lineups Can Tell Us About The Upcoming Year

I swear this isn’t clickbait, there’s actual logic involved

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round- Marquette vs Murray State David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s just get one thing out of the way first. I normally don’t think about the 2004 movie EUROTRIP much, if ever. I think I saw it once at a sleepover. Apparently Michelle Trachtenberg is famous for her role in that, but I’ll only know her from her role as a nerdy figure skater in ICE PRINCESS. Yes, I grew up with younger sisters. [Editor’s note: They were clearly not allowed to watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer.] That completely changes in the first half of August when it dominates my subconscious because lazy basketball writers will refer to a team’s offseason foreign tours as a Euro Trip. So keep that in mind as you read the rest of this and also listen to the Goldfinger version of 99 Red Balloons that headlined the soundtrack and really accentuated the filthy amount of teenage angst that prevailed in the early 2000s.

As you may already know, Division 1 basketball teams are given the opportunity to go on an offseason tour in a foreign country once every four years. Marquette Golden Eagles men’s basketball just returned from their first trip since 2015. Intuition would tell you that extra practices allowed before going on the trip and game time during the trip will give a team an advantage over roughly 75% of Division 1 teams is not more. That is shown in the numbers, as teams get a 2-2.5 KenPom Ranking boost if they go on these trips. It’s tough to take big conclusions from the actual results, though. Are coaches putting their best foot forward during the games or are the trying to get a feel for what they have going into the season? Same goes for the players, as they might not want to find themselves hurt because they put in extraneous effort. Every team is different, but I don’t really want to talk about every team, given the blog I’m currently writing for.

For the purposes of this exercise, I don’t really care about how the players did. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions for that. I’m trying to find out if these games can shed any sort of light on what the coaching staff thinks of the pieces on the team and if it’s at all indicative of the style they will play. Luckily I have some precedent coming into this year.

The last Euro trip (dammit) in 2015 happened to be Steve Wojciechowski’s first such experience as a head coach, so at the time it was impossible to tell if his roster construction had any indication on how the season would go. There was video streaming of that tour [cough cough] and, thankfully for our purposes here, one cumulative box score that former Marquette beat writer for the Journal Sentinel Matt Velazquez tweeted out after the trip was done. S/O Brewtown Andy for even remembering this existed, much less finding it in the annals of Twitter.

So these stats suck, to be frank. No evidence of minutes played, the score of any of the games, or an explanation of what the hell PPS and ML stand for. But it’s something that I can use to compare it to what actually happened in the 2015-2016 season. I’m not looking to compare how well the players’ performances translated into the regular season as much as I’m trying to find out what Wojo’s strategy was.

The first thing that stands out is that Haanif Cheatham did not play in any of the games because he was not cleared to play by the NCAA for reasons that I can only assume are dumb. We all found out that he was clearly literally moments after the final game of the tour, so yeah, probably dumb. Not idea-killing but frustrating nonetheless. The second thing is that the shot distribution is laid out in a tidy way. I used that as my comparison source. I just took the percentage of shots each player took in the foreign tour and compared it to the percent of shots they took during the season. Keep in mind that I factored in minutes played for the regular season Shot%, to account for the lineup construction. Here’s the results.

Cool. Numbers.

What are they saying? Well the first thing I’m going to do is add on about 1.5% to every player’s Tournament %Shots column to account for Cheatham not playing. After that, I notice that the biggest discrepancies lie in the amount of shots going to Sacar Anim, Traci Carter, Matt Heldt and Wally Ellenson. Three of those players were essentially benchwarmers that year and Traci Carter was a pass-first freshman point guard who likely used those games to focus on his shot. Guys like Jajuan Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Duane Wilson were asked to take a step back in comparison since they were expected to be key cogs in the offense. To highlight Wilson, he registered 7 more assists than Carter over the 4 games despite having an assist rate of almost half of Traci’s throughout the season. Johnson was only credited with 5 steals (5th on the team) despite having the 38th highest swipe rate in the country that year, presumably to work on staying in front of his man.

Another way to look at his style preferences is to see where the shots came from in 2015 compared to the rest of the year. Looking at the team numbers, both the percentage of shots from the three point line and the free throw stripe were down considerably from how the team played when the games counted. In all likelihood, Wojciechowski’s focus was on the team to run their offensive sets well instead of focusing solely on winning the game.

How does that translate to this year’s tour? Well looking at the two available box scores (the final game didn’t have one for..... reasons?? but it was also a ludicrous blowout), this is what we have.

I realize we have more information now than before, but I’m trying to keep a consistent baseline here. Markus Howard most compares to Henry Ellenson because his usage looks high, but is actually below what he’ll actually do this year. He also racked up 14 assists, which is double what Koby McEwen got as second on the team, so get ready for Howard and Cassius Winston to fight to the death on who will be considered the best stat-piling point guard of the year. Symir Torrence and Dexter Akanno both look like guys who will drop from having limited roles to benchwarmer from Euro Trip (@#%^, there it is again) to regular season, much in the way Anim and Heldt did in the previous iteration.

Brendan Bailey strikes me as this year’s Traci Carter. Bailey experienced peaks and valleys in his shooting that would make Cincinnati's topography blush. He took almost three-quarters of his shots from behind the arc during the tour to hopefully level out some of the streaky shooting once he finally got consistent playing time last year. Carter was not able to get a great feel for his shot, so hopefully Brendan does not experience the same fate.

What stood out the most to me was the difference between Sacar Anim and Koby McEwen. I would’ve figured that those two would at least have taken a similar number of shots, if not leaning in favor of Koby. There wasn’t too much of a precedent in the 2015 tour, so I’m not sure what to think of the situation, if there is anything to think about.

I see the usages of Theo John, Ed Morrow and Jayce Johnson halfway across the globe similar to how Wojo used Jajuan Johnson, Wally Ellenson and Sandy Cohen. All 3 were given equal opportunity in the 2015 tour, but our intuitions going into the year (JJJ and Sandy sharing a role with Wally taking a backseat) took over in the end. Maybe the tour was used as some sort of a tryout or a “let’s just see if there’s something in Wally that we haven’t seen yet” type of situation. Either way, it didn’t appear to present a revelation to the coaches. Applying that context for the Marquette bigs, the equal split may lead us to believe Wojo is looking at playing a more traditional lineup with Morrow at the 4 and Jayce/John splitting minutes at center. Given the historical offensive success with a smaller lineup, I just don’t see it happening much this year, so I’m personally not putting too much stock into that configuration. On top of that, we’ve seen brief video clips as well as one box score that showed us John and Johnson playing together. How Morrow fits into that dynamic? No idea.

In terms of style, the team stayed consistent with their 2015 strategy by appearing to put less emphasis on scoring at the first opportunity and running the offense well. Their .232 free throw attempt per field goal attempt (FTA/FGA) rate pales to their slightly above D-1 average rate of .351 last year. Taking 39% of their shots from behind the three point line would make Al Skinner faint, but it’s still below their mark of just under 42% last year. So not too many massive changes in the overall coaching strategy.

I realize the imperfection of this analysis. We have box scores from 2 games this year instead of four from 2015 not to mention a million things can happen between now and the start of the season (hello, Greg Elliott’s health) to adjust the coaching staff’s takeaways from the trip. But if we can carve out even a pinhole into the barricade of Wojo’s psyche, it can give us a better idea of the lineup he will roll out in game #1. For right now it does appear that the team is still trying to decide who will get the lion’s share of minutes at center, Brendan Bailey is being given a lot of opportunities to grow into the star that he can be, and the two freshman might get caught up in the logjam that is Marquette’s wings.